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  • The Elizabeth Whitney Putnam Manuscripts and New Strategies for Editing Emily Dickinson's Letters
  • Ellen Louise Hart (bio)

In August 1976 Harvard University's Houghton Library acquired thirteen Dickinson manuscripts from Elizabeth Whitney Putnam, a manuscript group that includes both poetry and prose. Three manuscripts were previously unknown, ten considered lost or destroyed. In his 1974 biography of Dickinson, Richard Sewall reported in "A Note on the Missing Correspondences": "We probably do not have all the letters she wrote . . . [to] Maria Whitney, who is known to have destroyed all her correspondence, as she 'wished to leave nothing to burden any relatives'" (751). Sewall quotes Millicent Todd Bingham's 1934 interview with Mary Augustus Jordan, who taught English at Smith College from 1884 to 1921 and may have known Whitney through Smith connections. (Whitney taught German and French at the college from 1875 to 1880.) It is not clear why Jordan thought that Whitney had destroyed manuscripts. When Mabel Loomis Todd began editing a collection of Dickinson's letters in the early 1890s, Whitney sent letters that she had received, Todd transcribed them, and, it is assumed, returned them. For her edition Todd organized letters and poems into individual correspondences. Like other early editors, she categorized as letters [End Page 44] poems sent as messages to a correspondent. Thomas Johnson abandoned this method of organizing material for publication, including a poem in his edition of letters only if it had a prose context. He was the first editor to publish texts that previous editors called "letters" as poems but not also as letters, initiating the still dominant pattern of separating Dickinson's writing by genre, rather than providing ways of reading texts in their original manuscript groups—individual correspondences, the manuscript volumes, and ungathered poems and drafts. ("Manuscript volumes" is my preferred term for "fascicles" or "packets.")

In the Whitney section in Letters (1894) Todd included fifteen letters written as prose or a combination of prose and poetry. From ten of those letters she removed lines, which she indicated with an ellipsis. Six letters in the Putnam acquisition are among the texts where lines were cut when published by Todd. None of the cuts in any of the letters were restored in Todd's 1931 revised edition of Letters. (In the later edition Todd added one letter she held back in 1894; this manuscript is not in the Putnam acquisition.) Among the Putnam manuscripts are versions of poems and versions of prose passages that differ in punctuation and lineation from known manuscripts and have some variation in language.

Although the Houghton Library received these manuscripts eighteen years ago, they have remained unpublished and unknown. The only published writing on the collection is a paragraph by William H. Bond, former Director of the Houghton Library, that appeared in 1980 in The Houghton Library Reports XXXV-XXXVI: Acquisitions 1975-1977:

Miss Elizabeth Whitney Putnam bequeathed a small but important collection of holograph poems by Emily Dickinson, unknown to Johnson and thought to have been lost. They are the verses beginning "Bring me the sunset in a cup," "A charm invests a face," "How brittle are the piers," "How well I knew her not," "Than heaven more remote." With these came eight letters to Maria Whitney, 1878-1884. [End Page 45]

This summary shows the conventional valuing of poetry over prose and makes no mention of poems in letters. The Putnam acquisition will be of particular interest to scholars writing about Dickinson's relationship with Samuel Bowles, since the majority of Todd's cuts involve references to Whitney's relationship with Bowles, or to Dickinson's feelings about him. Considerable attention has been paid to Dickinson's correspondence with Bowles, and some critics have suggested he may have been the historical figure constructed as "Master." (See Judith Farr's development of this theory in her chapter "The Narrative of Master," 178-244.) Others contest the theory. (See Pollak.) The debate has been a central part of the critical conversation concerning Dickinson's erotic writing. Farr has written that Dickinson's "generous letters associate her with Maria in a widowed sisterhood" (209). The Putnam materials support this view, adding to what scholars have known about...


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