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  • "What Is Inspiration?":Emily Dickinson, T. W. Higginson, and Maria White Lowell
  • Katharine Rodier (bio)

In 1862, Emily Dickinson initiated a sometimes flippant, sometimes beseeching, often enigmatic correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a reformer and man of letters who would co-edit her poems after she died in 1886. She met him only twice in her life. After their first meeting in 1870, Dickinson, evidently intrigued by references he had made, questioned him in two separate letters about the work of poet Maria White Lowell. The beloved first wife of James Russell Lowell, known for her spiritual beauty and her charm as well as for her art and dedication to abolition, Maria Lowell died of tuberculosis in 1853 at the age of thirty-two. Her poems appeared during her lifetime in journals like The Pioneer, The Broadway Journal, The Liberty Bell, and Putnam's, anonymous in most, and in anthologies like Rufus W. Griswold's Female Poets of America, Caroline May's The American Female Poets, and Charles Dana's The Household Book of Poetry, which Samuel Bowles had sent to Susan and Austin Dickinson.1 In addition, Lowell's husband compiled a posthumous edition of several poems for private distribution in 1855.2 [End Page 20]

Although Maria Lowell's name was apparently new to Dickinson, she seemed interested in pursuing the recommendation.3 In the first letter, which reiterated her delight in Higginson's correspondence and affirmed "her solemn indebtedness to him" (L352), she reported, "After you went. . . I thought and went about my work." She continued, "You told me of Mrs Lowell's Poems. / Would you tell me where I could find them or are they not for sight?", possibly reflecting her own familiarity with producing poems "not for sight." In the other letter, perhaps unsent,4 Dickinson pondered, "You told me Mrs Lowell was Mr Lowell's 'inspiration.' What is inspiration?" (L353). The question may be intended as coy, defiant, or inscrutable, or as a prose instance of what Sharon Cameron might term "choosing not choosing."5 But whether Dickinson was feigning innocence, or taking issue with either Higginson's diction or a romanticized conception of a female helpmate and muse who was less important as a poet in her own right, his remarks about Maria Lowell piqued his correspondent sufficiently to make her recall Lowell's name to him.

For Higginson's part, critics often fault him as insensitive toward Dickinson's work because he made just this sort of recommendation to her.6 Commonly criticized for his limited literary tastes, his dogged attempts to regulate her idiosyncratic art, and his failure to advocate her genius, especially during the reclusive poet's lifetime, Higginson plays for many literary scholars "an awkward Polonius to Dickinson's leading role[,]. . . the pedantic fool of Victorian criticism" (Mazurek 122). And in truth, his suggestion may imply what he saw as a corrective, which a sensibility like Dickinson's might construe as an alien if not abhorrent regime: a woman with your artistic inclinations should read "sweet singers" like Maria Lowell, marry a famous and successful husband who outshines you as a public presence, be to him a good angel in the house, and, until you die beautifully of consumption, emit an occasional heavenly strain, perhaps suitable for print in a respected liberal journal. However, considering more closely what Maria White Lowell and her work may have represented to Higginson reveals his advice as also rich, personal, and surprisingly apt in ways, a compassionate if [End Page 21] not perceptive choice on his side to offer the singular "Scholar" he had just met for the first time (L268).

Born July 8, 1821, and raised in a Unitarian family in Watertown, Massachusetts, Maria White attended the Ursuline Convent School in Charlestown until August 11, 1834, when an anti-Catholic mob torched the buildings, incited by allegations of the nuns' severity, particularly by a Protestant student's claims of their cruel attempts to convert her.7 From 1839 to 1844, White joined Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Peabody's sisters Mary and Sophia (who would marry Horace Mann and Nathaniel Hawthorne, respectively), Lydia Maria Child, Caroline Sturgis, and others whom Margaret Fuller called "well...


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