Sample Application to a Literature Program

The following is a copy of a successful application to the Ph.D program at the University of Iowa from a student who graduated from Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri, with a degree in English. A copy of the actual application is available in the English Department office

Statement of Purpose for Taking Graduate Work |TOP|
I wish to study American literature and culture, particularly fiction and non-fiction prose of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My career goal is to teach at the university level and research the relationship between literature and culture.

Personal Statement |TOP|
Writers and politicians who would attempt to lead Americans to a sense of national identity must do so tentatively, respectful of the individualistic spirit that resists grouping unless assured the right to withdraw from any association that unduly infringes on self-determination. Technological advances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reordered society in ways that threatened this individualism, which had drawn Americans together within a sense of shared independence. Industrialization stimulated urbanization, with people coming closer to each other and to their machines in an uneasy relationship that strained the boundaries between public and private life. The literary project of capturing the American spirit, as attempted by Walt Whitman, now contended with depersonalized systems of mass production and commerce that dimmed the prospects of self-autonomy. The conceptual geography of America, originally considered by the settlers as the promised "New Eden," was remapped as a land whose riches would be reaped in the cities and factories. Highly concentrated populations, seeking a return to the possibilities of frontier individualism, traversed the country at higher speeds and communicated at farther distances. As the tools of human progress facilitated contact, people were least in touch with their country and each other.

The Naturalist movement presented the self as an animal-machine, living in the greater machine of human society. The dreary fiction of Frank Norris exhibits humanity deprived of its rationality, as with McTeague, whose inner mechanics chart the course of his downfall, while Upton Sinclair exposes the savagery of the overreaching societal jungle that ensnares its citizens like caged animals. This vision of a dispirited America applies well to our present era, in which no clear sense of American identity exists apart from the computers and circuitry that carry us and our meanings. Rather than advance understanding, tools of creation and communication, when relied on too heavily, can degenerate human reasoning to the irrationality of instinct and mechanism. Consequently, we often look to the machine to show us the next step, rather than redesign the wheel that no longer turns.

The ways in which humanity's creations, mechanical and conceptual, both empower and govern their makers is of central importance to me. I have witnessed attempts to bring people closer together through electronic communications as direct as they are distant, just as I have read literary works far removed from the problems within the world of their origin. In dealing with writers who describe the predicament of the individual in a specific time and place, I wish to evaluate the historical and social contexts of language that affect both culture and literature. As a method of self-creation, literature often serves as the provider of meaning, such that the literature in a time of crisis bears special importance. Ours is a time of crisis, I believe, and looking at past writers' attempts to speak to their times will help us address ours. I see my undertaking as a lifetime commitment to study, teach, and participate in the creation of our culture.  

GRE Scores  |TOP|
GRE scores: 1995: Verbal 720, Quantitative 720, Analytical 780
1992: Verbal 690, Quantitative 760, Analytical 790

GPA for AB in English at Washington University: 3.70 

Writing Sample |TOP|
I submitted "Dickinson's Economy of Language" as the second of two major papers for the graduate seminar on Whitman and Dickinson that I took this past fall semester. The course was a graduate English seminar that I received permission to enroll in as part of my part-time Master's work in American Culture Studies. I regret that I do not currently have the submitted copy, but would supply you with it if necessary, as soon as it is available to me.

Professor Pollak
December 11, 1995
Dickinson's Economy of Language

Desire often impels the individual to reach beyond his or her designated position in society. The nature of desire is such that it often sets its sights on the unattainable. For better or worse, this was the case for Emily Dickinson. The privation of her private life, and her unfulfilled desire, have long been the subject of public inquiry. The quality of her art has often been used as a deductive gauge to measure the depth of her desire. Those who endure long suffering necessarily adopt ways to deal with their pain, the greater the pain, the more elaborate the remedy. In her letters to the "Master," Dickinson reveals the reality of her desire, while her poetry transforms her pain and self. Dickinson's efforts illustrate the workings of her interior life, but do not fully disclose the mystery at the core of her being. In the words of the biographer Richard Sewall, "Central to this mystery (certainly central to the biographer) was the mystery of herself. l" (Sewall, 5). Dickinson's enduring privacy was formulated from desire and a retreat from it. In these motions, her words reveal while they conceal.

