Dickinson scholars have generally read her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, composed on April 15, 1862, as a response to his now famous essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he addresses “[m]y dear young gentleman or young lady . . .”(26). The April 15 letter marks a distinct moment of courage in Dickinson’s concept of her work—the moment when she explores the possibility of publication. At the time of the letter’s composition, Dickinson was twenty-eight years old; she had been writing poetry seriously and binding her poems into fascicles for at least four years, possibly much longer. Higginson’s “Letter,” with its appeal to writers in isolation and in “obscurity,” would have spoken directly to Dickinson’s circumstances. This appeal alone would have arrested Dickinson’s attention. Yet it is also possible that Higginson’s remarks in the “Letter” on war and immortality called to her, specifically to her own sense of impending mortality, which had been recently intensified by the death of Austin’s friend and the President of Amherst College’s son, Frazar Stearns.
Higginson’s “Letter to a Young Contributor” intertwines war and writing in an interesting fashion, citing writers. Higginson cites writers, such as Byron and “the Elizabethan Raleighs and Sidneys” (409), who were also “heroes of pen and sword” (409), but immediately warns against the tendency to glorify or romanticize war. “Never fancy for a moment that you have discovered any grander or manlier life than you might be leading every day at home” (409), he cautions his readers, continuing, “Be not misled by the excitements of the moment into overrating the charms of military life.” Throughout the letter, Higginson privileges the (ad)venture of writing above the exploits of battle, using a quotation from General Wolfe, who, “on the eve of battle, said of Gray’s ‘Elegy,’ ‘Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than have taken Quebec’” (409) to bolster his argument. Later, he integrates Wolfe’s remark into a complex argument on literature and immortality, claiming that “Yet, no doubt, it is by the memory of that remark that Wolfe will live the longest,—aided by the stray line of another poet, still reminding us, not needlessly, that ‘Wolfe’s great name’s contemporal with our own’” (409).
Higginson significantly downplays the current state of the country, describing the increasingly violent turmoil as “these present fascinating trivialities [emphasis added] of war and diplomacy“ (410). His “Letter” asserts that, in the future, the war and will seem insignificant in relation to the literary accomplishments of the time: “. . . how remote will the present soon appear! while art and science will resume their sway serene, beneath skies eternal” (410). Higginson’s distance from the war is a mental one, while Dickinson’s seems to be only a physical separation. She takes the brutality more sensitively than Higginson, who although in the thick of the battle, holds the violence of the Civil War at bay:
The terrible losses of the war, whose duration he [TWH] had badly underestimated, he accepted with equanimity. In the presence of the death of a soldier, he wrote his wife, "I feel it scarcely more than if a tree had fallen.” In a preface to a biographical memoir to Harvard men killed in the war, he wrote: "I do not see how any one can read these memoirs without being left with fresh confidence in our institutions, in the American people, and indeed in human nature itself.” (Sewall 550)
This dismissal in “Letter” has further implications to Emily Dickinson with the recent death of Frazar Stearns, which occupied her letters in late March of 1862. Four letters discuss the death of Stearns and the effect it has on the family, particularly Austin, and the town. Indeed, it is very likely that the death of Frazar Stearns is also an impetus for her introductory letter to this prominent literary and war figure, particularly as Higginson’s claim that nothing will make one immortal—not politics, not distinction in war must have struck a chord following the poignant gun ceremony of April 14.
Dickinson’s letter to her Norcross cousins in late March, 1862, confirms that she attended the memorial service for Frazar Stearns held on March 22nd: “The bed on which he came was enclosed in a large casket shut entirely, and covered from head to foot with the sweetest flowers. He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him goodnight, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was – early-soldier heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reed the wind shakes” (245). It then follows that Dickinson would also have attended the ceremony, presided over by her father, in which Captain J. D. Frazier bequeathed the six-pounder cannon taken at the Battle of Newbern to Amherst College.
Higginson’s “Letter to a Young Contributor” discusses the macrocosm of the war, counterpointing the immediate but essentially transitory glory of war with the more distant but ultimately immortal glory guaranteed by art. This counterpointing must have been felt especially acutely by Dickinson. For her reading of the “Letter” was, at least figuratively, violently “interrupted” by Frazar Stearns’ death on March 14, 1862, and, with it, the intrusion of the war into her private sphere. It may not be simple coincidence that Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson was composed the day following the ceremony honoring Stearns’ conduct in battle held on April 14th.
While “Letter to a Young Contributor” itself has been correctly seen as an important catalyst for Dickinson’s correspondence with Higginson, the larger context of Dickinson’s reading of and response to the “Letter” has not been adequately explored. Frazar Stearns’ death—and the community’s response to his sacrifice for the Union—and the publication of Higginson’s “Letter” in The Atlantic Monthly should not be interpreted as unrelated events; rather, these temporally connected events are also psychologically connected in Dickinson’s mind. Indeed, Dickinson’s diction in her April 15 letter to Higginson indicates a heightened awareness of both events. Her repetition of the word “honor”—“I should feel quick gratitude –If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –“ and again “That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it’s own pawn–“—seems particularly charged: General Jesse Reno described Stearns as “’one of the most accomplished and gallant officers in the army,’” and, in the ceremony honoring his service to the Union, Adjutant Stearns was described as “‘the ideal soldier of the regiment, handsome in face and person, true in his friendship, and enthusiastic in his devoted courage’” (History of Amherst 479). Yet Higginson’s “Letter” seems to have implied that Stearns’ sacrifice was made in vain, and his honor merely transitory. Higginson diminishes Stearns’ value as a soldier when he writes:
. . . the manuals of tactics have no difficulties comparable to those of the ordinary professional text-books; and any one who can drill a boat’s crew or a ball-club can learn in a very few weeks to drill a company or even a regiment. Given in addition the power to command, to organize, and to execute,—high qualities, though not rare in this community,—and you have a man needing but time and experience to make a general. (Higginson 409)
The thought of Stearns having been persuaded by “temptations of a busy land” (Higginson 408), and then being lost to “an aimless and miscellaneous career” (Higginson 408), may have strengthened Dickinson’s determination to become “immortal” through her poetry. “’After all,’” Higginson concludes, “’a book is the only immortality’” (410). Finally, however, Dickinson’s imagination of her work’s immortality cannot be separated from her recognition of her own mortality, the sense of which can only have been intensified by the death of her dead peer Frazar Stearns. Her first letter to Higginson, inquiring of her work, “Should you think it breathed – ,” records the possibility of an uncanny exchange of bodies, in which the living body of poetry replaces the dead body of the soldier Stearns. It also, of course, registers a future fear: Dickinson’s poetry may meet an emblematic death if Higginson determines that it should remain unpublished—buried. Higginson’s power to wound Dickinson, to wound her work in such a manner as to render it “lifeless,” is at this precise moment very great. And so, it is with much behind the question, that she bravely asks, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”