Perhaps because of the mundane quality of her daily life, by the late 1850s Dickinson started taking her poetry more seriously. In 1858, she began the project of copying all of her previously written poems down into books. She also published a few poems around this time in the Springfield Republican newspaper, which was owned by family friend Samuel Bowles. Dickinson abhorred publishing, though, and only a handful of her poems were ever published during her lifetime.
In April 1862, literary critic and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an essay for The Atlantic Monthly addressed to aspiring writers. Soon after, Higginson received a letter postmarked from Amherst. "It was in a handwriting so peculiar that it seemed as if the writer might have taken her first lessons by studying the famous fossil bird-tracks in the museum of that college town,"8 Higginson recalled. The letter read: "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."9 Dickinson included four poems. "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," Higginson recalled.10 He wrote back to Dickinson, beginning a correspondence and an unusual friendship that lasted to her death nearly 25 years later.
Higginson found himself mesmerized by his eccentric pen pal, who always addressed him as though he were her teacher, signing her letters "Your Scholar" or "Your Gnome" (which completely baffled Higginson). Her letters could be playful, even flirtatious. When Higginson asked for a photograph, she wrote back: "I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves."11 Five years after her death, Higginson still did not know what to make of his unusual friend. "The bee himself did not evade the schoolboy more than she evaded me," he wrote in 1891, "and even at this day I still stand somewhat bewildered, like the boy."12