In 1862, Thomas Higginson, a Unitarian minister, an abolitionist, and a well-known literary critic, published one of his many articles in the Atlantic Monthly. "Letter to a Young Contributor" was intended to be an article of advice to young writers. This article read by members of both Dickinson households, prompted Emily Dickinson to write directly to Higginson. 

On 15 April 1862, Dickinson wrote a response to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (etext provided by the Dickinson Electronic Archive):

15 April 1862

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 enclose 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 it's own pawn-

She challenged Higginson to tell her if her poems are "alive" and included four poems, "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," "The nearest Dream recedes unrealized," "We play at Paste," and "I'll tell you how the Sun rose." This letter was the beginning of a correspondence that lasted for 23 years. 

In his response to this letter and the enclosed poems, Higginson asked Dickinson to tell him about her background and other work. The letter she wrote in return provides a characteristically enigmatic account of her foreground as a poet (etext again provided by the Dickinson Electronic Archive):

25 April 1862

Mr Higginson,

Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude-but I was ill-and write today, from my pillow.

Thank you for the surgery- it was not so painful as I supposed. I bring you others-as you ask-though they might not differ-

While my thought is undressed-I can make the distinction, but when I put them in the Gown - they look alike, and numb.

You asked how old I was? I made no verse-but one or two-until this winter - Sir-

I had a terror-since September-I could tell to none-and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground-because I am afraid- You inquire my Books-For Poets-I have Keats-and Mr and Mrs Browning. For Prose - Mr Ruskin - Sir Thomas Browne - and the Revelations. I went to school-but in your manner of the phrase-had no education. When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Im- mortality-but venturing too near, himself-he never returned-Soon after, my Tutor, died - and for several years, my Lexicon - was my only companion-Then I found one more-but he was not contented I be his scholar-so he left the Land.

You ask of my Companions Hills- Sir-and the Sundown-and a Dog-large as myself, that my Father bought me-They are better than Beings-because they know-but do not tell-and the noise in the Pool, at Noon - excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister - My Mother does not care for thought-and Father, too busy with his Briefs - to notice what we do - He buys me many Books - but begs me not to rcad thcm-because he fears they joggle the Mind. They are religious-except me-and address an Eclipse, every morning-whom they call their "Father." But I fear my story fatigues you-I would like to learn-Could you tell me how to grow-or is it unconveyed- like Melody-or Witchcraft?

You speak of Mr Whitman-I never read his Book-but was told that he was disgraceful-

I read Miss Prcscott's "Circumstance," but it followed me, in the Dark-so I avoided her-

Two Editors of Journals came to my Father's House, this winter- and asked me for my Mind-and when I asked them "Why," they said I was penurious - and they, would use it for the World -

I could not weigh myself-Myself-

My size felt small- to me- I read your Chapters in the Atlantic- and experienced honor for you-I was sure you would not reject a confiding question-

Is this- Sir-what you asked me to tell you?

Your friend,
E - Dickinson.

A Selection of Critical Statements

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Preface, Poems by Emily Dickinson, ed. Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890), p. iii. 

"A recluse by temperament and habit, literally spending years without setting her foot beyond the doorstep, and many more years during which her walks were strictly limited to her father's grounds, she habitually concealed her mind, like her person, from all but a very few friends; and it was with great difficulty that she was persuaded to print, during her lifetime, three or four poems. Yet she wrote verses in great abundance; and though curiously indifferent to all conventional rules, had yet a rigorous literary standard of her own, and often altered a word many times to suit an ear which had its own tenacious fastidiousness." 

Paula Bennett, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, pp. 24-25. 

"Dickinson had selected her 'Preceptor' with care. Higginson's 'Letter to a Young Contributor,' encouraging new poets like herself to sumit their wares, had just appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. No less important, three years before, he had published in the same journal 'Ought Women to Learn the Alphabet,' a passionate defense of women's right to an education. A freethinker and activist in the cause of civil rights, Higginson had concluded this scathing attack on nineteenth-century chauvinistic attitudes with high praise for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson's favorite woman poet. If her own poetry was going to be acceptable to any member of America's literary establishment, it would be to this man. It was not. Although a handful of cikincon's poems were published during her lifetime-some with, most probably without her permission-she did not try seriously for acceptance again. But neither did she change the way she wrote." 

