Johnson Letters Title Page




      With the publication of these letters, the task of editing the poetry and prose of Emily Dickinson, undertaken in the spring of 1950, is brought to its conclusion.  The introductions and notes which follow herein extend the narrative begun in the 1955 edition of the poems, and, together with the interpretive biography issued likewise in 1955, set forth the story of Emily Dickinson's life and writing as fully as I know how to tell it.
      I take pleasure in recording again the acknowledgments which I made in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, The work of preparing the poems and letters constantly overlapped, and the generosity of those who have assisted the first undertaking extends equally to this.  My initial debt, most gladly owned, is to Mr. Gilbert H. Montague, whose gift to Harvard College Library provided funds for the purchase of the Dickinson manuscripts and other family papers from the late Alfred Leete Hampson, the heir to the literary estate.  Mrs. Alfred Leete Hampson has always stood ready to extend help upon request and her assistance, effectively and quietly given, has been important.
      I wish to thank those who have served in an advisory capacity: Mr. Frederick B. Adams, Jr., Mr. Edward C. Aswell, Mr. Julian P. Boyd, and Mr. Robert E. Spiller.
      I take pleasure in expressing gratitude to the following persons who willingly gave me access to Dickinson letters which they owned: Dr. J.Dellinger Barney, Mr. Clifton Waller Barrett, Dr. Mary Bennett, Mrs. Graham B. Blame, Mr. Francis Bowles, Mrs. John Nicholas Brown, Mr. Orton L. Clark, Mr. H. B. Collamore, Mrs. T. Franklin Currier, Mrs. Morgan B. Cushing, Mr. Frank Davidson, Miss Elizabeth S. Dickerman, Mr. Clarence Dickinson, Miss Marion E. Dodd, Miss Julia S. L. Dwight, Mrs. Edward T. Esty, Mrs. Howard B. Field, Mrs. Leon Godchaux, Mrs. William L. Hallowell, Mr. Francis Russell Hart, Mr. Seth P. Holcombe, Mr. Josiah G. Holland, Mr. Richard Hooker, Mr. Parkman Howe, Miss Helen Jackson, Sister Mary James,







Miss Marcelle Lane, Mrs. Vivian Y. Laramore, Mr. Josiah K. Lilly, Mr. Samuel Loveman, Mr. Thomas 0. Mabbott, Mr. Julian E. Mack, Mrs. William T. Mather, Miss Edith L. Pinnick, Mrs. Frederick J. Pohl, Mrs. Fairfield Porter, Mrs. Doheny H. Sessions, Mrs. H. T. Sheldon, Mrs. Susan H. Skillings, Mrs. Grant Squires, Mrs. Elizabeth S. Walcott, and Mrs. Alison H. Yaeger.  The kindnesses of Mr. Robert P. Esty I recall with special pleasure.
      It was Mabel Loomis Todd whose pioneer work in editing many of the Dickinson letters in 1894 saved much which otherwise would have been lost.  I am grateful for the researches of her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, who has devotedly carried on her mother's work and has herself contributed much to our knowledge of the poet.  The present edition would not have been possible if the collection of manuscripts recently transferred by her to Amherst College had not been made available, as well as the transcripts made by Mrs. Todd, when preparing her edition, of letters which the owners subsequently destroyed or lost.
      The following institutions gave willing access to their Dickinson holdings: American Antiquarian Society; Amherst College; Boston Public Library; Colby College Library; Goodell Library, University of Massachusetts; Harvard College Library; Huntington Memorial Library, Oneonta, New York; Jones Library, Amherst; The Pierpont Morgan Library; Mount Holyoke College Library; New York Public Library; Princeton University Library; The Rosenbach Foundation; Smith College Library; and Yale University Library.  I wish also to thank Williston Academy for supplying the record of Austin Dickinson's enrollment, and the Baker Library of Dartmouth College for access to the Bartlett papers.
      I am grateful to those who have shared their reminiscences: the late Margaret (Mrs. Orton L.) Clark, Dr. Kendall Emerson, Miss Louise B. Graves, Mrs. William T. Mather, and Mrs. Stuart Reynolds.
      Mrs. Raymond W. Jones placed family diaries and memorabilia at my disposal.  Mr. Russell S. Smith's unpublished study of Emily Dickinson's use of the Bible was a constant help.  Mr. William H. McCarthy has assisted the enterprise from the beginning, and his in-numerable kindnesses have been unfailing.  The aid given to these labors by Mr. Jay Leyda, who himself is preparing a documentary







