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One of the enduring mysteries of American literature are a series of three letters drafted by Emily Dickinson to someone she called “Master.” The letters—written between 1858 and 1862—were never sent, and were discovered shortly after Dickinson’s death in 1886. 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...

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

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