The Colonel Catches a Catfish
Right now as you read these words, two people who have fallen in love online are about to meet for the first time in person. They have been exchanging intimate thoughts and personal histories by email and text multiple times an hour for as long as several years. He hopes she looks like lovely woman with the large eyes in her selfie. She hopes he is as tall as he says he is. None of this matters for they are already hopelessly and irrevocably in love. Neither has bothered to pay for a police background check on the other for as most people do, they are trusting their intuitions in this matter of the heart. Their connection has been so intense and beautifully overwhelming that there is a 33 percent chance that they will land up in bed during this first meeting.
How do I know all of this? For the past several years I have maintained dating websites for a not-to-be-named large corporation. I have studied Internet love affairs in a scholarly way, taking notes from journals and books written by amazed psychologists. I can tell you with complete confidence someone right now is traveling the planet to have sex with or even marry a stranger whom they have never met.
Many experts on online dating draw parallels between Internet romances and the old-fashioned courtships of the 19th Century, a time when people routinely got to know each other by exchanging letters. This can be a charming way of letting love unfold in that you become acquainted with your lover first from the inside out. You fall in love with that person's thoughts, philosophies and dreams before you fall in love physically. The hands-off policy actually increases the sexual tension, which can literally climax during that first crucial meeting. It's nothing new. People already knew it a hundred or so years ago.
The love story of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson fascinates me because of my expertise in online affairs. Here we find two people who corresponded with one another intimately and passionately for eight years before they were in the same room together. I am convinced both parties fell insanely in love with each other. I am also convinced that one of them was so disappointed by the manner and appearance of the other that the relationship was doomed during that first meeting. After all, back then as today, the mysterious and indescribable old black magic has to conjure up for a love affair to go forward.
It was the reclusive Emily Dickinson who initiated the correspondence with Colonel Higginson. She wrote the first letter. On the day she wrote it, April 15, 1862, she was thirty-two—old enough to be called a spinster. The old maid lived in the same house where she was born and rarely left it. She saw few people except for her family. She spent some of her time gardening and baking bread, but she was most passionate about taking long walks on the grounds of the family home and writing eccentric poems about nature and religion.
When their correspondence began, Higginson was well-known as a radical and a hot-head when it came to slavery, capital punishment, women's rights and child labor laws, although he would have preferred to be famous in literature. Higginson helped bring weapons and ammunition to anti-slavery settlers in Kansas and later to John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. He volunteered for the Civil War and was wounded in August 1862. After he recovered from his injuries, he went on to lead the 33rd United States Colored Troops, the first unit of the Union Army made up of freed slaves.
Colonel Higginson was extremely good-looking and vain about his looks. This 19th Century hottie had no problem attracting many different kinds of women, especially since he believed “quality has no gender”. One of his essays, “Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet?” remains a feminist classic today. Higginson married his second cousin when he was nineteen and she was twenty, but unfortunately she became an invalid by the time they were in their thirties. She was so incapacitated she could not lift a pen to write a letter, a fact that gave hope to Thomas Higginson's many admirers that they might one day take her place and give him the children he always wanted. Mary had a caustic personality and famously said, “I don't dare leave the Colonel. There are so many women just waiting for me to die.”
Emily Dickinson probably knew all these things about Colonel Higginson when she wrote to him. She probably also knew that he had helped other women writers get published and that, in modern parlance, he was expert at “networking”. The Colonel was acquainted with the movers and shakers of his time in literature and thought—Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Victor Hugo, and Charles Darwin, for example.
Dickinson wrote to Higginson under the pretense of answering an article he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly called “A Letter to a Young Contributor”, in which he explains why he decides to print what he does. “Every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties,” he writes. “And to take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege” as “discovering a new disease like cholera.”
Those words must have excited Emily Dickinson, whose work was definitely a novelty. She sent him four poems and this short breathless letter.
MR. HIGGINSON—Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude. If I make the mistake, that you dared to tell me would give me sincerer honor toward you. I inclose my name, asking you, if you please, sir, to tell me what is true? That you will not betray me it is needless to ask, since honor is its own pawn.
She did not sign the letter, but she did put her signature on a tiny card placed within a small envelope tucked inside the letter and poems. Some have called her letter shy and disguised—I say it is a magnificent calculation from a fine brain with genius for coquetry. Poor Higginson did not know what to make of it. Her poetry not only breathed, it was yelling at him and jumping off the page.
I picture Emily waiting for his reply. Would he publish her poems? She was already a writer, but would he help her become a writer with readers? Without readers, her work was like the proverbial sound of a falling tree in an empty forest.
