Master Narrative: Who Did Emily Dickinson Write Her Love Letters To?

By Hillary KellyJuly 22, 2012

Emily Dickinson in Love by John Evangelist Walsh

IN THE DECADE following Emily Dickinson’s death, most of her correspondence went up in flames. Lavinia Dickinson, the poet’s sister and companion, followed Emily’s directives and burned the entire cache of letters that the poet had received. Few copies of Dickinson’s own epistles survived, and many that did were the victims of “scissored deletions” — words and phrases were delicately but deliberately sliced from the text. It’s clear that Lavinia and Austin Dickinson, Emily's brother, were the most likely culprits, and that they sought either to censor or protect (or perhaps, both) their eccentric sister. What’s not clear, however, is exactly what was excised from those hole-ridden letters, and what biographical information existed in those papers that were destroyed entirely.

It is no surprise then, that the scholarly study of Dickinson’s correspondence has long been fraught with misunderstandings, errors, and faulty guesswork. A sly writer, Dickinson rarely dated her poetry, conceived multiple “rough” and “fair” copies of her letters, and often wrote in a sort of code about which her biographers can only speculate. While much of the groundwork has been laid — nearly all of the surviving correspondence has been sorted and dated, for instance — various riddles remain unsolved.

Of course, Dickinson’s extraordinary life often confounds — and motivates — biographers who seek to find patterns among the correspondence and then apply those patterns to fill in the (often literal) biographical gaps. Her reclusive lifestyle, habit of dressing only in white, and “nervous” nature have created a mythology all their own — a puzzle which scholars often seek to dismember and decipher, using her enigmatic verse as an instruction manual. “Figuring out” Emily Dickinson has become an industry of some size and consequence.

Even in her own lifetime, Dickinson’s nontraditional lifestyle as a single woman who saw few visitors and grew increasingly homebound as she aged aroused gossip and speculation among her Amherst neighbors, who dubbed her “the Myth.” Ever since her death, scholars and biographers have struggled to determine what exactly filled Dickinson’s time (often without being able to avoid condescension; John Crowe Ransom called her a “little home-keeping person”). The poet’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, more than any other biographer, disseminated (and perhaps created) the legendary tales that now accompany any biography of the poet. In works such as the Letters of Emily Dickinson and Emily Dickinson Face to Face, Bianchi perpetuated stories of Dickinson’s isolation from the world (“I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”), hinting along the way that dashed romantic hopes had forever dampened Dickinson’s spirit. From here it was but a short leap for many essayists to conclude that the poet had been romantically scorned, and that her poetry was merely a byproduct of a love-stricken maiden. Dickinson’s romantic life — or lack thereof — and her writing became inextricably linked.

One particular set of letters has always aroused special curiosity among Dickinson scholars and readers who wish to understand the poet’s character. The “Master Letters” are a set of three emotionally laden notes addressed to a figure whom Dickinson calls “Master,” but never names. “Dear Master,” begins the first letter, “I am ill — but grieving more that you are ill, I make my stronger hand work long eno’ to tell you — I thought perhaps you were in heaven, and when you spoke again, it seemed quite sweet, and wonderful, and surprised me so.” The second letter to “Master” is a plea for forgiveness — though the nature of her offense, like the nature of the illness referred to in the first letter, is unclear. Here, Dickinson’s language overflows with corporeal metaphor as she describes herself (in the third person) as prostrate under the strain of such visceral emotions:

A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart — pushing aside her blood — and leaving her all faint and white […] I’ve got a cough as big as a thimble — but I don’t care for that — I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that don’t hurt me much, Her Master stabs her more.

The third letter, the longest of the set, is also the most wrenching. Determined to prove her love, Dickinson extends the metaphor of injury from the second letter, questioning, “One drop more from the gash that stains your Daisy’s bosom — then would you believe?” Dickinson goes on to swear her fidelity and directly question “Master” on his intentions:

Say I may wait for you […] I waited a long time — Master — but I can wait more — wait till my hazel hair is dappled […] I want to see you more — Sir — than all I wish for in the this world … Could you come to new England this summer […] Would you like to come — Master?

