We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters

Critical Essays

edited by Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie foreword by Marietta Messmer

Publication Year: 2009

Emily Dickinson, who regarded a letter as “a joy of Earth,” was herself a gifted epistolary artist—cryptic and allusive in style, dazzling in verbal effects, and sensitively attuned to the recipients of her many letters. In this volume, distinguished literary scholars focus intensively on Dickinson’s letter-writing and what her letters reveal about her poetics, her personal associations, and her self-awareness as a writer. Although Dickinson’s letters have provided invaluable perspective for biographers and lovers of poetry since Mabel Loomis Todd published the first selection in 1894, today’s scholarly climate opens potential for fresh insights drawn from new theoretical approaches, informed cultural contextualizations, and rigorous examination of manuscript evidence. Essays in this collection explore ways that Emily Dickinson adapted nineteenth-century epistolary conventions of women’s culture, as well as how she directed her writing to particular readers, providing subtly tactful guidance to ways of approaching her poetics. Close examination of her letters reveals the conscious artistry of Dickinson’s writing, from her auditory effects to her experiments with form and tone. Her well-known correspondences with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Susan Dickinson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Otis Phillips Lord are examined here, but so too are previously neglected family communications with her aunt Kate Sweetser and cousin Eugenia Montague. Contributors find in these various letters evidence of Dickinson’s enthusiastic participation in a sort of epistolary book club involving multiple friends, as well as her loving attentiveness to individuals in times of both suffering and joy. These inquiries highlight her thoughts on love, marriage, gender roles, art, and death, while unraveling mysteries ranging from legal discourse to Etruscan smiles. In addition to a foreword by Marietta Messmer, the volume includes essays by Paul Crumbley, Karen Dandurand, Jane Donahue Eberwein, Judith Farr, James Guthrie, Ellen Louise Hart, Eleanor Heginbotham, Cindy MacKenzie, Martha Nell Smith, and Stephanie Tingley.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (313.1 KB)

Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (308.8 KB)

Table of Contents

pdf iconDownload PDF (239.9 KB)

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (259.0 KB)
pp. vii-x

When the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s Poems was published in 1890, their enigmatic quality immediately stirred her readers’ interest in this hitherto completely unknown author whom reviewers depicted as a somber recluse. Intrigued by various rumors about the “myth of Amherst,” readers hoped, in particular, that Dickinson’s voluminous correspondence would shed some bio-...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (274.2 KB)
pp. xi-xiii

One of the pleasures of reading Emily Dickinson’s correspondence is discovering her gift for expressing gratitude. Not only did she write numerous thank-you notes on behalf of family members as well as herself, but she scattered appreciative comments throughout her letters and often signed off with the salutation “Gratefully.” Writing to her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross,...

read more

Editors’ Introduction

pdf iconDownload PDF (307.3 KB)
pp. 1-10

Emily Dickinson, preeminent American poet, distinguished herself also as a writer of letters. It has been estimated that the three volumes of her printed letters in the edition compiled by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward and the letters to Joseph Lyman later edited by Richard Sewall represent only about one-tenth of the letters Dickinson actually wrote. Others have yet to be ...

read more

“This is my letter to the World”: Emily Dickinson’s Epistolary Poetics

pdf iconDownload PDF (401.8 KB)
pp. 11-27

When Thomas Wentworth Higginson recalled retrieving his mail at the Worcester Post Office on the morning of April 16, 1862, he noted his bewilderment at finding an unusual letter containing four poems from an unknown poet written in a peculiar handwriting, what he described as “fossil bird-tracks” (Higginson, Magnificent 544). Mystified, he commented further that the “most curious thing ...

read more

Dickinson’s Correspondence and the Politics of Gift-Based Circulation

pdf iconDownload PDF (534.6 KB)
pp. 28-55

In a February 24, 2003 commentary on a cancelled White House literary symposium that was to have focused on Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Emily Dickinson, Katha Pollitt noted that though Dickinson may at first “seem the least political” (2) and therefore the least likely of the three poets to appear in a literary event deemed too politically volatile to stage, she may in the final ...

read more

“Blossom[s] of the Brain”: Women’s Culture and the Poetics of Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence

pdf iconDownload PDF (467.5 KB)
pp. 56-79

In her obituary for Emily Dickinson published three days after the poet’s death in the May 18, 1886, edition of the Springfield Republican, Susan Gilbert Dickinson praises her sister-in-law’s steadfast attention to her domestic duties and her generous lifelong ministry to others: “[T]here are many houses among all classes into which her treasures of fruit and flowers and ambrosial dishes for the sick ...