record of the life of Emily Dickinson, has been so extensive that it virtually constitutes him a research associate.
      The grant of a fellowship by the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation gave assurance that the work of editing the poems and letters of one of America's major writers would be completed. 
      In conclusion I take special pleasure in recognizing the interest bestowed upon this undertaking, in behalf of myself and Mrs. Ward, by Mr. William A. Jackson and the staff of the Houghton Library, where most of the work has been done.  It has become an association at a personal level.



Jaffrey, New Hampshire
August 1957








      James Russell Lowell, himself a letter writer of distinction, most admired in that literary form the letters of Gray, Cowper, Walpole, and Lamb.  "I hold that a letter which is not mainly about the writer of it lacks the prime flavor.  The wine must smack a little of the cask," he said to his friend Charles Eliot Norton.1 "Letters, so it seems to me,/ Our careless quintessence should be," he wrote.  By "careless" Lowell obviously does not mean slack or heedless, or even unpremeditated.  He has in mind what writers in the early nineteenth century meant by genial when they used the word in the sense of innate; and such precisely is the wine that smacks of the cask. Lowell would certainly have added Keats to his list had enough letters of Keats been published at the time for Lowell to savor them.  Perhaps he would have added Emily Dickinson.
      The noteworthy characteristic of the Dickinson letters, like that of the poems, is acute sensitivity.  Indeed, early in the 1 860's, when Emily Dickinson seems to have first gained assurance of her destiny as a poet, the letters both in style and rhythm begin to take on qualities that are so nearly the quality of her poems as on occasion to leave the reader in doubt where the letter leaves off and the poem begins.  Such intensity of feeling was a handicap that she bore as one who lives with a disability, and her friends must have increased the burden by often making her aware that they felt sympathy for a pathetic situation.  It left her, as those who observed her knew, though they never so phrased it, emotionally naked.  In all decency, she did not dare to appear in the drawing room when guests were present.  "In all the circumference of Expression," she wrote in 1884, "those guileless words of Adam and Eve never were surpassed, 'I was afraid and hid Myself."'  But the disability need not be pitied, for she knew that though she could expect no deliverance from it, she could devise compensations, and her ability to do so vests her informal correspondence

      1 New Letters . . . , ed. Howe, New York (1932) IV, 278.







with a charm which time does not alloy.  "How frugal is the Chariot! That bears a Human soul!"  The husbandry of those whose sensibilities threaten disaster must be austere.  As she herself expressed the thought in 1863, renunciation is a piercing virtue.

      Letter writing became a part of Emily Dickinson's life while she was still a child. Her need of contact with those she loved led her to set whole mornings or afternoons aside to pen with intimate spright-lines missives of considerable length.  Such being true of her own capabilities, she expected in return, during her adolescent years, letters of equal sociability and endurance, and repeatedly bullies or cajoles those whose replies do not measure to her expectation or are delayed longer than she feels may be a reasonable period – perhaps a day or two.  She was only eleven when she wrote the earliest surviving letter, in which she expresses herself with ease and charming felicity.  But it is in the letter she wrote to Abiah Root in August 1845 that one sees the culmination of her development as a child.  Now fourteen, she is natural, eager, interested in people, in her studies, the world about her, and in the development of her own new dimensions as a person.  This realization she unconsciously discloses by saying: "I never enjoyed myself more than I have this summer."
      Yet in the same year, and but a few weeks later, her next letter to Abiah reveals how her enthusiasm for school was regarded by her parents as a sign of overstimulation, for which a term of housekeeping instruction would be a salutary remedy.  "Mother thinks me not able to confine myself to school this term.  She had rather I would exercise. . ."  The parents had good reason to watch for signs of excitability.  They had found it necessary to send her away from home for a month in the previous year after Emily had been permitted to witness for a few moments, at her own insistence, the approaching death of young Sophia Holland, a girl of her own age, and the story of that experience as Emily recounted it to Abiah in March 1846 goes far to explain the nature of the child.  Emily Dickinson's quest for the unknowable began at a very early age.
      The fascination of genius is in its paradox. Emily Dickinson was still a child, and on occasion of course acted childishly, but she was equipped even now with a substantial vocabulary, and had no diffi-