Some critical inquiry has focused on determining the identity of Dickinson's "Master," as addressed by her in three letters and made subject in numerous poems. Biographers and biographical critics have not reached a definitive conclusion. Richard Sewall's Life of Emily Dickinson seems to leave the matter open to question, providing evidence that either Reverend Charles Wadsworth or Samuel Bowles could have been the Master. The editor of Dickinson's Letters, Thomas Johnson, prefers Wadsworth over Bowles, because of religious vocabulary employed by Dickinson. Vivian Pollak considers the merits of both as the potential beloved, concluding that the identity of the lover is not as important as his function to Dickinson as a psychological father figure, which would be better represented in the elder, more distant Wadsworth. Judith Farr asserts that it is Bowles's very engagement in Dickinson's life that inspired her to the heights of her passion. With an abundance of yet inconclusive evidence, many critics heed Sewall's observation, that "she may have been talking to herself," in discussing Dickinson's relationship to the Master (Sewall, 529). It is Dickinson's personal investment in the Master as beloved, and the subsequent critical investigation into the Master as her muse, that I wish to discuss. In her essay "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire," Joan Burbick elaborates upon four stages of desire that may illuminate Dickinson's attitude toward her "Master," and draw together some elements from each of these critics' understandings of the Master as an opening into Dickinson's mystery.

In Dickinson's Victorian era, there was understood a need, to control more strongly the desires of the body, Burbick explains. "In the economic language of sexual frugality, the unmarried woman represented a puzzling, if not disturbing, cultural fact." (Farr Essays, 77). The Great Awakening preached spiritual transcendence of the body, concern focusing on the female body as the chief obstacle to this end. Although temptation might be considered to rest in either the one who is tempted, or the tempter, women were considered on all accounts to embody the sexually dangerous energies that would hinder transcendence, their own and that of men. "In particular, desire, if it existed for the unmarried woman, was 'dangerous' and, Dickinson would write, needed to be 'handled with a Chain"' (Essays, 77). It is unclear whether the desire "for" connotes desire directed toward an unmarried woman, or desire existing "for," that is, within her, directed toward another. The lack of clarity suggests a fear of their combination in female homosexuality.

Fear of ambiguous sexuality, as ascribed to the unattached female, gave rise to societal constructs of acceptable desire. In addressing the figure of the Master, Dickinson explores her response to these public intrusions into private life, the self- regulating construct within her. Burbick envisions four modes of desire's regulation: unlimited fulfillment; the introduction of restraint; a magnification of the absent beloved; and death (Essays, 78-79). Dickinson's poetry, and the self-revelatory Master letters illustrate how the societal pressures of Victorian New England pressured her desire into these modes.

The first mode Burbick discusses precedes the imposition of regulation. All that is desired is attainable. Dickinson is the collector. "In a letter to Samuel Bowles, she boldly asserts 'My friends are my estate.' Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them!' (L 193)" (Essays, 80). As Burbick notes, "no restraint" is called for in this acquisition. Dickinson's strategy of acquiring "earthly" friends, rather than awaiting reunion in heaven, as the religion she has forfeited would preach, hardly seems dangerous. As her assured request for forgiveness suggests, it is easily forgivable.

In the first Master letter, Dickinson entreats the recipient to join her circle of familiars. She opens by saying "I thought you were in Heaven." What may at first seem to be concern for the subject's health, also signals Dickinson's apprehension that the addressed might be inaccessible to her, since for Dickinson, "Heaven is what I cannot reach" (Dickinson Poems, 109). Assured that this is not the case, Dickinson continues, "I would that all I love, should be weak no more. the Violets are by my side, the Robin very near, and "Spring"-- the day, Who is she--going by the door -" (Dickinson Letters, 141). Although she calls this door "Heaven's gate," of "God's house" it is Dickinson's domain, her private gathering of all that she loves.

