an illustration of a Newfoundland dog

Carlo (1849-1866), dog

“My Shaggy Ally” 

– Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson, February 1863 (L280)

black and white illustration of a dog

Newfoundland Dog. Painted by Col. H. Smith, eng. Lizars

Carlo was Edward Dickinson’s gift to Emily, his eldest daughter, in the fall of 1849, presumably to accompany her on the long walks she enjoyed in the woods and fields of Amherst. Apparently a brown Newfoundland (perhaps a curly-coated Lesser Newfoundland, for Dickinson once jokingly sent one of the dog’s tawny curls to a friend purporting it to be her own), Carlo may have been procured from family friends, the Huntingtons, who raised litters of the massive breed at their farm on the Connecticut River in Hadley. If so, it adds wit to Dickinson’s naming Carlo after the pointer of St. John Rivers in her favorite novel at the time, Jane Eyre.

Other novels soon featured dogs named Carlo – Ik Marvel’s Reveries of a Bachelor, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford Rise – and by 1858 five dogs named Carlo were registered in Amherst, including another Newfoundland owned by local photographer J.L. Lovell. The breed, known for its friendly, inquisitive intelligence, enjoyed popularity among the Romantics, and was a favorite of authors whom Dickinson admired – Byron, Scott, Dickens, and Robert Burns among them. Harriet Beecher Stowe included a Newfoundland named Bruno in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Dickinson’s first written mention of her “mute confederate” occurred in an 1850 valentine that was published by the Amherst College student magazine, The Indicator.

Thereafter she spoke often of Carlo in several dozen letters and even in a few poems, usually with homely humor, and always with affection and respect. She delighted that Major Edward B. Hunt, watching Carlo snap up a bit of fallen cake at the Commencement Tea in 1860, believed her dog “understood gravitation” (L342b). In April 1862, she introduced Carlo to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson by letter, saying, “You ask of my Companions. Hills – sir – and the Sundown, and a Dog large as myself, that my Father bought me -” (L261). It seems clear from her commentary that Carlo provided the poet great psychological comfort over the years, while her dependence on his protective presence can be gauged by her marked reclusivity once he was gone.

Neighbors described Dickinson coming to call with her outsize dog beside her. One remembered Dickinson saying to her when, as a child, she walked with the poet and her “huge dog”: “Gracie, do you know that I believe that the first to come and greet me when I go to heaven will be this dear, faithful old friend Carlo?” (Years and Hours, Vol. II, p. 21).

When Carlo died at about age 17 in January 1866, Dickinson announced his death in a terse letter to Higginson: “Carlo died. / E. Dickinson / Would you instruct me now?” (L314). Months later, still feeling his absence, she paid him this tribute:

Time is a test of trouble
But not a remedy –
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no malady.

Work cited:

The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960

Mabel Loomis Todd

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932), correspondent

“That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural.” 

– Emily Dickinson to Mabel Loomis Todd, late September 1882 (L769)

black and white photograph of Todd. Photograph is marked with name of photographer, 'Lovell. Amherst, Mass'

Mabel Loomis Todd, around the time of her arrival in Amherst

Born November 10, 1856, Mabel Loomis Todd was the only child of Eben J. and Mary Wilder Loomis of Washington, D.C. Her father, a clerk in the Nautical Almanac Office, was an amateur naturalist and poet. A pretty, vivacious, talented young woman, she attended Georgetown Female Seminary, then studied piano and voice at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She cultivated, as well, her talents for flower-painting and writing, and had had stories published by the time of her marriage in 1876 to astronomer David Todd.

In September 1881, the Todds moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, so that David could take the new professorship of astronomy at Amherst College. Mabel Todd wrote her parents of a Miss Dickinson who wrote poetry and lived such a secluded life she was called by some in town “the myth.” Todd soon became friends with the poet’s sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and was invited by the poet’s siblings, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson, to play the piano and sing for their reclusive sister and invalid mother. Over the next four and a half years Todd often performed music in the Homestead, becoming acquainted with the poet by way of exchanged notes and occasional conversations between rooms, yet never saw her face to face.

