Emily and Otis sittin’ in a tree…


During today’s class we were asked to discuss what kinds of things stuck out to us in our recent reading of ED’s letters from 1866-1883. When we got back to large group a lot of us talked about ED’s views on death and immortality, what her letters showed about her domesticity and what she felt and thought about her family and home. But one of the major topics I don’t think our class touched upon was ED’s letters to Judge Otis Lord. Alyssa was in my small group and seemed to be thoroughly annoyed (correct me if I’m wrong!) by these letters. I agree with her sentiments. They were just like the Master letters, in that she sounded way to desperate and whiny. None of us want to picture our bff Emily Dickinson this way! But this connection got me thinking… Why were Emily’s letters to Sue, Otis, and the unknown “Master” so different than all the rest? Why is she taking on this persona we don’t like for only certain letters. This does not seem like something she would do. I was just wondering what other people’s thoughts were about this or just about the Judge Otis letters in general.



Ryan’s Bridge to the Blog: Dickinson’s “Master” Letters


In class today, I think Alyssa initiated a compelling discussion when she expressed her discomfort and disappointment with Dickinson’s surprisingly self-subjugating tone in the “Master” letters.  Prof. Scanlon complicated this reading though, by referring to passages in the third and fourth paragraphs of letter 233, in which Dickinson challenges her Master, revealing that she is not telling him everything about herself and suggesting that if merely the markers of their gender–his beard and her petals–were reversed, the power dynamics of their relationship would also reverse.

So what do we do here?  Do we read Dickinson’s servile tone as genuine passive submission?  Or do we read it as performative feminism that seeks to, in Salska’s words, “seduce” the Master into Dickinson’s confidence with seeming servility?

In reading over the letters again, I tend to fall on the side of Alyssa’s initial reaction, mostly because of one particularly cringe-worthy passage in the last paragraph of  letter 248, when Dickinson writes:  “Master – open your life wide, and take 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 anymore – and all that Heaven only will disappoint me – will be because it’s not so dear.”

While the concluding lines of this passage are reminiscent of Dickinson’s correspondence with Sue, in even the most passionate of those letters, Dickinson never suggests a willingness to subjugate her will to Sue’s as she does to her Master’s here.  What’s troubling me more than anything else is the line about her own poetic voice, where Dickinson proclaims that she will “never be noisy” when her Master wants her to be still.   In a sense, this claim appears to contradict the defiant Vesuvius line that Scanlon drew our attention to in letter 233.

But on the other hand, there’s a quote in the Salska article that reminded me of Scanlon’s comment about Bakhtinian  theory and provides a helpful frame for maybe understanding some of the inconsistencies of tone and voice in ED’s correspondence, particularly the “Master” letters.

“Recent studies of Dickinson’s letters seek to demonstrate that, nourished by a culture of intimacy of which the letter was a primary vehicle, the poet formulated principles of her poetics in the course of her intense and extended correspondence. Her poetry and her correspondence are founded on the epistemological resistance to “closure in all its forms” and on the primacy of the intimate but dialogic, not monologic, voice, a base from which other stylistic affinities between her poetry and prose derive” (Salska 165).

Here, Salska suggests that we follow the same guiding principle we’ve been using to read her poetry–the avoidance of “closure in all forms”–in parsing out her letters.   Salska also cautions against the search for THE EMILY DICKINSON in her letters, instead advocating the reading of her various tones–the strong-willed feminist and the submissive love-slave–as fluctuating personas that dialogue with her various confidants.

So I guess we can have our Dickinson Black Cake and eat it too, right?  Or is this kind of a cop-out?  What do you guys think?

On another note, since there’s only one Dickinson hat and lots of awesome things happening in class, I thought I’d take the liberty of creating a few more daily blog-only awards:

Choke of the Day: Matt, for realizing after reading an entire letter out loud that he had actually chosen the wrong one to read.

Class MVP: Matt again, for penetrating said letter with deep insight anyway, but mostly for passing around a bag of runts.

Quote of the Day: “I kissed a girl and I liked it?  Isn’t that the name of some stupid song?”  –Scanlon, demonstrating her formidable knowledge of pop culture feminist criticism.



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