Emily Dickinson was a great letter writer, in all senses of the word. In fact one gets the impression that she actually preferred writing to people, than meeting and conversing with them, and for her the arrival of a letter was a great event. A letter was something she looked forward to with keen anticipation, and which she savored to the full whenever one arrived.
Although the present collection of letters may seem large, the truth is that it represents only a small proportion of the letters Emily Dickinson actually wrote. She was an inveterate letter-writer, had many correspondents, and wrote thousands of letters. And people in those days collected letters just as today.
Unfortunately it was the custom, whenever anyone died, to make a bonfire of all of their correspondence, probably because of its confidential and personal nature. In this way thousands of pages of Emily Dickinson's writings have been lost to posterity, and we would know much more aboute the details of her day-to-day life, and be able to date her poems more accurately, if it hadn't been for this sad loss.
Just how great the loss is may be gaged by taking a look at the way Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith have treated her letters in Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Whereas Thomas Johnson prints all of ED's letters as straight prose, which of course leads us to read them as straight prose, Hart-Smith give us the letters as they actually appear in the original draft - not as continous lines of prose but as very short lines with numerous line breaks - in other words, as poetry.
It would seem that many of ED's 'letters' are not so much letters as 'letter-poems,' and when read as poems produce a remarkable range of effects that are lost when all line breaks are removed and the letter is regularized as straight prose. The loss of her letters now begins to look much more serious, for the feeling seems to be growing amomg readers that the letters were every bit as great an artistic achievement as her poems.
Although there have been a number of books offering selections from ED's letters, so far as I know, Thomas H. Johnson, the well-known editor of the first Variorum edition of 'The Poems of Emily Dickinson (3 vols, Cambridge, 1955), is the only person to have given us a fairly complete edition of the letters.
As such, this becomes a book that belongs in the collection of all serious students of ED, although before reading it they might (if they haven't already) take at look at the Hart-Smith, and while reading the Johnson keep it in mind. One wonders how much poetry may be lurking unrecognized in the regularized lines of 'The Letters of Emily Dickinson.'