Nearly two years after Emily Dickinson’s death, Lavinia brought to Todd a portion of her sister’s recently-found poems and begged the younger woman to get them published. By that time Mabel was well into a thirteen-year clandestine love affair with Austin Dickinson, an intimacy that had alienated her from Susan, Austin’s wife. Lavinia had first asked Sue to publish the poems, but, impatient with Sue’s slow progress, Lavinia retrieved the manuscripts and brought them secretly to Mabel.

Despite initial reluctance, Todd spent the next nine years ordering, transcribing, and editing hundreds of poems into three volumes of Poems by Emily Dickinson published in 1890, 1891, and 1896 respectively. Todd enlisted the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the selection process, the two making changes in punctuation and some rhymes, and adding titles, attempting to shape Emily Dickinson’s unusual verse forms to the tastes of late 19th-century readers. Both also worked assiduously to herald and promote the volumes. With Lavinia’s help, Todd rounded up Dickinson’s vast correspondence with friends for a two-volume Letters of Emily Dickinson, published in 1894. She gave lectures about the mysterious poet of Amherst, thus influencing the public’s initial image of Dickinson.

After Austin’s death in 1895, tensions between the Todds and Dickinsons led to a March 1898 lawsuit over a piece of land, fueled by long-standing jealousies, fears, and vindictiveness on both sides. When Mabel lost the suit, she angrily locked away a mass of unpublished poems and Dickinson family papers still in her possession. For fifteen years she enjoyed a lecture career that took her all over the northeast United States speaking on some three dozen topics. She accompanied her husband on eclipse expeditions around the world and locally was instrumental in founding the Amherst Historical Society, the Amherst Woman’s Club, and the Amherst chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

A stroke in 1913 ended Todd’s writing and lecturing. The Todds moved to Florida soon afterwards, but in 1931 Mrs. Todd was goaded by Martha Bianchi’s publications of her Aunt Emily’s materials to reissue, with her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham’s help, an enlarged version of the earlier Letters of Emily Dickinson. Other materials in Todd’s possession were later published by Bingham following her mother’s death from stroke in October 1932. Bingham subsequently gave Amherst College the Dickinson poems and letters in her family’s possession.

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1945.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), correspondent

“Dear friend, A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”

black and white photograph of Higginson with his young daughter upon a two-person bicycle

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and daughter, ca. 1884

– Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson, June 1869 (L330)

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, co-editor of the first two collections of Emily Dickinson’s poems, was a man of astonishingly varied talents and accomplishments. A lifelong radical, he was an outspoken abolitionist, advocate of women’s rights, and founder of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. During the Civil War, he served as commander of the first Union regiment of freed African American soldiers. An ordained Unitarian minister, Higginson was also a prolific writer; his most highly regarded work was a memoir of his war years, Army Life in a Black Regiment.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was born in Cambridge in 1823 into a distinguished family whose ancestors trace back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He attended Harvard College and graduated from the Harvard Divinity School. Before the Civil War, Higginson served as a minister at several Unitarian churches and was involved in a number of radical political causes and activities, including active support of John Brown as well as membership in the Free Soil party.

Higginson had a long association with the Atlantic Monthly, contributing a number of articles, essays and poems. In the April 1862 issue, he published “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he encouraged and advised aspiring writers. Within a month, he received a note from Emily Dickinson, then 31 years old, along with four poems, thus beginning a relationship that was to last until the poet’s death in 1886.

Although he did not actively urge Emily Dickinson to publish during her lifetime, Higginson became, in Dickinson’s own term, her “Preceptor.” Written communication between the two continued after their first letter; about 70 letters from their correspondence survive, along with about 100 poems. Higginson also visited the poet twice and attended her funeral in the spring of 1886, reading a poem by Emily Brontë, “No Coward Soul Is Mine.”

