Al Barger recycles the tale that Emily Dickinson had no desire to be published and wrote for no one but herself: “She was a freaky little recluse who showed very little interest in actually publishing her poetry. Renown was of no interest to her.”
In fact she went a good deal out of her way to be published, and struck up a correspondence with T.W. Higginson, editor of The Atlantic Monthly and probably the most famous journalist of his time, with exactly that in mind. She was coy about it to be sure, sending Higginson a few poems and asking him “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?” But her intentions were clear enough. Higginson proved himself too thick to understand her poetry. “He seems to have suggested,” her biographer George Whicher writes, “that she abandon the struggle to write in meter and rhyme and follow the example of Whitman.” Her friend Helen Hunt Jackson, the popular novelist, was worse: she published “Success is counted sweetest” without her permission and edited it to boot. (Jackson changed the fourth line to “Requires the sorest need”; the reader can judge the result for himself.) Dickinson finally retreated from society, as Yvor Winters remarked, because she was excluded. She was freakish in the sense of being far more intelligent than her contemporaries.
Dickinson also allowed two other poems to be published in her lifetime, tinkered endlessly with her poems, leaving as many a dozen or more variants of some, and bound them all up carefully to make sure they were preserved. Renown interested her a great deal.
Not that it’s any use to say so. The Dickinson legend appeals profoundly to unpublished writers and it will doubtless live forever.