In 1862, Emily Dickinson, one of the most innovative poets of the 19th century, ventured a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor, writer, and longtime contributor to the Atlantic Monthly who would become her long-time correspondent and mentor. She asked, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Long perceived as a recluse who wrote purely in isolation, Dickinson in reality maintained many dynamic correspondences throughout her lifetime and specifically sought out dialogues on her poetry. These correspondences—both professional and private—reveal a poet keenly aware of the interdependent relationship between poet and reader.
Similarly, Dickinson's letters expose a poet fully engaged in the process of crafting a persona. In another note to Higginson in the first year of their correspondence, Dickinson wrote, "When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person." For students of writing, who often struggle to develop a distinctive voice, and then to modify that voice for different audiences, Dickinson's dialogues offer an instructive model. Ultimately, reading Emily Dickinson's letters alongside her poems helps students to better appreciate a remarkable voice in American literature, grasp how Dickinson perceived herself and her poetry, and-perhaps most relevant to their own endeavors—consider the ways in which a writer constructs a "supposed person."
In this curriculum unit, students will explore Dickinson's poetry as well as her letters to Higginson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. They will work individually and in groups to reflect on Dickinson's views and the process by which she writes; assume the role of a critic/correspondent and analyze Dickinson's poetry, specifically noting the effectiveness of her persona; and, finally, emulate her writing style while, at the same time, synthesizing what they've learned about poetic voice in a poetry-writing exercise on "There's a certain Slant of light."