culty in filling what she rightly described as a "mammoth sheet" with her thoughts and feelings.  Such are discernibly the lines of force which made her the woman and poet she became.  She commented to Abiah in March 1847, in a context that looks back, and also forward to the Seminary she expects to enter in the fall: "I am always in love with my teachers."  The expression has that quality of candor and accurate self-evaluation which gives stature to Emily Dickinson as a person and a poet.  Throughout her life she turned for leadership to a "master."  After 1862 Higginson stood in that relation to her, as all her letters to him make emphatically clear. It was her feeling, certainly in part, about Dr. Wadsworth, and perhaps about others now undiscoverable.  But the need for a tutor or guide, who might conduct her in the manner Dante was led through the visions of a divine comedy, is the logical extension of all sentient being, and one especially needful to poets, who seek to translate mankind to greener pastures through the symbol of language.  Emily Dickinson's quest for a guide she expressed with admirable forthrightness to Higginson in August 1862. Without reticence and with clear self-appraisal she said: "I had no Monarch in my life, and cannot rule myself, and when I try to organize — my little Force explodes — and leaves me bare and charred —"
      The sensitivity was present from the beginning, but the poet was as yet unborn.  Her susceptibility to atmosphere invigorates the letters written in the late 1840's by pointing up the contrast of those written from home and those she wrote upon arrival at South Hadley.  Before she entered the Seminary she was still writing whimsically and dwelling upon recollection of past associations which she hopes a demand visit from Abiah Root or Jane Humphrey will recapture.  But the simple, factual accounts she wrote of her life at Mount Holyoke tell the inevitable story of youthful maturity. The disciplines of a good institutional experience are timeless.
      Homesickness increased as the year at Mount Holyoke advanced, and the strain within was one that both parents recognized, for her father decided not to send her back for a second year, or acceded to her wish to stay home.  It was typical of the Dickinson family not to accept any separation, even when it was for the good of the absent member.  Such a trait shows itself in the fact that when Austin went to law school he was on the end of a tether.  Home affairs, the an-







nual and cherished Cattle Show for instance, took precedence over his occupations elsewhere.  He could be sent for at any time.  With the independence characteristic of the Dickinsons, who paid little heed to other people's rules, Austin was late in arriving at Cambridge for his law school classes; though he was graduated with his class, he did not bother to be present to receive his diploma, choosing instead to accompany his mother, evidently at her request, to a reunion at Monson Academy.  "I think we miss each other more every day that we grow older," Emily wrote her brother on 8 April 1853, "for we are all unlike most everyone, and are therefore more dependent on each other for delight." During the same month she commented to him on some visiting cousins: "The Newmans seem very pleasant, but they are not like us. What makes a few of us so different from others? It's a question I often ask myself." It is a question to which she had unconsciously supplied the answer likewise during the same month: "I wish we were children now. I wish we were always children, how to grow up I dont know."  These were the years when she was signing her letters "Emilie."  To grow up meant to leave the clan.  The tie with the Norcross cousins, even in later years, gave an outlet to that side of her nature which persisted in the game of "little girlhood." "Did you know there had been a fire here," she wrote them on July fourth, 1879, "and that but for a whim of the wind Austin and Vinnie and Emily would have all been homeless? . . . Vinnie came soft as a moccasin, 'Don't be afraid, Emily, it is only the fourth of July.'  I did not tell that I saw it, for I thought if she felt it best to deceive, it must be that it was."
      The sense of being closely knit reveals itself also in the Dickinson habit of lampooning neighbors.  Though the quotations are Emily's words, the spirit is that of the clan. " 'Mrs Skeeter' [perhaps Mrs. Luke Sweetser] is very feeble," she wrote Austin in March 1852, "'cant bear Allopathic treatment, cant have Homeopathic' — dont want Hydropathic — Oh what a pickle she is in — should'nt think she would deign to live — it is so decidedly vulgar!"  As she grew older, she became more expert as a satirist.  "Libbie goes to Sunderland, Wednesday," she informed the Norcross cousins in October 1863, speaking of the redoubtable aunt Elizabeth, "for a minute or two; leaves here at 6 1/2 — what a fitting hour — and will breakfast the night before; such a smart atmosphere!  The trees stand right up straight when they







