Emily Dickinson

The famously reclusive Emily Dickinson did not share her work with anyone and instructed her sister Lavinia to burn her letters, unopened packages, and manuscripts after she died. When she passed away in 1886, Lavinia dutifully began to obey her wishes. After indiscriminately destroying hundreds of manuscripts and letters, however, Lavinia opened a desk drawer and found more than 600 poems in a box, and hundreds more "totally unordered and in various stages of completion." Shocked by the discovery, she stopped to read some before burning them. Astonished by the quality of the writing, she approached Mabel Loomis Todd.

"Soon after Emily's death," Todd later recalled, "Lavinia came to me... actually trembling with excitement. She told me she had discovered a veritable treasure -- quantities of Emily's poems which she had no instructions to destroy... These poems, she told me, must be printed at once."

Todd spent the next four years sorting and editing Dickinson's work. The first volume of her poems was published in November 1890, and sold out six printings in five months.

[The notion that Dickinson's family was unaware of her work is disputed by some scholars, among them Ruth Miller, author of the acclaimed Poetry of Emily Dickinson and The Myth of Amherst.]

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