After Dickinson’s death, Higginson assisted Mabel Loomis Todd in editing her poems, lending his considerable literary influence to the eventual publication by Roberts Brothers, Boston, of a first series in 1890 and a second the following year. Both volumes were well received by critics and the public.

Higginson published more than 500 essays and 35 books during his long life. He was active into the twentieth century, producing memoirs, novels, political tracts, and biographies. He died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1911, survived by his second wife, Mary Thacher Higginson, and two daughters.

The influence of Thomas Wentworth Higginson as a liberal thinker and activist remains historically significant, and several of his books are in print. However, it is Higginson’s relationship with Emily Dickinson, as correspondent, advisor and editor, for which he is best remembered.

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd, Ancestor’s Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York, Dover, 1945.

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth, “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” Atlantic Monthly LXVIII (October 1891), pp. 444-456.

_________“Letter to a Young Contributor,” Atlantic Monthly IX (April 1862), pp. 401-11.

__________ The Magnificent Activist: The Writings of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Edited by Howard N. Meyer. Cambridge, MA, Da Capo Press, 2000.

Wineapple, Brenda, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York, Knopf Publishing Group, 2008.

Helen Hunt Jackson

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), friend

“Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never” 

– Emily Dickinson to William S. Jackson, late summer, 1885 (L1015)

black and white photograph of Jackson seated and leaning upon a small table

Helen Hunt Jackson, ca. 1875

Helen Hunt Jackson, a popular American poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist was—like Dickinson—a daughter of Amherst. She was born on October 14, 1830, two months before Emily Dickinson, but it was not until later in life that she formed a friendship with the poet.

The accidental death of Jackson’s first husband, Edward Hunt, in 1863, along with the deaths of both of her children may have propelled her toward writing as a way of dealing with grief. From the mid-1860s, she focused on establishing herself as a writer and avidly sought publication. In 1875 she married her second husband, William S. Jackson, and the couple settled in Colorado, making occasional trips back to New England.

Jackson was re-introduced to Emily Dickinson through editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who acted as a mentor to both women. Jackson visited the poet on two occasions, first in 1876 and two years later in 1878. During one of those visits, Jackson tried to persuade Dickinson to submit her poem, “Success is counted sweetest” (Fr112), to an upcoming volume of anonymous poetry, A Masque of Poets, published by Roberts Brothers of Boston. Dickinson’s poem did eventually appear in the book, although it is unclear whether the poet actually submitted it or if Jackson sent it without the poet’s explicit consent.

Jackson did not understand Dickinson’s reluctance to publish since, she argued, the poet had such remarkable verse to share. Writing out of frustration in 1884, she told Dickinson, “It is cruel and wrong to your ‘day & generation’ that you will not give them light…I do not think we have a right to withhold from the world a word or a thought any more than a deed, which might help a single soul” (L937a). Jackson even offered to be Dickinson’s literary executor, but Jackson died before the poet did, making such a possibility—if Dickinson had even wished to accept it–moot.

Toward the end of her career, Helen Hunt Jackson became a passionate advocate for the rights of Native American people. Her political commitment inspired a critique of U.S. policy, A Century of Dishonor (1881) and her most famous work, the novel Ramona (1883-1884). Even from her death bed Jackson continued to work politically and wrote to President Grover Cleveland with a plea that he might redress “the wrongs of the Indian race” (Phillips, p. 272).

Jackson died in 1885, a year before the poet, after a bad fall and complications from cancer. In a sympathy letter to the writer’s husband, Dickinson remembered her last written exchange with the indefatigable Jackson. “Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. I can fly—her immortal (soaring) reply” (L1015).

Further reading:

Coultrap-McQuin, Susan. Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Phillips, Kate. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003.

Samuel Bowles

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878), friend

“a creator of endless perspectives” 

– Susan Dickinson, “Annals of Evergreens,” p. 2

black and white photograph of Bowles seated

Samuel Bowles, n.d.

