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  • New Dickinson Letter Clarifies Hale Correspondence
  • Diana Wagner (bio) and Marcy Tanter (bio)

The recent discovery of an unknown Emily Dickinson letter helps to close a previous gap in the correspondence between Dickinson and Edward Everett Hale. Because the letter lacks both a salutation and a year, determining the recipient might seem anything but certain. But through a process of deduction, which we will explain, it is unlikely that this letter was meant for anyone but Hale.

The letter is written in black ink on two and a half leaves of an embossed, wove, bi-folium stationery. 1 There is evidence that the letter has been handled quite a bit: several small fingerprints are clearly visible; the center fold in the sheet has long been separated; the green-gray rule has faded to virtually nothing. As the letter lacks the salutation, and there is no evidence Hale ever received this newly found copy, we originally assumed this letter is a draft. 2 But the letter has clearly been folded to a size (160 mm x 52 mm) consistent with envelopes Dickinson used. Specifically, the letter folds to a size consistent with the envelope on which Poem 367 (“Surprise is like”) is written. The size of the folded letter, however, might also suggest that Dickinson folded it to fit in an apron or dress pocket — assuming, of course, that she would have used wove, embossed stationery as draft paper. Hale’s receipt of this letter remains uncertain. But that uncertainty does not lessen this letter’s significance.

The discovery of this letter among the belongings of deceased New York bookseller Alan Weiner 3 is significant for several reasons. First, it has not been known with any certainty whether Dickinson ever received a response from Hale, when she wrote him in 1854 about the death of her friend, Benjamin Franklin Newton. 4 This new letter, most likely Dickinson’s reply to Hale, seems to affirm that he did respond to her query. Second, this letter is among “the few we have addressed to a complete stranger” (Sewall 401) and only the third letter we believe was intended for Hale. Third, this letter adds one more [End Page 110] epistolary element to Dickinson’s preoccupation with the details of her friends’ final moments of life, Newton’s especially. Signed, this letter underscores Newton’s importance to Dickinson and the deep compassion she had for both him and his survivors.

Ben Newton was one of Dickinson’s earliest friends and an intern in Edward Dickinson’s law office (1847–1849). Nine years older than Dickinson, he is “one of those older men she called variously her tutor, preceptor, or master” (Sewall 401). In the first letter to Hale in January of 1854, Dickinson succinctly voices Newton’s importance as both an intellectual and spiritual role model:

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, and in a life again, nobler, and much more blessed

- (L153)

It is Newton who sent Dickinson a copy of Emerson’s Poems (L30), and he whom she regarded as “the first of [her] own friends” (L110).

In 1849, Newton left Amherst for Worcester to continue his law studies. He married Sarah Warner Rugg in 1852, but Dickinson neither met nor corresponded with his wife. Given a choice between the two strangers present at Newton’s death on March 24, 1853, Dickinson elected to ask Edward Everett Hale, Newton’s pastor at Church of the Unity in Worcester, and not Mrs. Newton, about the spiritual state of her admired friend:

Had I his wife’s acquaintance, I w’d not trouble you Sir, but I have never met her . . . Please Sir, to tell me if he was willing to die, and if you think him at Home . . . please forgive the audacities of a Stranger, and a few lines, Sir, from you, at a convenient hour, will be received with gratitude . . .


Although Sewall notes that Hale’s “reply, if any, has not survived” (402), this new letter, in its specificity, allows us...

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