hear her boots, and will bear crockery wares instead of fruit, I fear.  She hasn't starched the geraniums yet, but will have ample time, unless she leaves before April."  On occasion the witticisms became sardonic, and, as her sister's are reported to have been, they are somewhat grim.  In a letter written to the Norcrosses in the same month she remarks: "No one has called so far, but one old lady to look at a house.  I directed her to the cemetery to spare expense of moving."
      There came a time in Emily Dickinson's life, very near her thirtieth year, when she deliberately chose never willingly to leave her home again.  The decision reflects itself clearly in the letters written after 1860.  Before then they are enthusiastic, some times ardently sentimental, and usually long.  Such is especially true of the letters written in the early fifties.  She easily took fright about her friendships which, because of their importance to her, seemed hazardous.  Her informality has charm during these years, but the protestations of affection and the repeated concern for Austin's health as well as for her own compel the reader to traverse arid stretches.  The fantastic letters in the early part of 1850 lead to the speculation that this might have been the period when she commenced in earnest to write poetry.  Benjamin Newton had left Amherst, but was not married.  He had sent her Emerson's poems and she was writing to him.  It was in 1858 that she began to assemble her poems into the small, thread-tied manuscript "volumes" or packets, and early in 1862 she felt enough assurance in her destiny to initiate her correspondence with T. W. Higginson.
      During these latter years she underwent a profound emotional change, which the letters vividly reflect.  Letters now became more important to her than they ever do to most people, since they were the sole means of escape from a self-elected incarceration.  They enabled her to control the time and the plane of her relationships.  The degree and nature of any intimacy was hers to choose. Henceforth the letters are composed with deliberation, each with the chosen recipient in mind, and it becomes clear that a letter written to Higginson, for instance, could never have been intended for Bowles or anyone else.  The letters are briefer because the thought is tersely ordered.  Many, if not most of them, were now written first in rough draft and then recopied.  Such is especially true of those she wrote in later years, often with cordial intimacy, to correspondents like Mrs. Todd or Professor Chickering whom she never met. And after she







came to accept Higginson's verdict in 1862 that her poetry was not for publication, they served as a conveyance for her poems.  They literally became her "letter to the world."

      Since Emily Dickinson's full maturity as a dedicated artist occurred during the span of the Civil War, the most convulsive era of the nation's history, one of course turns to the letters of 1861-1866, and the years that follow, for her interpretation of events.  But the fact is that she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current.  Walt Whitman projected himself into the world about him so intensely that not only the war but the nation itself is continuously the substance of his thought in prose and verse.  The reverse was true for Dickinson, to whom the war was an annoyance, a reality only when it was mirrored to her in casualty lists.  Such evidently was true in some degree for all the Dickinsons, since Austin, when drafted, exercised his privilege of paying the five-hundred-dollar fee to arrange for a substitute.  Emily wrote Mrs. Bowles in the summer of 1861: "I shall have no winter this year — on account of the soldiers — Since I cannot weave Blankets, or Boots — I thought it best to omit the season."  Only once again does she make any general allusion to this mighty conflict, the repercussions of which are clearly audible even after the lapse of a century.  "A Soldier called — ," she wrote Bowles just a year later, "a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle.  I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium."
      The attitude of mind that could prompt such shallow facetiousness can be understood in the light of her personal intent in living.  Years later, on the eve of the first election of President Cleveland, she made clear to Mrs. Holland the nature and extent of her concern with social history.  "Before I write to you again, we shall have had a new Czar. Is the Sister a Patriot? 'George Washington was the Father of his Country' — 'George Who?' That sums all Politics to me." The rejection of society as such thus shows itself to have been total, not only physically but psychically.  It was her kind of economy, a frugality she sought in order to make the most of her world; to focus, to come to grips with those universals which increasingly concerned her.