Samuel Bowles was the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, New England’s most influential newspaper of the day. Under Bowles’s direction, the paper became one of the country’s “most progressive and influential” newspapers (Habegger, p. 377). Progressive in his own politics, he helped to establish the Republican party, supported the antislavery movement, and advocated for social reform on a number of fronts.

Susan Dickinson remembered Bowles as “the first guest in our newly married home” (Annals,” p. 2). That visit to The Evergreens, made during a trip to Amherst to observe demonstrations of agricultural machinery, led to a lifelong friendship with Austin and Susan Dickinson. Susan recalled that Bowles’s visits to The Evergreens rarely ended until after midnight: “His range of topics was unlimited, now some plot of local politics, rousing his honest rage, now some rare effusion of fine sentiment over an unpublished poem which he would draw from his pocket, having received it in advance from the fascinated editor” (“Annals,” p. 3). His presence in The Evergreens “seemed to enrich and widen all life for us, a creator of endless perspectives” (“Annals,” p. 2). For Bowles, who suffered from bouts of ill health, visits to The Evergreens provided a respite from his busy life as an influential editor with close ties to politicians in Washington.

Emily Dickinson’s friendship with Bowles began on a good note. She wrote to Bowles shortly after meeting him at The Evergreens: “Though it is almost nine o’clock, the skies are gay and yellow, and there’s a purple craft or so, in which a friend could sail. Tonight looks like ‘Jerusalem.’ I think Jerusalem must be like Sue’s Drawing Room, when we are talking and laughing there, and you and Mrs Bowles are by” (L189). About fifty letters to Bowles (some also written to his wife, Mary) survive, with the majority written during 1861 and 1862, a particularly difficult time for Dickinson.

Bowles was one of the primary recipients of Dickinson’s poems—about 40 in all. Several of the poems, written in the early 1860s, allude to the turmoil she was experiencing during that time but do not disclose its specific nature. After the text of her poem “Title divine—is mine! / The Wife without the sign,” she wrote to Bowles: “Here’s – what I had to ‘tell you’ – You will tell no other? Honor – is it’s [sic] own pawn—” (L 250; Fr 194). Although scholars generally agree that Dickinson’s relationship with Bowles was one of the most significant in her life, interpretations of the nature of their friendship vary. While some feel he is a primary candidate for the Master figure, others argue he was simply a close friend whom she trusted enough to share her deepest troubles.

Although Bowles remained good friends with Austin and Susan, Emily and Bowles may have endured a long breach that was finally repaired when Edward Dickinson died in 1874. Bowles was the only person outside of the family to speak with the now reclusive poet at the funeral, and he sent flowers to the family each year on the anniversary of Edward’s death.

When Samuel Bowles himself died early in 1878, Dickinson wrote to his widow: “Dear ‘Mr. Sam’ is very near, these midwinter days. When purples come on Pelham, in the afternoon we say ‘Mr. Bowles’s colors'” (L 536). His loss, like that of Dickinson’s father, was one of a number that the poet endured with great sadness in her own final years.

Despite Bowles’s prominent position at the Republican, none of the poems that he is known to have received from Dickinson are among the seven published in the Republican during her lifetime. It remains unknown how those poems made their way to the paper.

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Susan H. “Annals of The Evergreens.” Writings by Susan Dickinson, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. Original manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Habegger, Alfred.My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001. 375-382.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 463-511.

Elizabeth Holland

Elizabeth Holland (1823-1896), friend

“I hope you may live till I am asleep in my personal Grave . . . I would not like to outlive the smile on your guileless Face.” 

– Emily Dickinson to Mrs. J. G. Holland, early 1877 (L487)

black and white photograph of a seated woman wearing spectacles

Elizabeth Holland, n.d.