The language pleads, and sings, and exalts. But though the Master Letters present Dickinson at her most direct — her passion luminous, her intentions unobscured — the lucidity of her desire does not make apparent the Master’s identity. Over the years, scholars have tried out theories suggesting that “Master” is any one of the few men with whom she had extended intimate contact: Atlantic correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Amherst student Henry Emmons, young law student and tutor Benjamin Franklin Newton, or local newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. Others argue that he is her own version of God, or a muse she is calling on for inspiration. But the facts surrounding the letters are thin and smudged; there is little reason to suppose the real addressee will ever be indubitably determined. Furthermore, most scholars agree that uncovering the identity of Master would likely not lead to any significant reinterpretations of Dickinson’s life and work.

Despite this popular consensus, John Evangelist Walsh, in his new book Emily Dickinson in Love: The Case for Otis Lord, presents his own peculiar theory about the Master Letters’ intended recipient. Walsh proposes that the letters were intended for Judge Otis Phillips Lord, a close friend of Dickinson’s father and the man with whom she began a relationship in the late 1870s or early 1880s. Eighteen years her senior, Lord served on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and was close enough to the Dickinson family that in 1875 he advised on the creation of Emily and her mother’s wills; his wife Elizabeth even acted as a witness. Lord and Elizabeth had been married for decades when Elizabeth died in 1878, leaving him childless. Shortly thereafter he began a rapturous correspondence with Dickinson that eventually turned into a romantic relationship and a proposal of marriage in 1883, which Dickinson either declined or neglected to answer. Lord died a few months later, on March 13, 1884.

There is no doubt that the relationship sizzled, and multiple letters between Lord and Dickinson demonstrate the vivacity and vigor of both parties’ feelings. Alfred Habegger notes in his renowned Dickinson biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, that the letters contain “a kind of unleashed, over-the-top playfulness ... a copious and seemingly uninhibited play of language.” Furthermore, “these letters, or rather drafts of letters (the distinction is crucial and the source of much controversy) raise the presumption that, whatever her earlier experience, she had the thrill of mutual love with a man.” In the extant letters from Dickinson to Lord (which may not have ever reached him — they were found among Dickinson's belongings, not Lord’s), she effusively pours out her heart, telling the aged judge that she “thanks[s] the maker of Heaven and Earth” for bestowing him upon her. Referring to Lord in the third person, she exclaims, “I confess that I love him — I rejoice that I love him...”

The language here is unambiguous; much more clear, in fact, than the Master Letters themselves, which, like much of Dickinson’s prose, are difficult to parse without the help of contextual information. Dickinson uses contemporary art and literature as metaphor, and she often gives herself vague nicknames, like “Daisy.” What’s more, Dickinson mixes what appear to be forthright sentiments and inquiries about health and travels (“I am ill, but grieving more that you are ill [...] I wish that you were well”), with lyrical enigmas (“Vesuvius don’t talk, Etna don’t. They said a syllable, one of them, a thousand years ago and Pompeii heard it and hid forever”). She occasionally drops what might be clues to the recipient’s identity: “...if I had the Beard on my Cheek like you...” at least identifies the recipient as a man and not a woman. Overall, the Master Letters are a fascinating riddle, made all the more tantalizing by the mere presence of a salutation at the top, which leads us to believe they were meant to be understood. The poems, we might imagine, were written to please Dickinson herself — but letter writing implies a communion between two individuals.