Agnieszka, Salska, "Dickinson's Letters," p. 168, 175: 

". . . the contact with Higginson led to further connections and resulted in something like a network of Dickinson's literary friends. She did let it be known in the competent and influential literary circles outside her imeediate family and friends that she was seriously a poet. Apart form the ordinary communicative function, this was the central practical apsect of her letter writing. Letters prepared and created an audience for her poetry." 

". . . in writing Higginson, she made a crucial move for herself as a poet. Here, for the first time in her life, Dickinson separates her artistic concerns from her emotional involvements and attempts to test the response to her poetry of a reader who was personally unknown to her but professionally well established. Writing to Higginson seems a 'coming-of-age' gesture of a 'homegrown' artist. It is a gesture in which she divorces her personal entanglements in experience and the poet's concern for the effectiveness of her art." 

Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson , p. 254: 

"nothing in [Higginson's Atlantic essay] was supportive of the poetic vocation as [Dickinson] had defined it. Indeed, in order to wrest substance and support from it, she seems to have misread it seriously. Higginson's essay was 'actually very hard-bitten. Stripped of its pieties, the point of his Letter was that the literary marketplace was a tough and competitive arena, in which only disciplined professional could survive. He spoke of the "interests" of author and editor with only a thin veiling of gentility. He talked of literary "productions" whose "value" had to be measured. He talked of the value of an editor's time and attention. He spoke of verbal felicities as being "coined" and "exchanged." In fact, his Letter is almost a model of the ways that a half-century of experience had taught the realities of the market and the pieties of transcendentalism not only to lie easily together but curiously to exemplify each other' [R.J. Wilson, 'Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Career,' Massachusetts Review 20 (1979): 459]. Such 'realities' were anathema to Dickinson: if true, they spelled the impossibility of having the poetic vocation, as she had defined it, take a public form. This difference in attitude toward poetry presented one barrier between Dickinson and Higginson. . . ."

Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society, pp. 187-88. 

". . . there is little doubt that Higginson himself was the most enduring of Dickinson's literary loyalties. In the letter in which she admitted not having kept up with current literary developments, she also added, 'Your Pages and Shakespeare's, like Ophir-remain-' (L 2: 635). It was because of the skillful nature essays published in the Atlantic in the years immediately preceding the Civil War, and later collected in the volume entitled Out-Dour Papers (1863), that Dickinson thought of Higginson as her artistic master. Although most commentators have lingered long on the fact that Dickinson first responded to Higginson because of his "Letter to a Young Contributor," published in the April 1862 Atlantic, it was in fact his early nature essays to which she reacted most intensely. In her second letter to him she revealed, 'My size felt small-to me-I read your Chapters in the Atlantic-and experienced honor for you-I was sure you would not reject a confiding question' (L 2:405)-which is simply to say that she had long been a reader of his literary essays as well as his critical articles." 

Richard B. Sewell, The Life of Emily Dickinson, p. 541. 

On Dickinson's first letter to Higginson: 

"One wonders, too, about Emily's diffidence. She was thirty-one. She had written hundreds of poems. The fascicles show, perhaps, that she knew herself to be master of more than the isolated lyric, although why she did not send Higginson a complete fascicle as a demonstration of her organizing power (if that is what the groupings show) is a mystery. Two editors had already inquired about her poems. When she wrote, 'I have none to ask,' she was not quite telling the truth. She had already asked Sue's opinion, during the previous summer, of 'Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,' although, to her, the relationship may not have been cordial enough at this time for more such exchanges. Most striking of all is the spareness of the letter, six sentences, with not a word to give this busy man of affairs the kind of leads one would normally look for in such an introductory letter. No wonder he wrote her almost at once to find out who she was."