Emily Dickinson’s friendship with Elizabeth Holland came at a turning point in the poet’s life. The two met in Amherst in 1853 through Mrs. Holland’s husband, Josiah Holland, an editor at the Springfield Republican: “Dr Holland and his wife, spent last Friday with us—came unexpectedly—we had a charming time, and have promised to visit them after Commencement” (L132).

In the early 1850s Dickinson’s social life was changing considerably. Good childhood girlfriends married or moved away, and even her brother, Austin, seemed more distant as he completed his law studies and began a drawn-out courtship with one of her closest friends, Susan Gilbert. A friendship with a slightly older woman, already married with an established household, must have been a welcome one.

Elizabeth Chapin Holland was born in Springfield and educated in Albany, New York. She married Josiah Holland, a newly minted physician who later turned his attention to writing, in 1845. They lived briefly in Virginia and Mississippi before returning to Springfield, where Dr. Holland quickly became indispensable at the Republican. They later moved to New York when he took over editorship of Scribner’s. Mrs. Holland’s granddaughter, Theodora Van Wagenen Ward (who helped to edit Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters in the 1950s), described her as “a good and thrifty housekeeper [who] shared her home with Dr. Holland’s widowed mother and her own younger sister, took care of her [three children], and was her husband’s best adviser on important decisions” (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland, p. 18).

The friendship between Elizabeth Holland and Emily Dickinson—communicated primarily through correspondence as well as occasional visits—was unlike many of the poet’s other relationships: “no flavor of crisis, no sudden intensity of feeling or purpose only to diminish decorously over the years” (Sewall, p. 594). Dickinson’s more than ninety letters to the Hollands, written between 1853 and 1886, share the details of life that one would impart to a close family member: the status of the garden, the health and activities of members of the household, references to recently-read books. Indeed, by 1859 Dickinson addressed Mrs. Holland as “Sister” (L 204).

Although she occasionally sent Mrs. Holland poems, Dickinson does not seem to have considered Mrs. Holland a confidante for that aspect of her life. Instead, the two exchanged plants—“Yours was my first arbutus. It was a rosy boast. I will send you the first witch hazel” (L 318)—and shared a love of sweets. After receiving a gift of confections, Dickinson thanked the “Chocolate Sister”: “The Bonbons were delightful, but better than Bonbons was the love—for that is the basis of Bonbons” (L555). With Mrs. Holland the poet shared her famous gingerbread recipe: “I am pleased the Gingerbread triumphed” (L369). Dickinson also turned to Mrs. Holland for help with deeply personal issues, such as embarrassment over a social faux pas (see L202) or concerns of spiritual matters.

For Dickinson biographers, the details contained within the Holland letters help to reconstruct everyday aspects of the poet’s life. For Dickinson, the friendship with Mrs. Holland provided stability and reassurance throughout her adult years.

Further Reading:

Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland. Ed. Theodora van Wagenen Ward. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974). 593-625.

Abiah Root

Abiah Root (1830-1915), friend

“I am not unconcerned Dear A. upon the all important subject, to which you have so frequently & so affectionately called my attention in your letters. But I feel I have not yet made my peace with God…. Abby & I talk much of the happy hours we used to spend together with yourself, Sarah & Hattie Merrill. Oh! What would I give could we all meet again. Do write me soon Dear A & let it be a long—long letter. Don’t forget—!!!!!” 

– Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 8, 1846 (L13)

black and white photograph, of young woman seated

Abiah Root (Strong), n.d.

Abiah Palmer Root came to Amherst to live with her cousins the Palmers and attend Amherst Academy, where she joined Emily Dickinson’s group of five close girlhood friends. After one or two terms at the Academy, “Biah” returned home to Feeding Hills, near Springfield, Massachusetts, and enrolled in Miss Campbell’s school. Thus the intimacy between the two girls came to rely upon the mail and Root’s occasional visits. Root clearly valued this correspondence, saving Dickinson’s letters, and making them available to Mabel Loomis Todd for her 1894 edition of the poet’s Letters.