The notion that the Master Letters were intended for Otis Lord, though not impossible, is farfetched. It is true that her letters to Lord and the Master Letters are similarly romantic, in fact euphoric, in tone. It is also true that the relationship between Dickinson and Lord is perhaps the best documented romantic relationship of her life. But correlation is not causality. Dickinson referred to numerous men in her life as “master,” including Benjamin Newton, who acted as her tutor and understandably deserved the title, as well as the Amherst Academy Principal Leonard Humphrey, whose death prompted her to exclaim that “[her] master has gone to rest.” What’s more, the Master Letters have been dated, incontrovertibly, to the late 1850s and early 1860s, twenty years before their recorded courtship. (Dickinson’s handwriting transformed significantly throughout her lifetime, and scholars use the forms of her alphabet to date all her writing.) To claim that Lord was the intended recipient of the Master Letters would mean that Dickinson had known him as a child and young adult and had harbored intense romantic feelings for him throughout her entire life. It would also mean that Lord was guilty of committing emotional adultery, and that Dickinson may have carried on an illicit affair with her father’s married friend.

If such a thing were true, it would certainly alter some long-accepted ideas about Dickinson’s character, and perhaps her poetry as well. Of course, it’s not impossible that she carried on an affair with a married man. And with such gaping holes in the scholarly knowledge of her life, one cannot presume to dismiss potential discoveries out of prejudiced disbelief. But to make any firm claims about such well-trodden ground, one must enter into an investigation hoping to uncover a truth, not to confirm a suspicion.

Walsh comes to the task of identifying the mysterious Master with a set of intellectual blockades firmly in place. He will not even consider accepting most of the established scholarship and lays out his initial hypothesis with an abundance of swagger but a lack of evidence. He refuses to engage with the idea that Master is merely a muse or imagined figure, thus eliminating a not-insignificant chunk of Dickinson scholarship. Susan Howe’s magnificent My Emily Dickinson is neglected, along with all the major biographies (by Sewall, Habegger, and Wolff). Even more frustratingly, Walsh does not deign to mention the work of Judith Farr, whose fortitude led to one of the important collections of Dickinson criticism ever assembled. Furthermore, he does not attempt to “refute the claims” of other scholars and insists on presenting his argument in a vacuum. To dispute or analyze the extant scholarship, Walsh says, “would lead the discussion into a thicket of interpretation [...] A book three times the size of the present one would be needed and would make for very heavy reading,” despite the fact that making sense of the “thicket of interpretation” around a given subject is precisely the duty of the scholar. What’s more, Walsh explains in his prologue that “in [his] explication of certain of [Dickinson’s] poems,” he does not “bother with larger meanings or with aesthetic considerations.” Dickinson’s poetry is of no interest to him unless her words suit his agenda. In sum, he does not engage with a single bit of material outside his own ignorant meanderings, and rejects any relevant considerations concerning Dickinson’s poetry.

Having declared this exalted quest to discern the identity of Master “the impenetrable center of Dickinson biography,” Walsh pompously appoints himself lead investigator. Not only is such a focus overly narrow and nearsighted, it also places Dickinson’s love life, once again, at the forefront of her identity. His lack of perspective and self-awareness is almost comical: Walsh declares that “to be its most effective, [his book] must assume a particular form, not unlike a veritable suspense tale.” He then goes on to liken himself to Richard Bentley, who not only identified the counterfeit nature of the Epistles of Phalaris, but also went on to create the English school of Hellenism. Such claims come off as silly and hyperbolic, as do exclamations like, “Herein Emily’s long-hidden, long-sought mystery lover is brought before the curtain at last, bathed in a bright spotlight and invited to take a bow, doffing his mask.” Walsh fancies himself a literary Sherlock Holmes, deducing vast amounts of information from infinitesimal clues, and discerning characteristics and habits from the most trivial of behaviors.

Walsh’s stated purpose in crafting this incoherent jumble of illogically framed facts is “not merely to uncover and confirm the identity of the poet’s ‘Master’”:

It is much more to fit that information into the known events of [Dickinson's] life, finally making good sense of facts long known but ill understood. Her extreme withdrawal from a normal existence, for example — where during her first thirty-five years she had been an active, outgoing friend to many men and women — take on some real meaning.