read more

“Saying nothing . . . sometimes says the Most”: Dickinson’s Letters to Catherine Dickinson Sweetser

pdf iconDownload PDF (432.5 KB)
pp. 80-99

The occasion that confronted Emily Dickinson as a writer of consolation letters in January 1874 was the most challenging she had ever faced. The books and magazine articles that advised letter-writers on the correct way to deal with various situations certainly did not cover this circumstance. What does one say to a woman whose husband has disappeared, with his disappearance being...

read more

Messages of Condolence: “more Peace than Pang”

pdf iconDownload PDF (504.2 KB)
pp. 100-125

“What shall I tell these darlings,” Emily Dickinson wondered at the start of her January 1863 letter to Louisa and Frances Norcross shortly after their father’s death left her cousins orphaned at ages 20 and 15 (L278). This had to be an earnest question, not just a rhetorical one; though her foregrounding the challenge she faced in conveying solace on paper to loved ones so overwhelmingly ...

read more

“What are you reading now?”: Emily Dickinson’s Epistolary Book Club

pdf iconDownload PDF (708.1 KB)
pp. 126-160

When eighteen-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote to Abiah Root, “What are you reading now?” and then reported on her own list (L23, May 16, 1848), she engaged in what was to be her lifelong activity: reporting on her own reading and eliciting suggestions from her network of friends. As do book enthusiasts today who, in increasing numbers, gather to cheer each other on in the pursuit of the latest ...

read more

Emily Dickinson and Marriage: “The Etruscan Experiment”

pdf iconDownload PDF (1.5 MB)
pp. 161-188

What would it be like to receive a letter from Emily Dickinson? Thomas Wentworth Higginson always remembered where he was standing when he took one from a mailbox on April 16, 1862. The letter Dickinson sent (he would receive many more) was direct and determined but made an effort to be suppliant and polite to the literary figure whose advice she desired. Beginning without blan-...

read more

Heritable Heaven: Erotic Properties in the Dickinson-Lord Correspondence

pdf iconDownload PDF (496.0 KB)
pp. 189-212

The drafts of letters Emily Dickinson apparently wrote during her correspondence with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, employ a wide range of legal terms and references. Elsewhere I have discussed the extent to which the drafts dwell upon matters related to property law, notably the areas of bankruptcy and trespass, as part of a larger campaign ...

read more

Alliteration, Emphasis, and Spatial Prosody in Dickinson’s Manuscript Letters

pdf iconDownload PDF (503.2 KB)
pp. 213-238

Emily Dickinson’s letters in manuscript offer readers more information about prosody than the standard print editions can provide. Although “prosody” generally refers to the technical aspects of versification, prose also has a prosody. A study of the prosody of Dickinson’s prose focuses on the way sound is organized in individual sentences. Here, for example, is the first page of a five-and-a-half-...

read more

A Hazard of a Letter’s Fortunes: Epistolarity and the Technology of Audience in Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences

pdf iconDownload PDF (421.1 KB)
pp. 239-256

Why not call them “pletters” or “loems”? That is how my witty partner articulated the “problem” Thomas H. Johnson describes in his introduction to The Letters of Emily Dickinson: “Indeed, early in the 1860’s, when Emily Dickinson seems to have first gained assurance of her destiny as a poet, the letters both in style and rhythm begin to take on qualities that are so nearly the quality of her ...

Works Cited

pdf iconDownload PDF (355.9 KB)
pp. 257-270

Notes on Contributors

pdf iconDownload PDF (267.8 KB)
pp. 271-274


pdf iconDownload PDF (1.4 MB)
pp. 275-293

Back Cover

pdf iconDownload PDF (683.8 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9781613760192
E-ISBN-10: 1613760191
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558497412
Print-ISBN-10: 1558497412

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 12 illustrations
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


UPCC logo

Subject Headings

  • Poets, American -- 19th century -- Correspondence.
  • Dickinson, Emily, -- 1830-1886 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • American letters -- History and criticism.
  • Poetics -- History -- 19th century.
  • You have access to this content
  • Free sample
  • Open Access
  • Restricted Access