Abiah Root’s side of the correspondence has been lost but the twenty-two extant letters Dickinson wrote to her friend between 1845 and 1854 provide a rich portrait of the poet’s youth. These letters are full of information about Dickinson’s activities and schooling from her tourist outings in Boston (L13) to the pleasures of a “Candy Scrape” (L20), the trials of household chores (L36), and the rules and schedule at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (L18). The letters express deep affection for her friends, and Dickinson’s whimsical and often highly self-conscious writing reveals her experimenting with literary style.

Dickinson described Root as “dignified” and serious (L91), and she appears to be the friend whom Dickinson most trusted to hear her own spiritual wrestling. The daughter of a deacon and later married to a minister, Root’s own commitment to Christ seems to have come with easy clarity: “I shed many a tear & gave many a serious thought to your letter & wished that I had found the peace which has been given to you,” Dickinson wrote to her friend in 1846 (L11). “You know of this depth, and fullness [sic], will you try to tell me about it?” Dickinson asked four years later in a letter that describes the spiritual revivals in Amherst and her own unsaved plight as “one of the lingering bad ones” (L36).

Distance did have costs for their friendship. “I can think of no other way than for you, my dear girl, to come here—we are growing away from each other, and talk even now like strangers,” Dickinson complained in one letter (L39). Yet more than geographic distance their correspondence reveals their growing differences not only in religious feeling, but also in life roles and avocation. In the summer before her marriage to Reverend Samuel Strong, Abiah Root wrote to Dickinson urging her friend to visit and presumably to meet Rev. Strong. Dickinson’s response, sent more than a month later, expresses nostalgic gratitude for “loving me long ago and today,” but it ends with a sharp assertion of Dickinson’s willful disengagement from the social world. In declining to visit she calls herself “old fashioned” and explains that she leaves home “obstinately, and draw back if I can” (L166). “Why think of it seriously, Abiah,” she continues, “—do you think it my duty to leave?” (L166).

At fourteen Dickinson laughed with Root at the idea of “finishing” an education–“you may then be Plato, and I will be Socrates” she joked—and she celebrated her letters for having “so much nonsense to tell” (L5). A decade later Root had chosen the expected roles and responsibilities of marriage, while Dickinson, just beginning to write her poetry, claimed a very different sense of duty, where telling nonsense and unfinished seeking still reigned.

Abby Wood Bliss portrait

Abby Wood Bliss (1830-1915), friend

“Our particular friend”

– Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 25, 1845 (L8)

black and white photograph of a seated woman in 1860s clothing

Abby Wood Bliss

Abby Maria Wood Bliss was Dickinson’s “particular friend” (L8) and schoolmate at Amherst Academy. Together with Abiah Root, Harriet Merrill, and Sarah Tracy, Abby Wood and Emily Dickinson made up the close group of girlhood friends that the poet called “our circle of five” (L11).

Both Emily and Abby were born in 1830, Abby on October 12, in Westminster, Massachusetts. By 1838, after her father Joel’s death left her mother burdened with several small children, Abby was living in Amherst with her Uncle Luke Sweetser, a well-respected member of the community.

Though the two girls had bouts of frail health, they shared a strong interest in music and their studies at Amherst Academy during the 1840s. Penciled notes in their joint 1838 copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil show two girls trying to survive their lessons with humor. Emily, like schoolchildren for generations, complains of the tediousness, writing that “Abby and I are plodding over our books pretty much as ever” (L7). (Emily Dickinson’s copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil is now housed at the Amherst College Library, Amherst, Massachusetts.)

Their friendship reached a turning point in 1850 when Abby joined Amherst’s First Congregational Church, succumbing to a powerful religious revival of that year. Although the two friends had both been uncommitted, Emily early on recognized that Abby “only desires to be good” (L23).  After Abby joined the church, Emily acknowledged that they now “take different views of life” (L39). Dickinson never did join the church.