To this end, he uses a “reconstruction” method and creates an imagined narrative into which he forcibly wedges some paltry bits of evidence. Walsh gives himself license to inflate and dramatize: “What really counts in such a discovery process is not so much each separate item, but the biographical pattern developed.”

Walsh’s first chapter is a reconstructed “pattern” of events and conversations all based on a couple of letters sent to Austin Dickinson by a man named Gardner Fuller, following the poet’s 1886 death, stating that he was in possession of letters written by Emily. Walsh asserts that Fuller penned the two letters in order to blackmail Austin into buying the set of 20 letters and pieces of verse; he further alleges, without any evidence, that Austin met with Fuller in Boston and that a heated conversation took place between them, in which both admitted the scandalous truth that Emily had written these supposedly lusty epistles to Judge Lord in the early 1860s. Austin then, according to Walsh, purchased the letters for a hefty sum and took them back to the manse in Amherst, where he and his sister Lavinia divided them into two piles: those written before 1878 and those written after. Lavinia and Austin “scissored” into the post-1878 collection, eliminating any indecent material, and then burned the pre-1878 pile. Why would they go to such great lengths to destroy their beloved (and now famous) sister’s communications? Because, claims Walsh, the letters exposed Dickinson and Lord’s love affair, which had started well before Elizabeth Lord’s death in 1878.

Here, and in many of the claims he makes about Dickinson's life and character, Walsh does not let the facts get in the way of a good story. The Fuller letters are real: they reside in the Amherst College Archives. But the series of events Walsh assumes took place are entirely derived from his imagination. It is true that in 1891, Gardner Fuller, a man of “no occupation” from a rural town outside Boston, informed the editor of The Nation that he held a series of letters written by Emily Dickinson. He did also, as Walsh repeats, claim that the letters contain “a tinge of rosy-romance.” But this phrase is meant to describe the style of writing in the letters he holds, and follows a lengthy account of their contents, in which they are described as “a clear insight into that beautiful and secluded mind [...] these letters touch upon every phase of life and character ... there are discussions on Art, Religion, Politics; Criticism on Authors and Books; Eulogies on our foremost men and women; essays upon Nature; friendships, Ideals, and the immortality of the Soul.” They were not, then, as Walsh wishes us to infer from his carefully chosen excerpt, love letters. Their content was of a “highly literate” nature; they mused on the same metaphysical topics Dickinson explored in her poetry.

In addition to blatantly manipulating the text of Fuller’s letter, Walsh invents the conversation among the two men out of whole cloth. He acknowledges that “the meeting [...] in June 1892 is nowhere explicitly recorded” and that “the actual conversation that passed between the two men was of course not noted”; however, he claims, “it can [...] be reasonably suggested.” Walsh does more than suggest: he downright fabricates. The Dickinson archive has no information on record to support his theory that Fuller sold the letters to Austin. And his contention that a considerable number of the letters (all those from pre-1878) were burned by Lavinia and Austin is yet another occurrence for which we have no evidence.

Most egregiously, Walsh uses the “reconstructed” conversation to put the idea that the letters were written to Otis Lord in Fuller’s mouth, and then relies on that imagined conversation as evidence for his claims about the Master Letters. In his account of the supposed exchange between the two men, Fuller taunts Austin by reading a passage from one of the letters aloud and indicating that the rest of the text is unsavory, or, in his (or, rather, Walsh’s) words, “intimate.” Fuller then hints at the identity of the letter’s recipient, using the nickname which Dickinson used for Lord: “Salem,” the Massachusetts town where Lord resided. “I take it…that you know who Salem is? Or was, since he died eight years ago?” says Walsh’s Fuller.

It’s true that scholars and historians often recreate scenarios and conversations to elucidate complicated narratives and facts. But Walsh turns that notion on its head, and concocts a narrative not to explain facts but to produce them. Without apology, Walsh fashions an alternative history in which Otis Lord is the widely recognized recipient of Dickinson's correspondence, even after quoting a sentence from Fuller that indicates her letters “were written to me during the War, when I was engaged in the publishing industry in Boston.” To bolster his theory about the Master Letters, Walsh desperately needs evidence that Dickinson and Lord conversed in the 1860s. Rather than research, he simply invents.

