Franklin Master Letters Title Page





THESE THREE LETTERS, which Emily Dickinson drafted to a man she called "Master," stand near the heart of her mystery.  Although there is no evidence the letters were ever posted (none of the surviving documents would have been in suitable condition), they indicate a long relationship, geographically apart, in which correspondence would have been the primary means of communication. Dickinson did not write letters as a fictional genre, and these were surely part of a much larger correspondence yet unknown to us.  In the earliest one, written when both she and the Master were ill, she is responding to his initiative after a considerable silence.  The tone, a little distant but respectful and gracious, claims few prerogatives from their experience, nothing more than the license to be concerned about his health, as she is about the health of all whom she loves, and to say that hearing from him again "seemed quite sweet, and wonderful." The other two letters, written a few years later, stand in impassioned contrast to this.  One comes after a revelation in which she had "offend[ed] it" by telling "it the truth"; the other responds to his apparent lack of belief in what she has been professing: "One drop more from the gash that stains your Daisy's bosom - then would you believe?"  In both she defends herself reviewing their history, asserting her fidelity.  She asks what he would do if she came "in white."  She pleads to see him.
      Of primary importance, the Master letters nevertheless have had an uncertain history of discovery, publication, dating, and transcription.  This publication, issued at the centennial of Emily Dickinson's death, presents the three letters in chronological order, based upon new dating of the manuscripts, and provides their texts in facsimile as well as in transcriptions that show stages in the composition of each letter.
      One hundred years ago, in the week following Dickinson's death on May 15, I 886, Lavinia Dickinson found what she described as a locked box containing seven hundred of her sister's poems.  The Master letters may have been among them, for they were clearly not with the correspondence, which Lavinia destroyed upon discovery.  It is uncertain, however, how many groups of manuscripts were found.  Years later, in the midst of controversy, Lavinia maintained

Introduction      5






that there had been just one group, described now as having been in two drawers but found at one time, presumably containing not seven hundred but nearly eighteen hundred poems.  Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited three volumes of the poems from the batches of manuscripts she received from Lavinia and whose notions about their discovery came from her, thought that several groups had been found.  If so, the Master letters, and drafts of a few other letters that have similarly survived, may have been in one of the succeeding discoveries, if not in the first one. Lavinia, on the other hand, had parcelled out the manuscripts to both her brother's wife and his mistress and may have found it necessary to slant the truth as she told it.
      By the early 1890s Mabel Todd knew of the Master letters and included a snippet—six brief sentences—in the edition of Dickinson's letters she brought out in 1894.  There was no mention of "Master."  The identity of the intended recipient had been concealed under the heading ''—— —— , '' and a deliberately misleading date of 1885, almost at the end of Emily Dickinson's life, had been assigned.  In her 193 I revision of the 1894 Letters Mabel Todd, although in possession of the manuscripts, remained unwilling to print any more of the one letter, or any of the other two.  She did add a note to the printed passage indicating that the manuscript was in the handwriting of the 1860s.  There it stood until 1955, when Millicent Todd Bingham, who had received the manuscripts from her mother, published them for the first time in full in Emily Dickinson's Home.  All biographical and critical studies before that date were without knowledge of their existence, text, or apparent recipient.
      With the publication of Home in 1955, and the appearance of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of the letters three years later, and of Jay Leyda's The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson two years after that, the Master letters became widely available. Millicent Bingham, puzzled by the dating of these drafts, printed them in a sequence without dates, except for one in the caption to a facsimile of the letter that begins "If you saw a bullet hit a Bird."  This letter, the first in her sequence, she indicated to be "about 1861."  For the others—identified here by their openings—she provided only an order: "Oh! did I offend it" followed by "I am ill, but grieving more that you are ill." The transcriptions were regularized at times in matters of punctuation, capitalization, and paragraphing.  The use of pencil and ink was incompletely described. And, despite symbols for cancellations and for alternative readings, the distinction between them was blurred— especially when both conditions applied to one

6      Introduction






reading and when, among multiple readings, some had been cancelled.  In the resulting text Emily Dickinson's acts of composition and revision were obscured.
      While also somewhat unsure about the dating, Thomas Johnson revised Bingham's order for the letters, putting her last first, and supplied dates for all three: about 1858 ("I am ill"), about 1861 ("If you saw a bullet"), and early 1862?  ("Oh, did I offend it")—numbers 187, 233, and 248 respectively in his 1958 edition.  The transcriptions, based on Bingham's, though more literal and accurate than hers, had been checked against the manuscripts.  But the Johnson text, employing the same symbols as Bingham's, with not much more description, also left the compositional stages obscured.  Both editors omitted some inscriptions and cancellations.
      Jay Leyda arranged the letters in the same order as Johnson did, but he assigned different dates, albeit with some, if more precise, uncertainty: early spring 1858 ("I am ill"), January? 1861 ("If you saw a bullet"), and February? 1861 ("Oh! did I offend it").  The Leyda text is substantially different from either Bingham's or Johnson's, although it largely derived from hers and was checked, as was Johnson's, against the manuscripts.  Out of the multiplicity of readings, Leyda redacted a single version.  When competing readings stood uncancelled, he retained only one, choosing editorially between earlier and later ones.  When competing readings did involve cancellation, he sometimes took the uncancelled reading, sometimes the cancelled one.  When there was a cancelled reading with no alternatives, he often retained it, as though not to lose it entirely, but he also eliminated several such readings.  Leyda was preparing copy for a compendium, not for a textual edition, and his text may be appropriate to its purpose.  It is, however, a mixed version, neither initial nor final, nor indeed reflective of any particular point in the process of composition and revision.
      There it has stood.  The chronology in the present publication grows out of work in progress that involves dating Dickinson manuscripts anew.  The effect for the Master letters is a revised order that confirms some previous dates while changing others. The letters are arranged here in the following order:

Letter 1  spring 1858 ("I am ill")
Letter 2  early 1861 ("Oh - did I offend it")
Letter 3 summer 1861 ("If you saw a bullet")

The sequence has been determined from aspects of Dickinson's

Introduction      7






 handwriting, as the word the, an important example, will illustrate.  Early in this period, almost without exception, Dickinson's form for the (lower case) consisted of two parts, a t separate from a linked he, but in i 861 she shifted to a form in which all three letters were linked.

Image of Handwriting

The linked form is unknown before 1861.  The earlier form appears occasionally thereafter, but the later one dominates, often accounting for more than ninety percent of the instances.  This is the pattern of the Master letters.  In the first one the word the is always unlinked between the t and the he (13 instances).  In the second letter, at a point of transition, the forms are mixed and nearly balanced in number (6 unlinked, 8 linked).  In the third letter the newer form is overwhelmingly dominant (42 linked, 4 unlinked).
      The first letter can be assigned to 1858, as both Johnson and Leyda thought, because of several characteristic details, one of the most distinctive being the form of and in which the ascender of the d rises strongly to the right.

Image of Handwriting

 This form dies out soon thereafter.  Sets of quotation marks that slant downward to the left, a capital H made with three separate strokes, and the word you in a linked form—characteristics identifying early 1858—also appear.

 Image Handwriting

 The letter can be assigned to spring by its contents: "The Violets are by my side - the Robin very near - and 'Spring' - they say, Who is she - going by the door -"
      The other two letters belong to 1861, as all previous editors have thought about the second one and Leyda about both, though in a different order. Neither letter can have been written later than the summer of 1861, since the second of them asks "Could you come to New England - this summer."  It is possible that Dickinson wrote

8      Introduction






this before summer, referring to a season ahead, but the fervor of the passage as first written and her cancellation of "this summer"—perhaps as being too immediate and importunate suggest that she was referring to the season at hand.

I want to see you more - Sir -
than all I wish for in
this world - and the wish -
altered a little - will be my
only one - for the skies -
Could you come to New England -
this summer - could you come
to Amherst - Would you like
 to come - Master?

The other letter precedes this one somewhat, but cannot with assurance be placed more precisely than "early 1861."
      With the assistance of facsimile reproductions on facing pages, the line for line transcriptions seek to render the manuscripts as completely and literally as possible.  Dickinson did not indent paragraphs, except for the one immediately after the salutation, and did not space between them.  The beginning of a new paragraph can often be identified by space remaining on the last line of the preceding one, as can be seen at the bottom of the first page of Letter 1.  Any physical line, however, that begins with a new sentence could also begin a new paragraph, and if the writing on the preceding line continues nearly to the end, it may be difficult to determine if a break were intended.  In these transcriptions the most likely paragraph breaks, based on space and content, have been identified with a • to the left of the line.
      Two common textual symbols, themselves not found in these manuscripts, enclose readings:

Image of Symbols

Inserted readings, identified by the arrows, are brought into the line at the related place without indication of their actual position.  When specific position is important, as it often is, the facsimiles may be consulted.  In turn, the transcribed text will be found to contain readings difficult to decipher in the reproductions.  An appendix lists the substantive variants, including the record of cancellation, between

Introduction      9






these transcriptions and the previous ones by Bingham, Johnson, and Leyda.
      Type is linear, regular, and uniform, while handwriting, Dickinson's in particular, often is not. In these manuscripts the sizes and shapes of letters will vary.  Such variation has not been recorded beyond the distinction afforded by ordinary upper and lower case letters.  Standard typesetting conventions have also been followed in regard to spacing and punctuation.  No attempt has been made to indicate the amount of space between words, or between words and punctuation, or to indicate, for example, the length of a dash, its angle, spatial relation to adjoining words, or distance from the line of inscription.  Dashes of any length are represented by an en dash, spaced on each side.  Periods, commas, question marks, ending quotation marks, and the like, have no space preceding them, however situated in the manuscripts.  Stray marks have been ignored.  The facsimile reproductions will be helpful in all these regards.  While Emily Dickinson understood italics, referring to the concept in several poems and letters, the words underlined in these manuscripts are underlined in the transcriptions as well.  Italics have been used only for editorial explanation.  In the notes to the transcriptions the word over indicates that one reading has been superimposed upon another, occupying the same space.

[This transcript does not include the listing of works cited found at the bottom of the print page.


10      Introduction