In 1855 Abby married the newly-ordained minister Daniel Bliss, an 1852 graduate of Amherst. The couple sailed off on a mission to Syria, where they spent the remainder of their lives, and where Reverend Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College (now The American University of Beirut).  Dickinson’s friendship with Abby had “drooped a little” (L91) in the early 1850s, but when the time came for Abby to depart, Emily presented her with their shared Virgil text.  In it she had written out line 203 of Book I of the Aeneid, which she translated as “Afterwards you may rejoice at the remembrance of these (our school days)” and then inscribed it “When I am far far away then think of me—E. Dickinson.”

While the intimacy of their relationship changed, the two never lost touch. They both retained their interest in botany and horticulture (subjects they had studied at Amherst Academy), and there is strong evidence that Abby sent botanical specimens for Emily’s herbarium, as well as a piece of olivewood, from the Middle East.

When Abby brought her children from Syria for a year’s visit to Amherst in 1873, she found that Emily “had become the village mystery, inaccessible to all but an elect few, who were admitted to the sanctuary with appropriate preliminaries and ceremonies.” Abby, demonstrating her own honest and independent spirit, would have none of it, and claimed her right to be “received on the old basis” (Daniel Bliss, The Reminiscences of Daniel Bliss, New York: Revell, 1920. Cited in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, p. 205).

Inspired by the visit, Emily composed:

I saw that the Flake was on it
But plotted with Time to dispute –
“Unchanged” I urged with a candor
That cost me my honest Heart –

But “you” – she returned with valor
Sagacious of my mistake
“Have altered – Accept the pillage
For the progress’ sake”—

Daniel and Abby Bliss had four children, Mary, Frederick, Howard, and William. All four spent the academic year of 1873-74 in the Amherst school system, and the two older sons later graduated from Amherst College.  Frederick Bliss, a good pianist, often played for Emily Dickinson, while Howard Sweetser Bliss became a good friend of Emily’s nephew Ned Dickinson. Howard succeeded his father as President of Syrian Protestant College in 1902. Together Daniel and Abby dedicated their lives to education through their missionary work in Syria. Abby died on April 12, 1915, the year before her husband. Both are buried in the Anglo-American Cemetery in Beirut.

title page of Ralph Waldo Emerson's book of poems

Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), friend

“My earliest friend wrote me the week before he died “If I live, I will go to Amherst – if I die, I certainly will.” 

– Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, spring 1876 (L457)

the title page of POEMS by Emerson

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Presented to Emily Dickinson by Benjamin Newton, August 1849.

My earliest friend,” “My dying Tutor” (L265), “my Father’s Law Student” (L750), “The first of my own friends” (L110), “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor” (L153) “an elder brother, loved indeed very much” (L153) – these were all phrases Emily Dickinson employed in speaking of Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young man whose effect upon her development as a poet was early and profound, and to whom she long paid tribute.

Newton, as she called him, came to Amherst in the fall of 1847, a twenty-six-year-old aspiring law student desiring to study for two years in the recently formed partnership office of Dickinson and Bowdoin. Like other such law students of Edward Dickinson’s over the years, Newton became a familiar presence in the Dickinson household, befriending the Dickinson children and often partaking of family meals. Emily Dickinson met him just as she enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and she became acquainted with his love of books during several weeks the following March that she was home nursing a severe cold. She later wrote: “Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen” (L153).