Fuller and Austin’s imagined meeting is only the beginning of Walsh’s circuitous logic and wild speculation. He goes on to present a series of wrongheaded arguments in support of his theory that Lord is the unnamed Master, each less based in reality than the one before. He reads her poetry like a conspiracy theorist, forcing misguided readings and maintaining that every usage of the word “Lord” in the poems is a reference to Otis, despite the fact that Dickinson struggled deeply with her inability to devote herself to her Christian faith and wrote often about her position as a nonbeliever. In Poem #339 Dickinson uses the words “Lord” and “Daisy” in the last stanza, which is proof enough for Walsh that the poem is a coded message intended for Judge Lord. Walsh draws a connection between her usage of the word “Jerusalem” and the reference to Lord’s hometown (“JeruSALEM”) he sees inside it. And he insists that any similarity in phrasing between Dickinson’s poetry and the Master Letters indicates that they were intended for the same recipient — never mind the fact that Dickinson, like all writers, often repeats themes, imagery, and expressions.

What’s worse, the second half of Emily Dickinson in Love entirely rewrites the poet’s biography, using only the rickety methodology and untenable claims of the first half of the book as support. Walsh purports that Dickinson had bounced on Judge Lord’s knee as a baby, and that on a later visit to her father’s home Lord shared this memory with Dickinson, thus sparking a scandalous romance. Walsh then proceeds to manipulate every detail of Dickinson’s life so that it accords with this theory. Dickinson’s visit to Boston for eye trouble? A ruse, created so that she might be closer to Lord. The white gowns she wore for much of her adult life? Wedding dresses, for she was the “spiritual bride of Otis Lord.” Her reclusive nature? A byproduct of her longing and sadness over her ill-fated relationship.

In his final chapter, Walsh makes one last unfounded assertion: Emily Dickinson did not die of Bright’s Disease (a diagnosis which many scholars have, admittedly, found problematic); she killed herself, slowly, with her own medication. To explain Dickinson 's "depressed" state, Walsh again relies on her poetry as if it were coded autobiography; he misreads her verse, insisting that her frequent mentions of death, departure, and heaven are all signs that she wished to die so desperately that she took her own life. The reason? Judge Lord had been dead for two years, and, according to Walsh, "[c]ompared to the Heaven she knew while Lord lived, existence with him gone [was] living Hell." With a smattering of medical knowledge and a few hunches, Walsh pieces together an unlikely literary scenario: modeling herself after her favorite characters, Shakespeare's Juliet and Bronte's Heathcliff, Dickinson "hoard[ed] small amounts of her medicine in order to accumulate a lethal dose."

The flaws in Walsh's reasoning are too numerous to list, but the spirit of this error matches the pattern of circuitous, haphazard logic that Walsh has established throughout Emily Dickinson in Love. Walsh repeatedly hypothesizes about Dickinson's life, then seeks only the information that would seem to confirm his conjectures, while avoiding the vast body of scholarship that would disprove his slipshod theories. He sees only what he wants to see, and neglects the most important tenet of literary biography: a writer is not her work, and the work does not exist solely to explain the life.

Although this is just a silly little book, it commits a dangerous literary blunder. Emily Dickinson in Love is yet another exercise in mythmaking: it exacerbates the poet's already exaggerated image as a lady scorned, a woman without the full love of a man. Walsh clings desperately to the fabled Emily who was only a reclusive, love-starved genius; her humanity is lost to him entirely. Despite the vigor of her verse, the strength of her convictions, and the complexity of her character, Walsh ultimately wants Dickinson right where history has too often placed her: locked away in her father's house, scribbling her lines and waiting to be rescued. A writer of her caliber deserves much more than that.


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LARB Contributor

Hillary Kelly is the Managing Editor of The Book: An Online Review at The New Republic.


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