  When Emily Dickinson made use of current news in her letters, and she often did so, she employed it as part of the metaphor of her speech.  In thanking Theodore Holland for a sketch he sent her in the







summer of 1884, she acknowledged it with the comment: "I approve the Paint — a study of the Soudan, I take it, but the Scripture assures us our Hearts are all Dongola." She has in mind that the fate of General Gordon, whose headquarters were at Dongola in the Soudan, was in the balance, and that no man can foretell his fate.  She similarly employed quotations from scripture or from Shakespeare, not as embellishment but as pointed commentary on tense situations.  Taken by themselves, the words from Coriolanus which constitute one note to Sue in 1876 seem quite meaningless: "Doth forget that ever he heard the name of Death." But if Sue put the words in context, as she was expected to do, they constitute a tender note of apology for one whose quick tongue sometimes betrayed her stalwart heart, an apology perhaps in this case for her sister Lavinia.
      It is possible in the letters to discover something about the books and authors that gave the chiefest pleasure, and something too about the way poetry is written, but on the whole the comments are desultory, often cryptic, or enthusiastic.  She told Higginson in her second letter to him that among poets she admired Keats and the Brownings, among prose writers Ruskin and Sir Thomas Browne.  This does not go far, and omits Shakespeare, her truest master.  She singles out the book of Revelation in the Bible, yet it is but one of many books from that great repository which was her constant source of inspiration, allusion, and quotation.  Whitman, an innovator of the first order himself, she told Higginson that she had read nothing of, and the statement may have remained true throughout her life.  In the early years, Emerson, the Brontës, and Dickens were favorites; later she avidly awaited the appearance of a new novel by George Eliot, but she evinced no marked interest in her other contemporaries.  The striking originality, and on occasion profundity, of her own verse never reveals itself in the few critical assessments scattered through her letters.
      It is for a quite different reason that the letters attain stature.  They are the expression of her unique personality, and of a mind which could phrase the thought, "There is always one thing to be grateful for, — that one is one's self and not somebody else."  Though she never wrote about herself after adolescence, the letters nevertheless are always self-portraits, written by one who has observed herself frankly and with no self-pity or regrets.  Such indeed remains true whether the letter is penned to a child or an adult, to an intimate







or a casual acquaintance.  They validate another statement that, like the above, she made to Higginson, one which expresses the deliberateness with which she chose her way of living.  When he asked her whether, not even seeing visitors, she felt sorry not to have something to do, she answered: "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time."  She paused and added: "I feel that I have not expressed myself strongly enough."









      With the exception of letters presumably destroyed, all those which at the present time Emily Dickinson is known to have written are here assembled. The method of arrangement used in The Poems of Emily Dickinson the companion edition to these volumes of Letters, has been followed here.  As far as possible the letters are placed chronologically, each is numbered and is directly followed by data concerning manuscript location and publication history.  The explanatory notes for each letter briefly identify persons and events mentioned. (Recipients of letters and persons frequently named are more fully identified in the biographical sketches in Appendix 1.)  The source of literary allusions and quotations is given wherever it is known.
      Since Emily Dickinson rarely dated her letters after 1850, except by an occasional "Wednesday" or "Saturday," the dates that she gave are moved to the notes unless the day named is part of the significance of the communication (for example, letter no. 777).  Frequently internal evidence sets the date precisely. Often the date can be limited to a given week or month.  But sometimes an assigned date must derive solely from the evidence of handwriting, and such letters are therefore spoken of as having been written "about" a probable year. A detailed study of the "Characteristics of the Handwriting," written by Mrs. Ward, is set forth in the introduction to Poems xlix-lix, illustrated by twenty facsimile reproductions of the handwriting as it revealed itself over the years.  In instances where an autograph is missing, the text derives from the earliest published source, unless the note specifies otherwise.
      One feels virtually certain that more Dickinson letters will eventually come to light, though painstaking search over a period of several years has not turned them up.  Even so, there is little reason to expect that the number of undiscovered letters is large.  Many letters are known to be irrecoverable, and among them some that would be







