An appraisal of this great figure's work is incomplete without a good look at these selected letters. As fascinating to the Dickinson scholar as they are to the casual enthusiast, Dickinson's letters -- along with those of Keats or Hopkins -- prove that this is every bit as legitimate a genre as fiction or poetry. Some of Dickinson's most gorgeous and enduring statements are here, and to read these in chronological order is to map the gradual development of America's premier woman poet. Even in a letter she wrote at 12-years-old, the idiosyncratic dashes with which she distinguished her poetic voice are abundant, and already have that effect of forcing the reader to savor clusters of words as they unravel down the page. Similarly, Dickinson's mind-blowing instinct for the staggering metaphor is in full gear throughout ("Vinnie came soft as a moccasin") and, for all her great death poetry, it is in a letter regarding the death of her father where we find perhaps her most vulnerable and moving confrontation with mortality:
"Father does not live with us now -- he lives in a new house. Though it was built in an hour it is better than this. He hasn't any garden because he moved after gardens were made, so we take him the best flowers, and if we only knew he knew, perhaps we could stop crying."
Perhaps most fascinating of all, though, is the mixture of extremes Dickinson's personality manifests throughout these letters, a crude bluntness that mingles with the most tender innocence. She at once condemns a cousin's valentine as "A little condescending, & sarcastic, your Valentine to me, I thought" and begins another missive with the exuberant mysticism of a child speaking as if out of some fairytale: "I wanted to write, and just tell you that me, and my spirit were fighting this morning. It isn't known generally, and you musn't tell anybody." Of course, this book also includes that characteristically bizarre and unforgettable final letter, which she wrote while suffering from the illness that would take her life just days later: "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily." Especially enjoyable about this particular volume are the endnotes with which the editor follows up most letters. These brief but informed observations offer a fascinating and thorough glimpse into Dickinson's reading life, while also helping to illuminate her more obscure autobiographical allusions. This book is as fascinating an odyssey as Dickinson's complete poems, and I think readers do themselves a great service by delving into these letters alongside that more celebrated aspect of her genius. - Gianmarco Manzione
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