The Dark Mystery of Emily Dickinson’s “Master” Letters

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One of the enduring mysteries of American literature is a series of three letters drafted by Emily Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” There is no evidence that he letters—written between 1858 and 1862 and discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886–were ever sent, although they may have been drafts of versions that were posted. No one knows to whom they were intended. Perhaps the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (they had a correspondence, none of which survives), or Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield and a family friend, or a professor named William Smith Clarke. Or perhaps they are not to a person at all, but to God. Or the Devil. For nearly twenty years I’ve taught Dickinson and the Master Letters in my early American literature course, always hoping to come closer to the source of the mystery. Instead, just the opposite has happened. The mystery has deepened. The more I study them, the more we hash them out in class, the longer the shadows grow and deepen over their meaning.

1. Here is the opening passage and some lines from near the end of the second Master letter, probably from around late 1861 or early 1862. The letter was written in pencil. I’ve indicated Dickinson’s crossed-out lines with a strikethrough, and her inserted words in brackets:

Oh—did I offend it—Didn’t want me to tell it the truth Daisy—Daisy—offend it—who bends her smaller life to his [it’s] meeker [lower] every day—who only asks—a task who something to do for love of it—some little way she cannot guess to make that master glad.

A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm—

*     *     *

Oh how the sailor strains, when his boat is filling—Oh how the dying tug, till the angel comes. Master—open your life wide, and take [in] me in forever, I will never be tired—I will never be noisy when you want to be still—I will be [glad as the] your best little girl—nobody else will see me, but you—but that is enough—I shall not want any more—and all that Heaven will prove [only] disappoint me will be [because] it’s not so dear.

2. The obvious readings of the letters as being to an actual person make sense because this makes sense. To us. But not necessarily to Dickinson or the people of her time. The letters conjure something, something wonderful or terrible. Master. That word, which in 1861 had all sorts of meanings attached to it. Masters and servants, masters and slaves. God the Master. And Master, the Devil. In 1694, a little more than a year after the Salem witch trials had ended, a new case emerged involving a girl named Margaret Rule. Robert Calef, a Baptist cloth merchant from Boston who was critical of Cotton Mather and other clergy who had participated in the Salem events, visited the girl at her house and was present when Cotton Mather and his father Increase visited the house to question Margaret and where, among things, a “Master” was discussed. Although he completed More Wonders of the Invisible World in 1696 (the title is a play and a jab at Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World) he couldn’t find a publisher until 1700. The book was publicly burned at Harvard by Increase Mather:

Question (asked by Cotton Mather): What, do there a great many witches sit upon you?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Do you not know that there is a hard Master? Then she was in a Fit; he laid his hand upon her Face and Nose, but, as he said, without perceiving Breath; then he brush’d her on the Face with his Glove, and rubb’d her Stomach (her breast not covered with the Bed-cloaths) and bid others do so too, and said it eased her, then she revived.

Question: Don’t you know there is a hard Master?

Answer: Yes.

Reply: Don’t serve that hard Master, you know who.

The title page to "More Wonders of the Invisible World" (1700) by Robert Calef (from the University of Glasgow Library)

3. In the third letter to Master, Dickinson wrote:

I heard of a thing called “Redemption”—which rested men and women—You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else—I forgot the Redemption in the Redeemed—I did’nt for a long time—but I knew you had altered me—I [and] was tired—no more—so dear did this stranger become, that were it, or my breath—the alternative—I had tossed the fellow awa with a smile.

4. The speaker of the letters refers to herself, in the third person, as Daisy. “Would Daisy disappoint you—no—she would’nt—Sir” she writes in the third letter, a pet name that was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. These are the only surviving Dickinson letters that use Daisy as a name like this. The flower is beautiful, but was also considered a weed-like pest. In The American Farmer’s Encyclopedia, from 1858, there is this entry on the daisy:

DAISY, COMMON, or DAY’S EYE (Bellis perennis). These large white gawky-looking flowers are so universal in English pastures and meadows, that description is almost needless. They flower all the year, principally dotting the meadows in early May. . .Domestic cattle rarely touch this plant. Notwithstanding its beauty and its celebration by poets, the daisy is thought a blemish or intruder in neat grass-plats, and can be overcome by perpetual stubbing only.

The title page to "The American Farmers Enclycopedia" (1858) by Gouverneur Emerson (from The Internet Archive)

5. There is this, near the end of the third letter:

What would you do with me if I came “in white”? Have you the little chest—to put the alive—in? 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.

Why “altered a little”? She has injected mystery into mystery with those words. Because it is finally the odd cadences, the tense changes, the weird ghosts and fragments of thoughts and ideas that make the Master letters fresh and unsettling and radical in ways that, thank goodness, cannot be tamed. They escape all sorts of boundaries. Are they letters, or poems disguised as letters? If words could be gears, the Master letters would be a machine. It’s hard to tell when sentences end and begin, the words interlocking briefly and then falling away from each other. “What would you do with me if I came ‘in white’? Have you the little chest—to put the alive—in?” Probably written in the summer of 1861, the line is a sort of weird, refracted, reverse-image of the looming violence of the Civil War. The first major battle of that war—the First Battle of Bull Run—was fought in Virginia in July 1861. There were more casualties in that battle than any previous in American history.

“Have you the little chest—to put the alive—in?” Not the dead. That was Whitman’s province.

The “alive.”

A photograph of the aftermath of The First Battle of Bull Run (from The Library of Congress)

6. In the first Master letter, dating from spring 1858, there are these teasing, conjuring lines:

You ask me what my flowers said—then they were disobedient—I gave them messages—

It’s not just the content that’s arresting (“what my flowers said”) but the syntax, which seems to bend and twist time. Does “then” in “then they were disobedient” mean something like “back then the flowers were disobedient”? Or maybe “afterwards they were disobedient”? We slip between the cracks of Dickinson’s words, into some other world, hinted at, glimpsed, pulsing just beneath the surface of everything.

A fascimile of one of the Master letters (from "The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson," edited by R.W. Franklin)


Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →