Letters from Emily Dickinson: 'Will you be my preceptor?'

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."

Guiding Questions

How does Emily Dickinson perceive herself as a poet, especially as reflected by her correspondences with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson?

 

In what ways does this perception manifest itself in her poetry?

Learning Objectives

Recognize Emily Dickinson's poetic style

Engage in textual analysis and critical thinking

Reflect upon the concept of artistic persona and the creative process

Adjust their writing style to different purposes

 

Use imaginative writing techniques