The abiding image of Emily Dickinson is that of a reclusive poet, dressed only in white, and known among her neighbours as The Myth. So we were surprised and delighted to discover that she had been friends with one of the most famous writers of her generation, someone whom Ralph Waldo Emerson described as the best of America’s poets.
Dickinson’s celebrated friend was Helen Hunt Jackson – a name that, to our shame, we found unfamiliar. Although her reputation as a poet has failed to stand the test of time, she is still well remembered in the USA as a campaigner for the rights of Native Americans, and her novel Ramona has never been out of print.
Like Mansfield and Woolf, theirs was an unlikely friendship. Jackson was a social animal, whose successful career stood in stark opposition to that of Dickinson – an intensely private poet.
Indeed, during Dickinson’s lifetime, she saw only a handful of her poems go to press. Jackson actually shepherded one of them to publication, cajoling her into this by saying that: ‘It is a cruel wrong to your “day and generation” that you will not give them light’.
Dickinson also held Jackson’s work in high esteem, once claiming that – with the exception of George Eliot – she considered Jackson’s poems stronger than those of any woman since Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a literary mentor to both writers, introduced Dickinson and Jackson to each other’s work. However, the two women had actually known each other since childhood. They both came from the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts but, whereas Jackson had roamed far and wide, Dickinson had stayed firmly put. Once they’d reconnected, Jackson visited Dickinson on her return trips to Amherst. So – unlike many of Dickinson’s friendships – the two writers conversed in person as well as through letters.
Their friendship even influenced some of their work. Jackson acted on occasion as muse, commissioner, and recipient of poems by Dickinson. And, for her part, Dickinson is widely thought to have inspired the central character in Jackson’s first novel: a woman who wears only white, and who writes strange and dazzling poems.
Helen Hunt Jackson once commissioned Emily Dickinson to write her a poem about an oriole – an orange-breasted blackbird common in the north east of America. Dickinson responded with ‘The Hummingbird’.
This month, we will be commissioning each other to write about a particular topic – although, like Dickinson, we reserve the right to go on a bit of a tangent!
As always, we’d be grateful for suggestions of other female writer friends you’d like us to research.