The spare facts of Ben Newton’s upbringing indicate he was born into a farm family in Berlin, Massachusetts, near Worcester, on September 30, 1821. Unable to afford college, and perhaps not of sturdy enough health to farm, Newton may have taught school during the decade before he came to Amherst. By that time he was widely read, and able to guide Dickinson to poets and authors he esteemed. She spoke afterwards of admiring “the strength and grace, of an intellect far surpassing my own,” which “taught me many lessons” (L153). Most important, he recognized Dickinson’s exceptional mind and encouraged her talent for writing. “All can write autographs, but few paragraphs, for we are mostly no more than names,” he inscribed in her autograph book when he left Amherst for Worcester in August 1849. (Dickinson’s autograph book is housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Newton corresponded with Dickinson–most notably sending her Emerson’s Poems in January 1850–while he studied for the bar, opened his own law practice, and then became the District Attorney of Worcester County. He married in June 1851, and while he continued to write and to guide his young protégé, he evidently gave her few indications that his health was failing. News of his death from tuberculosis on March 24, 1853, shocked Dickinson when she read of it in the newspaper three days later. Loss of her “gentle, yet grave Preceptor” led her to rely principally on her lexicon (her dictionary) as her guide to writing poetry for several years to follow (see L261).

Although it has been suggested that Newton and Dickinson may have been romantically attached, this seems unlikely. The theory scarcely fits the tone of the three letters the poet wrote to Newton’s minister, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, for reassurance he had died peacefully. She did, however, regret for the rest of her life that the importance to her of this “first friend” had “slipped my simple fingers through / While just a Girl at school” (Fr418). She treasured the advice of his letters, and never forgot him.

Further Reading:

Mamunes, George. “So has a Daisy Vanished”: Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008.

Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon (1797-1849), teacher

“Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do.”

– Mary Lyon

black and white photograph of a woman wearing a white bonnet

Mary Lyon, ca. 1845

Mary Lyon was a pioneering educator of women. In 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Emily Dickinson attended in 1847-48. Lyon was born in Buckland, Massachusetts, on February 28, 1797. She was one of seven children born to Aaron Lyon, a Scottish farmer, and Jemima Shepherd Lyon. Mary Lyon attended Buckland School from the age of four until she was thirteen, often boarding with local families since it was too far to travel home each day.

When Lyon was seventeen, she was invited to teach summer school in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. At that time teachers often entered the workforce with few formal qualifications. For twenty years Lyon continued her teaching career at several schools, including Ipswich Female Seminary, which Lavinia Dickinson later attended. While teaching, Lyon used her income and a small inheritance to further her education by traveling and studying educational reform.

In 1834 Lyon decided to leave teaching in order to raise funds for a female seminary accessible to women of modest means. Lyon conceived of a seminary founded on the principles of public benevolence, as opposed to the customary practice of funding by a wealthy benefactor. She tirelessly traveled the country collecting donations in a green velvet purse. She made a special request of church sewing societies throughout New England to contribute quilts and bedding that would furnish a chamber for each student. To keep tuition low, seminary students would live together as a family in one large building and would do much of the school’s housework (cleaning, cooking, and laundering).

On November 8, 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary admitted its first eighty students. Mary Lyon had high academic standards for her students. An admirer of the Amherst College curriculum, she developed a rigorous course of study that included the sciences, not a subject commonly emphasized at men’s or women’s schools. She also tirelessly worked to improve the students’ religious lives, holding year-long revivals intended to culminate in each student’s personal confession of faith.

Emily Dickinson entered the seminary in 1847, a decade after its founding. Writing her friend Abiah Root, Dickinson observed that the atmosphere at the seminary was congenial. “One thing is certain,” she wrote, “& that is, that Miss Lyon & all the teachers, seem to consult our comfort & happiness in everything they do & you know that is pleasant” (L18). Like many of the students, she stayed for only one year; unlike most of them, she remained one of those “without hope” where faith was concerned.

Mary Lyon pursued her mission to educate women until her death on April 5, 1849. Educators later viewed Mount Holyoke as a model for women’s education. In 1893, the seminary became Mount Holyoke College. Lyon’s gravesite is on the College grounds. Mary Lyon’s legacy is celebrated at her graveside during the annual Mount Holyoke College commencement ceremony and every year on her birthday.

Further Reading

Green, Elizabeth Alden. Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1979.

Mount Holyoke College History: Who Was Mary Lyon?