Jun. 8, 2012

Emily Dickinson

by Linda Pastan

We think of her hidden in a white dress
among the folded linens and sachets
of well kept cupboards, or just out of sight
sending jellies and notes with no address
to all the wondering Amherst neighbors.
Eccentric as New England weather
the stiff wind of her mind, stinging or gentle,
blew two half imagined lovers off.
Yet legend won't explain the sheer sanity
of vision, the serious mischief
of language, the economy of pain.

"Emily Dickinson" by Linda Pastan, from PM/AM: New and Selected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Co., 1971. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

150 years ago today (1862) Emily Dickinson (books by this author) wrote a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (books by this author), asking him to be her friend and adviser. Higginson was a Unitarian minister, an abolitionist, and essayist. A couple of months earlier, he had written a piece for The Atlantic Monthly, called "Letter to a Young Contributor." In it, he gave advice to aspiring writers. After Dickinson read the article, she wrote to Higginson and asked if he would comment on her poems. She was so shy about contacting him that she didn't even sign her letter, and she wrote, he said, "in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum." His letters to her don't survive, but he must have offered her some constructive criticism because after he wrote her back, she responded, "Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed."

Thus began a correspondence that would last the rest of her life. Higginson only met Dickinson twice, and he advised her not to publish her poetry because he felt it was too unconventional. But after she died, he co-edited two volumes of her work. He published the poems in edited form, perfecting her imperfect, "slant" rhymes, and standardizing the punctuation and grammar—which to modern readers seems a shameful thing—but he did resist the efforts of his co-editor who wanted to change them even more. "Let us alter as little as possible," he said.

Mark Twain (books by this author) set off on a trip to Europe and the Middle East on this date in 1867. He was just starting out as a writer and trying to make a name for himself. He'd already published one book — The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches (1867) — but it wasn't a big seller. He was living in New York and working as a travel correspondent for a San Francisco paper, the Alta California, when he pitched an idea. If they would fund his trip, he would write 50 letters home for publication in the paper. They agreed, and he set off on the Quaker City, a steam-driven side-wheeler and retired Civil War ship, with a big group of American tourists.

Twain had a problem with conventional travel books, though. They all talked about what you should see and not see, but none of them talked about the nitty-gritty of taking an overseas trip. So that became his mission. He wrote about all the petty annoyances, and culture shock, and the way tourist attractions exploited history and religion for monetary gain. And then he came home and his publisher gave him six months to convert all his newspaper columns into a 600-page book. Twain wrote 3,500 words a day and just met the deadline to produce his first major work, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims' Progress (1869). It was his best-selling book during his lifetime and one of the best selling travel books of all time.

From The Innocents Abroad: "In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language."

And, "As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery."

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