especially interesting.  Such are the early letters written to Benjamin F. Newton, to George H. Gould, and to William H. Dickinson, letters which Mrs. Todd could not trace when she was preparing her edition of Letters of Emily Dickinson, published in 1894. 2 There were the letters to the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, almost certainly destroyed, and to others, whose names may not be known at present. Some now lost Mrs. Todd secured, at least from transcripts, during the 1890's.  The Norcross cousins, for instance, never showed Mrs. Todd the large number they had received over the years, but supplied copies of such extracts as they thought appropriate; all were destroyed at the time of Louise Norcross's death in 1919.  The present text of all such letters derives either from Letters of Emily Dickinson (ed. 1931) or from the Norcross transcripts themselves. 3
      The question of whether to publish letters written to Emily Dickinson never rose, because only a handful of such letters survived.  After Emily's death, Lavinia Dickinson destroyed almost all of them.  A few written by Helen Hunt Jackson, by the editor Thomas Niles, and by Thomas Wentworth Higginson were saved, or escaped destruction.  Because all were written by persons important to American letters in the nineteenth century, and clarify points in several Dickinson letters, they are here included.
      In round figures, some 1150 letters and prose fragments are included, and the texts of three-quarters of the number derives from Dickinson autographs. The remainder perforce reproduces the text of transcripts or of an earlier publication.  About one hundred letters are published for the first time, including almost all of the letters to Jane Humphrey, and to Mrs. J. Howard Sweetser.  This figure does not include those which derive from transcripts made by the recipient, such as those written to Catherine Scott Anthon and to Susan Dickinson.  Actually the new material is much more extensive than a

      2 See Ancestors' Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson, by Millicent Todd Bingham, New York, 1945, pages 254 and 263.  Mabel Loomis Todd fortuitously set herself the task of collecting the letters within the decade following the death of Emily Dickinson.  Many that survive today might well have been destroyed had she less systematically undertaken her labors. The story is told in detail by her daughter in Ancestors' Brocades, especially in the chapters "Collecting the Letters" (188-209), and "Emily's Correspondents" (247-266).
      3 spelling of Louise's nickname is here given as Loo (not Lou), since that is the spelling Emily Dickinson always used.







tabulation would show, for a very large number of letters were subject to extensive deletion when they were previously published.4
      All autograph letters are presented in their verbatim form.
      It is to be expected that autographs privately owned will change hands. Ownership is here ascribed as it was last known.
      Names of recipients are given and indexed as Emily Dickinson knew them when she was writing to them. Abiah Root and Jane Humphrey, for instance, were married after the correspondence with them had come to an end. All letters were written in Amherst except those for which the headings specify a different location.



       At the present time Dickinson autograph letter are located in about fourteen institutions.  Some two score individuals are known to possess one autograph or more.  Individuals are named in the list of acknowledgments and identified by last name in the notes of the

      4 The present editing of the letters to Abiah Root requires a special note. During the early 1890's Abiah Root Strong loaned almost all the letters that she had received from Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Todd, who made complete transcripts and then returned them to Mrs. Strong. When Mrs. Todd published Letters (1894), she omitted large portions from the letters to Abiah Root, in part at the request of the recipient, in part because some sections dwelt at length on schoolgirl news.
      Evidently Mrs. Todd made printer's copy by clipping out portions from the transcripts she had made, supplying the printer with the remainder. When she prepared the second edition (1931), she restored some of the omitted portions.  Among her papers in the Bingham collection (AC) is an envelope filled with the portions still unused.
      This edition reproduces the 1931 edition of the text of those letters to Abiah Root for which no autograph is known.  It does not incorporate the text of the remaining clippings into the body of the letters, because the position cannot be exactly determined, and because the association of a clipping with a given letter is at best conjecture.  Most of her omissions Mrs. Todd noted with dots, but not all, and not always at the right place. They therefore are placed separately, and at the end of letters no. 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, 14, 69, and 91. Of the two remaining letters to Abiah Root for which no autographs are known, no.15 appears to be complete as published in 1931, and no. 23 may be complete with the additional paragraph which now follows it.
      Since Mrs. Strong could not recall the names of many of her schoolmates, when she discussed the letters with Mrs. Todd (see AB 188-189, 206-209), it is impossible to be sure of identification now. For instance, Sarah Gray, Sarah Taylor, and Sarah S. T. may all have been the same Sarah - namely, Sarah Tracy.  Blank spaces indicate words which Mrs. Todd could not decipher, and therefore left blank.



[This transcription omits the next sections in which Johnson identifies the symbols used to identify the manuscripts and the publications.]