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Feature

Dear Master

– Terry Y. Allen

Emily Dickinson, illustration
Historian Ruth Owen Jones digs into the unsolved mystery of Emily Dickinson’s passionate “Master letters.” Was William Smith Clark, UMass’ founding president, the intended recipient? (illustration by Elizabeth Pols)
MYSTERY EMBEDDED IN THE LIFE and work of the poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is the identity of a man to whom she wrote three passionate letters. The Master letters are actually drafts, written when Dickinson was about 30. They were discovered after her death at age 55 by her beloved sister, Lavinia. The poet had stored them with other correspondence and 1,789 unpublished poems in a bedroom chest in the Dickinson Homestead in Amherst.

Dickinson’s biographer, the late Richard Sewall, called the letters “extraordinary human documents, at once baffling and breathtaking.” He believed they show us the poet at “a crucial point in her life,” when she had just been through a crisis – “probably a love crisis.”

Emily Dickinson in love. And, the letters suggest, in love with a married man who lived outside New England.

Over the years, scholars have proposed several candidates for the Master. The most popular have been the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a Philadelphia clergyman, and Samuel Bowles, a Springfield newspaper editor.

Now there is a new candidate. In The Emily Dickinson Journal (November 2002) historian Ruth Owen Jones M.A. ’86 makes a strong case for Professor William Smith Clark as the poet’s “muse and audience from 1857 until 1865.” Jones believes Dickinson wrote hundreds of poems for him, including those she hand-stitched into little booklets, known as fascicles. Further, Jones believes that Dickinson’s love for Clark “explains most of her reclusive behavior, much about her poetry and letters, and why her work was so severely censored by her family before being published.”

A contemporary historian wrote that Clark (1826-1886) was “personally and socially attractive, a brilliant talker, a good listener. . . the life of the social circle, the faculty meeting, the gathering at the corner of the streets, the legislative hall or the popular assembly.” Clark was a founder and the first sitting president of Massachusetts Agricultural College, now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. At the invitation of the Japanese government, he also founded a college in Hokkaido modeled on Mass Aggie. Clark was the first Amherst College graduate to earn a Ph.D. In 1852 he was hired by his alma mater to teach botany, zoology and chemistry. As Colonel Clark of the Twenty-first Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteers, he was Amherst’s greatest Civil War hero. Upon his triumphal return in 1863, he was elected to the State House.


FOR THE PAST SEVEN YEARS, Jones has been researching Clark’s life. For her biography she has uncovered hundreds of unknown documents, and scoured local newspaper archives, finding much that has been overlooked in Clark and Dickinson scholarship. So far, she has found no correspondence between the two. “Lavinia burned her correspondence, as Emily wished, but not the Master letters, which may never have been sent,” Jones says.

Absent a “smoking gun,” Jones has established that as a near neighbor, family friend and distant relation, Clark would surely have known Emily. He had been at Amherst College with Emily’s brother, Austin. The families belonged to the First Congregational Church. Clark would have socialized with the Austin Dickinsons, who included Emily in their circle. When he married, Clark lived on the hill behind The Homestead and may have taken the well-worn shortcut across the Dickinson properties on his way to teach at the college.

Jones first began to suspect that Clark might be the Master when she was doing research for a book about Dickinson’s flower poems. Unusually for her time, Dickinson used scientific language in writing about flowers.

“I know she studied botany at Mount Holyoke, but I tried to learn who else in the town besides Emily was a serious gardener,” Jones recalls. Then she noticed, in Views of Amherst, an 1857 lithograph, a greenhouse attached to the Clarks’ house. The greenhouse, Jones has ascertained, was filled with “the most exotic plants [Clark] could find from all over the world. By the 1860’s he had over 100 varieties of peonies in his garden, a fountain, and a water-lily pond.”

In her 20’s Emily may have audited some of Clark’s classes at Amherst College. In 1871, Clark was lobbying for coeducation at Mass Aggie. Jones has learned that in defense of this radical idea, Clark said that women had regularly attended his classes in the 1850’s.

Much of the language of the Master letters was about flowers. Jones writes: “The recipient clearly was knowledgeable in the field. In the Master letters Emily was his Daisy; she had sent him flowers, and he asked her what they meant. She wrote love poems with erotic undertones: ‘Did the harebell loose her girdle/To the lover Bee.’”

Though she is proficient in computer technology, Jones keeps chronological records of facts about her subjects on 4- by 6-inch cards in shoeboxes – now numbering five. By reading Clark’s life chronologically against Dickin-son’s during the Civil War, Jones concludes that he might well have been the absent Master, the man to whom she asked in the third letter, “Could you come to New England – would you come to Amherst?” Jones says Dickinson’s strange phrase, “I had a terror – since September,” in a letter to the Boston editor, Thomas Higginson, might refer to Clark’s disappearance en route to Annapolis for training. For three weeks, people in Amherst thought he had been kidnapped or killed by snipers.

Jones’ chronology shows that the making of the fascicles coincides exactly with several of Clark’s absences and that Dickinson sought eye treatment in Cambridge while Representative Clark was in Boston on government business. Extensive wordplay on the name Will – “Whippowil,” “Sweet William,” etc. – in the poet’s letters and work between 1857 and 1865 may be coded references.


JONES SUSPECTS THAT DICKINSON'S LOVE was found out. Knowing that a woman in love with a married man would face censure in pious Amherst, Dickinson withdrew from the social world. “People have thought Emily was a nutty recluse. If the Master was Clark, then she seems more sane, more rational, more in charge of her life.” By dropping out, Dickinson avoided public scrutiny as well as the bothersome responsibilities that came with being an unmarried daughter of the town’s leading citizen. “The Dickinson house was always full of people. Emily was tired of answering the door for her father’s associates,” says Jones. “Now she could garden, write,” occasionally entertain a favored visitor.

“We may never know the identity of the Master,” Jones continues. “Papers could turn up. Or a shoebox of Emily Dickinson’s letters.” She sighs, for of course that is the dream of all Dickinson scholars. “Clark is a candidate, another possibility. I hope people will argue with me about him for the next 20 or 30 years. That’s what scholarship is, isn’t it?”


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