The lyrical quality of her letter easily captures the mood of young, hopeful love. She gathers her loved ones easily; "how strong when weak to recollect, and easy, quite to love" (141). Hoping to draw this Master into her love, she continues, "Will you tell me, please to tell me, soon as you are well." But when her beloved is well, that is, restored to a stronger sense of self, the healing empathy between addresser and addressee will not be as effective. When Dickinson more fully realizes the strength of her own desire, she will not so easily re-collect her Master by this all-embracing lyricism. The seemingly weak, feminine "Daisy," is at heart a "Marauder" of the Master's nourishing light and life force, only in the public sight sublimating her aggressive sexual urges, which seek release in "Night's possibility" (Farr Passion, 195). As Dickinson's desire deepens past the shallow roots of acceptable femininity, the easy breadth of love is no longer possible, and resistance arises, causing a rift between lover and beloved.

The pain of separation between Dickinson and her Master is most apparent in the third Master letter, addressed to a recipient whose identity remains unknown to the third party reader. Deprived of the assuming air in which she could easily obtain her Master's radiance, Dickinson begins the letter "Oh, did I offend it" (Letters, 167). The poet's surety is gone; the "Night's possibilities" will not come unbidden. This Master, whatever has happened to distance "it," is desired with a want that needs to possess. Dickinson enters Burbick's second mode of desire, in which the self must be restrained. To accommodate her Master's resistance, Dickinson weakens herself, "bends her smaller life to his (it's) meeker (lower) every day" and asks not for his person, but merely "a task" to perform to prove her love for him (167). She must obtain the object of her desire through indirect work, rather than gather it as a commodity. She is no longer a relaxed owner of love, but a laborer.

Richard Wilbur's essay "Sumptuous Destitution" proposes that poetic labor, in itself will be Dickinson's consolation for frustrated desire. Although, as Wilbur says, Dickinson gave up the conventional religious definitions of "great words like Immortality and Salvation and Election," those words, as Dickinson uses them, "are not merely being themselves; they have been adopted, for expressive purposes; they have been taken personally, and therefore redefined" (Essays, 53). The words that Wilbur selects as candidates for Dickinson's redefinition are those which best suit Dickinson's dialogue with the Master. He has not elected her for salvation. She will not dwell with him in a state of enduring immortality, assured of his love as a heaven on earth. Dickinson's assumed vocabulary of acceptance leave her in as much a state of exdusion as they would in the religious vernacular. Noting that in Noting that in "her later work the beloved's lineaments, which were never very distinct, vanish entirely," Wilbur dismisses further consideration of Dickinson's pain and the Master's existence outside of her mind, replacing her internal struggle to reach outward in desire with "remote spiritual joy" (59-60). Wilbur returns Dickinson's reinterpreted vocabulary toward a more public Heaven, with the Master "an instrument in the poet's commerce with the beyond" (60). In this encapsulating vision, Dickinson's "poetic impulses... converted all her losses into gains, and all the pains of her life to... clarity and repose" (61). Wilbur's reading stresses Dickinson's poetic truism, "The Banquet of abstemious/ Defaces that of wine" (56). The evaluated success of the poet erases concern for the woman, her desire, and its failure.

But to the living poet, such self-satisfied "repose" does not come. Granted Dickinson reveals some concern about posterity's acceptance of her art, with her eye on the "Mine" of her work, she is more visibly passionate about acceptance from her Master (Poems, 193). Wilbur's premise may apply to the dead poet, but not to the living, as is apparent in Dickinson's futile attempt to satiate her desire in exactly the kind of repose that Wilbur assigns her. At the end of the third letter, she implores the Master:

Wont he come to her-or will he let her seek him, never minding [whatever] so long wandering [out] if to him at last. Oh how the sailor strains, when his boat is filling- Oh how the dying tug, till the angel comes. Master--open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired--I will never be noisy when you want to be still. I will be [glad] [as the] your best little girl--nobody else will see me, but you- but that is enough- I shall not want any more--and all that Heaven only will disappoint me-- will be because it's not so dear. (Letters, 248)

Dickinson wants the erasure of self that Wilbur grants her, in a private oblivion, where the voice of her desire is silent and her desiring body is invisible to all but the Master's gaze. But her poetic wish cannot erase the realities of her unfulfilled sexuality. Her sexual frustration may translate into a fair return in artistic accomplishment, but only in posterity, after her genius has finished translating the ambiguities of her desire through re-envisioning the self.

