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Which Writer’s Letters Are Most Worth Reading?

Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848.


SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW, The New York Times, DEC. 2, 2014


Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Dana Stevens and Francine Prose discuss what they consider the most worthwhile literary letters.

By Dana Stevens

Whoever the letters’ intended addressee may have been, it’s the poet Emily Dickinson who’s the true Master.


Dana Stevens CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

There’s something both sacred and profane about reading the love letters of a favorite writer. In the intimate realm of amorous correspondence — letters not crafted for posterity but dashed off in the heat of passion or the anguish of longing — the reader sees an author at his or her most rhetorically naked, pushed up against the limits of the same language he or she usually deploys with such mastery. A great literary love letter feels like something no one but the intended recipient should be reading, yet it often shows the writer’s talents at the height of their power. And to the degree a reader believes that an author’s life and writing should be kept separate, the love letter serves as a puzzling test case: Is it a biographical artifact or a crafted literary work?

It’s hard to think of a cache of love letters more tightly bound up with the poetic process of their author than the three enigmatic “Master letters” of Emily Dickinson, written between 1858 or so and 1862 to an unknown addressee whose much-debated identity is a perennial literary detective story and parlor game. Two of the most likely candidates,if only for a lack of disqualifying evidence, appear to be the Rev. Charles Wadsworth and the newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, both married men who befriended the Dickinson family close to the time the letters were written. This was also the period of Dickinson’s great creative flowering, when she first began creating the hand-sewn books, known as “fascicles,” in which her sister Lavinia would discover many of the nearly 1,800 poems left after her death. Since the manuscripts of the letters that remain are much-crossed-out first drafts, there’s no way of knowing whether fair copies were ever sent — meaning that whoever the real Master was, posterity may have intercepted his love letter.

Contemporary scholarship on Dickinson (notably Susan Howe’s remarkable book “My Emily Dickinson”) has tended to downplay the hoary biographical debate about the true identity of the Master, focusing instead on the glittering strangeness of the letters themselves. The speaker — who refers to herself in the third person as “Daisy,” a pet name Dickinson appears to have bestowed on herself only here — veers wildly from the depths of romantic abjection to the heights of grandiose sovereignty, interrupting herself every few words with those same omnipresent dashes that populate her poetry. In the third and weirdest of the letters, her syntax breaks down almost completely in an outpouring of disjointed, elliptical phrases that could each be the beginning of a different (and great) Emily Dickinson poem: “I used to think when I died — I could see you — so I died as fast as I could — “; “What would you do with me if I came ‘in white’? Have you the little chest to put the Alive — in?”

For me, the Master letters’ enduring fascination comes from the site they occupy at the convergence of private document and poetic first draft. They offer a thrilling glimpse into the mind of the writer around age 30, when she was just beginning to harness the force of her own genius — and for all her ostentatious humility and at times sentimental cajolery, “Daisy” is well aware of the power her pen is beginning to wield, even if the only one reading the letter is her. Writing on the third Master letter, Howe astutely notes Dickinson’s “brilliant masking and unveiling, her joy in the drama of pleading.” Whoever their intended addressee may have been, it’s the poet Emily Dickinson who’s the true Master. But at the same time, these strange missives are unmistakably the work of a flesh-and-blood woman undone by longing — and not a longing for Jesus or the abstract notion of redemption, as some interpretations would have it, but love for an unattainable flesh-and-blood man. You don’t generally invite an abstract notion up to Amherst for a summer visit, or ask after his health or beg him to take you “where Sundown cannot find us — and the true keep coming — till the town is full.” Then again, with Emily Dickinson, you never know.

Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.


Cover of the first edition of Poems, published in 1890


By Francine Prose

Kafka’s letters to Felice provide an exhaustive and intimate account of one of the more twisted love affairs in literary history.

Francine Prose CreditIllustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Somewhere among my papers is an advertisement I received more than 25 years ago. The envelope, which arrived in the mail, contained a prospectus from a subscription service offering me a chance to get Kafka’s letters to Felice mailed to me, in care of Felice, or maybe the letters would be addressed to Felice, in care of me.

The correspondence between Franz Kafka and Felice Bauer — to whom he was twice engaged, an engagement twice broken off — began in September 1912, shortly after they met at the Prague apartment of Kafka’s friend Max Brod. A distant relation of Brod’s by marriage, Felice lived in Berlin, where she worked as a secretary. After Felice had admired some snapshots of Kafka’s recent vacation, the conversation turned to Palestine, and by the end of the evening Kafka and Felice had shaken hands on the promise that they would travel there together — the following year! That journey never occurred; it was never going to occur. The letters — more than 500 of them in the volume that appeared after Felice sold the letters to Schocken in 1955, three decades after Kafka’s death — were what happened instead of the voyage to Palestine.

The point of the subscription service was that I would get the letters (Kafka’s letters, Felice’s having been lost) in the order and at the frequency that Felice received them from Kafka. Among the plan’s selling points was its designer’s knowledge of the postal system in Prague and Berlin in the early 20th century. At that time it was often possible to get mail more than once a day, so if Felice got two letters on a certain day, I would get two letters; if she got none, I would get none. If she got a postcard, I would get a postcard.

I didn’t subscribe, and now I’m sorry — sort of. Because now, as then, I wonder: Why would anyone want that?

If the service had worked as promised, would its subscribers have come to share Felice’s worries and doubts, her anxieties about the mail: Will Franz write to me today? Will he punish me with silence? Will he besiege me with prying questions about the most personal aspects of daily life, insistent requests to tell him everything I’ve eaten all week? And what bizarre mood will he be in? Will he accuse me bitterly of not understanding his work? Will he complain about his physical health, his mental suffering, the myriad ways in which his compulsion to write will forever prevent him from leading a normal life: marriage, children, Sunday lunches, domestic happiness?

Would I have been tempted to cancel my subscription after receiving the second letter, dated Sept. 28, 1912, in which Kafka wrote: “Oh, the moods I get into, Fräulein Bauer! A hail of nervousness pours down upon me continuously. What I want one minute I don’t want the next. When I have reached the top of the stairs, I still don’t know the state I shall be in when I enter the apartment.” And would my decision have been affected by the knowledge that between writing the first letter and the second, Kafka sat down and composed, in a single night, one of his masterpieces, “The Judgment”?

Kafka’s letters to Felice provide an exhaustive and intimate account of one of the more twisted love affairs in literary history. They tell us as much as any biography about Kafka’s struggles, his character, his relations with his family, his hopes and fears for his work.

For readers who have always secretly wanted to conduct an intense and hopeless romance with one of the world’s greatest writers — and world-class neurotics — let me recommend these letters. You can experience the highs and lows of such an affair without having to fend off the inappropriate questions, or make dates that your fiancé will fail to keep, or experience the stress and hurt feelings that Felice Bauer must have suffered — as it turned out, on our behalf.


Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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