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ELIZABETH HEWITT Dickinson's Lyrical Letters and the Poetics of Correspondence In 1891, five years after Emily Dickinson's death, her elected poetic mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson published in the Atlantic Monthly a selection of letters he had received from her in the early years of their twenty-four-year correspondence. He justifies publishing the letters, which he claims to do with "much reluctance," by offering them not as an extension of Dickinson's body of work, but as documents tbiat provide clues to die life and mind of the "partially cracked poetess at Amherst":1 It seems to be the opinion of those who have examined her accessible correspondence most widely, that no other letters bring us quite so intimately neat to die peculiar quality and aroma of her nature; and it has been urged upon me very strongly that her readers have the right to know something more of this gifted and most interesting woman.2 More than a century later Dickinson's critics are still reading her letters according to these same demands—as testimonies to an elusive life.3 There are 1,045 extant letters assembled by Thomas Johnson in The Letters ofEmily Dickinson, probably only a small portion ofher total correspondence .4 The chronological range, however, is great, and perhaps it is this chronological arrangement of the letters that enables the three Arizona Quarterly Volume 52, Number 1, Spring 1996 Copyright © 1996 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1 6 10 Elizabeth Hewitt volumes to present something that looks like an epistolary biography— a life conveyed dirough letters.5 Yet if it is as biography that the letters often atttact the attention ofDickinson's readers, then it is as such that they are also most frustrating. For not only is Dickinson's correspondence incomplete, because we do not have all die letters she sent, but we also have very few of the letters she received from othets.6 The lopsidedness of the collection has enabled critics to overlook the obvious but impottant fact to which her letters point: that as a letter writer Dickinson is not alienated but is fundamentally concerned with communication and with locating herself in relationship to various communities —het family, friends, and literary confidants.7 Unfortunately, the necessarily cryptic quality of an incomplete collection magnifies the already oblique character of Dickinson's epistolary style, enabling critics to read her letters not as what they are—documents sent to other people—but rather as documents registering incommunicability. Unless read within a binary structure of correspondence, die lettets falsely confirm die mythology ofDickinson s solitude. Indeed, it is the reticent quality of her lettets that her critics most often note, and not surprisingly, the letters that have attracted most attention have been the Master letters—the three love letters addressed to an anonymous "Master," which were found among Dickinson's papers after her deatii. In this case not only do we not know die identity of the "Master," but, in fact, there may have been no recipient at all— either because Dickinson did not actually send die letters or because there was no single person whom she imagined as "Master." Unfortunately , die anonymity diat characterizes these letters provides for their easy incorporation into the aforementioned model of correspondence in which there are no correspondents. According to tins logic, we read the letters because they provide clues to the mysterious question ofwho Dickinson's "Master" was, and we are seduced into this guessing-game because Dickinson refuses to name the recipient. What is remarkable about the Master letters, however, is not that they don't name the recipient , but that they reveal witii great precision the ways in which not knowing is an essential aspect ofcorrespondence. Dickinson begins, for example, die second Master letter by describing the necessary game of faith that grounds her relationship to the lover: Dickinson's Lyrical Letters29 Mästet. If you saw a bullet hit a Bird—and he told you he was'nt shot—you might weep at his courtesy, but you would certainly doubt his word. One drop more from the gash that stains your Daisy's bosom —then would you believe7. Thomas' faith in Anatomy...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 27-58
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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