Higginson had never read poetry like this. The woman had invented her grammar and punctuation—she preferred dashes over commas and periods, for example, and put in capitals willy-nilly and for emphasis. She used nouns for verbs and vice versa. He did not know what to make of it.
Thirty years later, Higginson recalled that “The impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these four poems as it is now.” Yet he did not tell Emily Dickson that. Instead he wrote her back in a flat-footed way. He told her to delay publication and work on her grammar and punctuation. He asked her conventional questions such as who were her favorite writers and whether she had been published before.
Nevertheless, Emily Dickinson pounced on his reply like a lifeline to her. She wanted him, she needed him, he had to remain in her life as a connection to the literary world or else she would drown in oblivion.
Dr. Elias Aboujaoude, a psychiatrist who is an expert on Internet personae, notes that people present themselves as younger, sexier, hipper and wilder online than they are in real life. Emily Dickinson did the same in her letters to Higginson. She presents herself as a tiny person alone and apart from the world, who spends her days in nature with a “dog bigger than myself”. Like a heroine in a fairy tale, she has no mother even though she is sharing a house with her. “I suppose a mother is someone to whom you hurry when you are troubled,” she writes to Higginson. “I never had a mother.” Her father is alive but ignores her. “He buys me books but doesn't want me to read them for they joggle the mind.” She reads anyway and especially likes good fierce poetry by the Brontes and Barrett Browning.
By her third letter to Higginson, Emily Dickinson boldly asks, “Will you be my preceptor?” She says “the hand you stretch me in the Dark I put in mine.” She thinks of him as “the Friend who saves her life.” When Higginson asks her bluntly how old she is, she fudges her answer by describing herself as extremely small in size, with eyes that are “the color of the sherry a guest leaves in the glass.”
From the start, Higginson is fascinated by Emily Dickinson but reticent to get involved in her career. It would have been an easy feat for him to publish her work. He had done nothing less for many other writers. Perhaps her openness and neediness put the relationship on an emotional basis from the beginning. In that way it was Emily Dickinson herself who made it hard for Higginson to champion her on a business level. Higginson was an ambitious man who cared what others in the literary community thought about him, and for that reason too he might have been afraid to get behind her unconventional poetry.
Perhaps he became too emotionally involved with her to be rational about her work. Her love of nature and her solitude as well as her obsessions with death, time and mortality would have been extremely attractive to Colonel Higginson, who admired David Thoreau's solace in Walden Woods and liked to think of himself as a deep thinker. As a young man he had attended Harvard Divinity School and was ordained as a Unitarian minister.
During the first years of their correspondence, Higginson wrote a novel called Malbone about a man much like himself who becomes involved with a strange other-worldly creature named Emilia. Higginson no doubt imagined Dickinson to be Emilia, “with a certain wild entangled look of some untamed outdoor thing with a pathetic sweetness in her voice.” In the novel, Malbone justifies his obsession with Emilia because every man “must have something to which his dreams can cling amid the degradations of actual life, and this tie is more real than the degradation…it will one day save him.” Higginson was picturing Emily Dickinson as a small waifish teenager born to walk among the flowers and moonlight and to be his dream lover, who unfortunately drowns before they fulfill their love.
Higginson and Dickinson wrote to one another for eight years before they met in person. Between 1862 and 1864, he had the excuse of fighting in the Civil War. After that, you have to ask yourself why it took this world traveler so long to get to Amherst, which was not really that far from his home in Cambridge. I believe the best answer is that he was reluctant to get too involved with her in person because he knew she was emotionally attached to him and because his wife was jealous of her. In front of his wife, Higginson referred to Dickinson as the “crack'ed poetress” in an “abnormal life”. The truth was Dickinson was his beautiful ethereal Emilia as well.
They met for the first time in her parlor on August 16, 1870. I can picture Emily Dickinson preparing herself for this momentous visit for many weeks before. She carefully put a copy of Malbone as well as another of Higginson's recent books on the piano stand where he would be sure to see them when he first came in the room. She chose a plain white dress and a blue shawl to wear for the meeting, and did her reddish curly hair in a simple bun with a center part. When she entered the room, she walked “in an extremely faint and pattering footstep like that of a child in the hall and glided in almost noiselessly,” according to Higginson. She was carrying two lilies, and stretched them out to Higginson.
“These are my introductions,” she said in a quiet voice, pressing the flowers into his hands.