On the other hand, maybe Dickinson did achieve what she set out to. The potential that Sewall's remark is true, that the Master may exist only as Dickinson's creation, complicates biographical analysis. Pollak concludes that the Master's functionality in Dickinson's psychological makeup as "an idealized masculine alter ego" is the most useful approach to understanding Dickinson (Pollak, 101-102). This Master figure is a stabilizing force, that can reconcile Dickinson to relegated heterosexuality. As the potential Master, Charles Wadsworth is older, married, and a member of the clergy. A figure as socially conventional and sexually inaccessible as he could safely channel Dickinson's ambiguous, unproductive wants into a sublimating dialogue between herself and the real or imagined lover. The woman who masters her own desires thus artfully answers societal fears with a well balanced psyche that moderates her sensuality into a state of outward inactivity.

In this aspect, the Master is the container of Dickinson's "Hurricane," the stopgap for her "Vesuvian" urges. Like a 'Wife without the sign," she can be a sexual force (internally) without repercussions. Her sexual energies are received as in marital consummation, but without the union. Her individual vocabulary transmits her passion but not her person. Consequently, her person remains untainted by the public "signs" of wifery. If the Master does exist outside of her mind, he is still a subject of her construct. Choosing an inaccessible Master for mate could be a manifestation of Dickinson's self-protective psyche, evading the possible dangers anticipated by her own internalized fears.

Further indications of Dickinson's "ambivalence toward her own femininity" exist in the coded wording the poet uses both to impart and hide her meanings from others (Pollak, 102). As inaccessible as Dickinson often felt the Master, many consider Dickinson equally unapproachable behind a veil of self-defined terminology. Personal acquaintances and correspondents may have understood her uses of "pearl" and the "East" as sexual entities, but often times they did not (Passion, 190-192). The understanding of a poem like "This is my letter to the World" depends as much on the interpretation of the capitalized words, "News," "Nature," "Message," their meanings appropriated by Dickinson, as it does on the reading of the absence of words, Dickinson's dashes and enjambment, by which she interrupts linear discourse (Poems, 211). Although her poems provide an outlet to explore the ambiguities of female sexuality, the form in which Dickinson sets down her words more often serves to mirror the frustration and preserve the ambiguity than clarify.

Burbick's third mode, of painful separation, contrasts sharply with Wilbur's conclusion of spiritual gratification. In this stage the poet suffers both physically and mentally. The strain of conflicting definitions of identity manifest in poem 1737, which begins:

Rearrange a 'Wife's" affection!
When they dislocate my Brain!
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a Man! (704)

Dickinson perceives that her "nature" as a woman is subject to rearrangement. She is caught between her fluid construct of "wife" and the kind of wife society would make her. In order to survive the tension between these opposing constructs, Dickinson must be defeminized. "[B]earded like a Man" she may, like Bowles, be granted the right of an expansive circle of female friends. But Dickinson wishes to exhaust the depths of her desire, not revert to the shallow realm of easy companionship and comprehension. In the second Master letter, Dickinson confronts this inequity between lover and beloved:

I don't know what you can do for it-- thank you-- Master-- but if I had the Beard on my cheek--like you--and you--had Daisy's petals-- and you cared so for me-- what would become of you? [...] What would you do with me if I came "in white?" Have you the little chest to put the Alive-- in? (Letters, 160)

The beard on the cheek signifies male privilege, an outward manifestation of sexual difference that translates into societal potency. The woman is the passive flower, who submissively waits to be nourished and "plucked" by her husband (Passion, 195). As a passive female, Dickinson fears that her internal arrangement of the intellectual and sexual self would be "disarranged" by the compartmentalizing "little chest" of socially defined womanhood.

