Emily Dickinson, Hunter S. Thompson: The Books Briefing


The Raw Power of Correspondence: Your Weekly Guide to the Best of Books

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“Mr. Higginson,” wrote a solitary and unpublished 31-year-old poet to a Atlantic contributor – a man she had never met – in 1862. “Are you too busy to tell if my verse is alive?” The mind is so close to itself that it cannot see distinctly, and I have nothing to ask.

The letter, with its quaint phrases and handwriting that almost looked like bird tracks, was unsigned and accompanied by a card tucked away in a smaller envelope. The name on the card was Emily Dickinson. As Martha Ackmann recounts in Those feverish days: ten key moments in the making of Emily Dickinson, the letter sparked a long-term correspondence and when Dickinson and its recipient finally met eight years later, she spoke with all the confidence of a writer sharing a literary manifesto.

Literary letters can give us new perspectives on the development of authors we thought we already knew well, or can sometimes cause us to think about their work in a new way. The letters of Hunter S. Thompson show a man who is “tough, compulsive, vengeful, wickedly funny and distended by the greatness of true despair,” writes my colleague James Parker – who has finally found in them a way to understand “the interrogative. huge and thrilling that is America. By their nature, many posthumously published collections are unpolished early drafts, albeit by talented writers. Yet correspondence can offer raw honesty and practical advice in the face of existential crises such as aging, and is its own literary tradition. Black writers in particular have found open letter essays to be an effective vehicle for activism and sharing survival tactics with loved ones, as Emily Lordi notes in a review by Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times. There seems to be a power inherent in the medium – a power that cannot be moved by, and in fact will likely survive, today’s group text.

In addition to this, you will need to know more about it.Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we slip together Atlantic stories about books that share similar ideas. Do you know of any other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward this email to them.

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What we read

James Baldwin sits in an office in front of a typewriter

Author James Baldwin popularized the essay letter as a personal political form. (Associated press)

The intimate political power of the open letter

“These works are intended for family and friends… [and] detail the psychic effects of racial oppression, often including fear for perpetrators and their children. In different ways, these letters balance two goals: to enlighten the outside world and, perhaps more importantly, to share survival and resistance tactics with parents and anyone who might need them.

Torn photographs show eyes of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Higginson

Universal History Archives / Mondadori Portfolio / Getty / The Atlantic

The meeting that revealed another side of Emily Dickinson

“In her letters,” Higginson had remarked, “she no longer signed her name on a card slipped inside the envelope – a game played out as much by effect as by reluctance. The insignificant signatures of “Your Gnome” and “Your Scholar” were also largely missing. Now she signed her name with one word: “Dickinson. This is what she had become.

💻Emily Dickinson’s Letters, by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published in Atlantic in 1891
💻Unpublished letters from Emily Dickinson, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published in Atlantic in 1915

Hunter S. Thompson sits in front of a typewriter

Paul Harris / Getty

Letters from Hunter S. Thompson to his enemies

“Thompson’s letters teach the lesson: Decades later, it’s the same America – America with the raised baton, the shaking convention hall, the booming bike engine, the canceled credit card and the impossible dream.

portraits of three authors superimposed on a handwriting background

Hulton Deutsch / Bettmann / AFP / Stringer / Getty / Library of Congress / The Atlantic

Finding wisdom in the letters of aging writers

“As 21st century writers have moved from letter writing to e-mail, a specific literary tradition seems to have come to an end, one that offered a slower, more meditative, and more written microscope in all aspects. of life, including the aging process … There is a lot of practical and intellectual advice to be gleaned from spending time with imaginative and highly articulate individuals as they face the existential realities of disease, decline productivity, the death of friends, guilt and, finally, the abandonment of cherished activities and passions.

About Us: This week’s newsletter is written by Mary Stachyra Lopez. The book she reads next is It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel.

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Helen L. Cuellar

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