At this point, everything went flat. She did have the eyes like the sherry a guest leaves in the glass, but she was not pretty. “Her face was without a single good feature,” Higginson wrote later. He was expecting a wild child, but instead he was staring at a 40-year-old woman “who had a quaint and nun-like look, as if she might be a German canoness of some religious order.” Ouch.
“Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers, and hardly know what I say,” Emily Dickinson told him. And then she proceeded to talk too much, probably out of nervousness. She talked in a “quaint and aphoristic way” and her constant blabbering turned him off.
“Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” she asked him. “Truth is such a rare thing, it is delightful to tell it”...“How do most people live without any thoughts?”...Or this passion of excess: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
Higginson was completely put off by her. He was not only missing chemistry, he was experiencing anti-chemistry.
“I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much,” he later wrote. “Without touching me, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”
Dickinson was not disappointed in the handsome Higginson, however. If anything, she wanted to see him again—as soon as possible.
“Don't say you will see me sometime,” she implored him. “Say I will see you in a long time. That would be nearer. Sometime is nothing.”
The woman was no cretin. After this meeting, their letters grew less frequent and “sometime was nothing”.
In Internet parlance, Higginson had caught a “catfish”. Catfishes are people who exaggerate their looks and lie about their age, income, and marital status online. Catfishes often send pictures of better-looking people to their Internet lovers. Some catfishes are criminals, but others are needy recluses reaching out for love and help.
Dickinson's second and only other meeting with Higginson took place on December 3, 1873. It did not go very well.
Again Dickinson appeared in a stark white dress and carrying flowers, this time winter daphnes. Higginson didn't stay long and later wrote her, “I enjoyed being with you. I hope you will not cease to trust me and turn to me, and I will try to speak the truth to you, and with love.” No doubt she hung on to the word “Love”.
When he got home, Higginson's wife said, “Oh why do the insane cling to you, Thomas?” Higginson admitted that her remark “holds”.
Higginson's wife died four years later, and he became engaged to a woman twenty-two years younger, whom he described as “refined and dainty”. His friends thought Mary Thacher was a weird choice in that she was not a suffragette or interested in his causes. She was a person who spent her time writing a biography of her husband and forgettable poems about flowers.
Emily Dickinson was polite about Higginson's engagement, noting “your grateful pupil is happy that her Master is happy”. When he told her his new wife was “mayflowers and moonlight”, she replied in a way that might have more than one meaning: “I shall pick my mayflowers more furtively and feel new awe of moonlight.” The frequency of their letters dropped off even more dramatically after his marriage.
Emily Dickinson died May 15, 1886, and was buried in a white coffin she had chosen for herself. Higginson came and spoke at her funeral, and found himself strangely moved by her appearance. He said she looked very young with an “unfurrowed brow”, and for the first time he openly said she was beautiful.
Higginson later collaborated with Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and conserve Emily Dickinson's poetry. Mabel Todd was Dickinson's brother's mistress. She hated his wife, who had been a very close friend of the poet. By editing Emily Dickinson's poetry, Todd had an opportunity to best his lover's wife. Together Todd and Higginson went through the poems, which Emily Dickinson had hand-sewn into little packets of perhaps twenty poems each. They were impossibly obscure and flouted every rule of grammar and punctuation. The two editors took the liberty of making the poems readable and even substituted new words for original ones. By changing what later became sacred texts, they turned themselves into perpetual literary pariahs. Even today Emily Dickinson's fans are still upset and angry with them.
The adventuresome Mrs. Todd used a new machine called the typewriter to transcribe the poetry, which she and Higginson divided into categories of Love, Life, Nature, Time and Immortality. Friends of Higginson warned him he was risking his literary reputation by publishing these strange disturbing poems. Higginson went ahead anyway. The little white book called simply Poems came out in 1890, sold out completely and then went into eleven printings that sold out each time. Within two years 11,000 copies were circulating. The public demanded more, and the editors provided new books of Dickinson's poems in 1891 and 1896.
The person who had refused to help Dickinson get published in her own lifetime became the agent who helped her achieve time and immortality. She attained the literary greatness that he had so craved for himself. Yet I don't think that would have mattered to him. I don't think he would have been jealous. I for one believe he loved her.
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Grant, Alexis. “One in Three Females in Internet Romance Report First Date Sex”, The Houston Chronicle, August 30, 2007.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Published by the Courier Corporation in 2012.
Higginson, Mary Thacher. Thomas Wentworth Higginson: The Story Of His Life. Published online at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2001.05.0197
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. Malbone. A Public Domain book available from the Guttenberg Project.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “A Letter to a Young Contributor”, The Atlantic Monthly, April 1, 1862.
Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Edited by Howard N. Meyer. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2000.
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