Dickinson synthesizes strength and weakness in a figure of strong, but wounded womanhood, concluding the poem with the stanza:

Big my Secret but it's bandaged--
It will never get away
Till the Day its Weary Keeper
Leads it through the Grave to thee. (Poems, 705)

Dickinson utilizes the color white as a trope for purity: "'Snow' is Dickinson's synonym for integrity," of her person and her art (Passion, 180). A white dress ("What if I came to you in white?") is more specifically associated with virginity, the integrity of the female body. A bandage may then reasonably serve as proof of her love's purity. The bandage covers a "Secret," which is also a wound--wounded love. Her virginity and non-publication conceal her sexual and creative facets, secrets for whose keeping she also suffered. But all secrets, including her encoded language, are open to her beloved, whose call she awaits. Dickinson's persona retains this outward need, which may serve as an opening for comprehending her. What begins as an outright rejection of external constructs Dickinson transforms into devotion to the one who has hurt her most. Her poetic pride elevates this emotional wounding into a psychological state of permanent injury that endows her with an inviolable source of authority. It is her secret to the grave, or to "thee," who might best discern the clues of her secret self.

As Judith Farr states, "Shame was the chief ingredient in all strong affections, [Dickinson] found, and ultimately it led to concealment: either to that partial 'veil' that was metaphor or to hiding above stairs and behind doors when a beloved person was near" (Passion, 181). Even in her letters, Dickinson can be seen metaphorically "hiding" behind the titles she creates for herself and those addressed. Dickinson's use of "Master" is dubious; the poet's private vocabulary expropriates the holy reverence of biblical discourse for what religious tradition would deem idolatrous veneration. Similarly questionable is her calling herself "your scholar" and "student" in letters to Higginson, who often did not understand her work at all. In her "letter to the World," Dickinson cautions those who would evaluate the integrity of her poetics, her love, or her sexuality, to "Judge tenderly-- of Me," granted that even she does not see the "Hands" that deliver the "Message" from "Nature." In this deployment of mutable terms, the poet secures an ever fluid uncertainty for her veiled and bandaged secrets. What "shame" may have caused Dickinson's veiling of her strongest emotions also prevents a more definitive judgment of those feelings. As might be her wish, they remain intact, like her un-invested "snow."

Whereas Burbick's model illustrates modes of deprivation, decay and death, Dickinson escapes the confines of these modes of being by anticipating the worst possible ends and surpassing them. Death's carriage conveys Dickinson past the common grave and points toward her own privately defined "Immortality" (Poems, 350). In later poems Dickinson reiterates a willingness to become what her Master wills, whether "Queen [...]/ or nought--/ or other thing [...]/ With just this Stipulus/ I suit Thee" (362). The secrecy and economy of Dickinson's expression secures her a tentative identity from which to navigate her sexual desires amid internal ambiguities and external constructs. The closing riddle of "My Life had Stood-- A Loaded Gun," best expresses the genius of Dickinson's self-transformation:

Though I than He-- may longer live
He must longer--than I-
For I have but the power to kill,
Without- the power to die- (369-370)

Dickinson's poetic voice lacks the "power to die" because it projects itself past the conventional sexual and poetic discourse, in which "Night's promise" is the anticipated resolution of tensions. Dickinson's loaded gun passes the night wakefully distant from sensual comfort, wary of the dangers of putting her sexual intelligence to sleep if she should enter her Master's bed. Although Dickinson cannot simply give up her "long[ing] for 'the Queen's place' next to her Master] at night," her poetry shows that she ultimately does not settle upon terms through which such a definitive resolution of her sexual and poetic tensions could come to pass (Passion, 189). Dickinson sets her sights within, on worthier targets. The gun of her poetry remains intact, loaded with meaning and ambiguity. It is a packet of wounded-ness and power that can never fully be discharged.


Works Cited

Burbick, Joan. "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire." Farr, Essays 76-88.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. 1890. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

--. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

--, ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Century Views 12. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1996.

Pollak, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 1970. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.

Wilbur, Richard. "Sumptuous Destitution." Farr, Essays 53-61.