The Emily Dickinson Journal 11.2 (2002) 48-85
Since the 1890s, when Emily Dickinson's poems and letters became public, there has been constant speculation about the identity of the Master figure. I propose that Emily Dickinson's Master, the mysterious person she loved when she was about thirty, and for whom she wrote hundreds of poems and the three Master Letters, was William Smith Clark, who lived from 1826 to 1886. In the past Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, Otis Lord, and Sue Dickinson have been looked at as candidates, but Clark is more likely than any of them to have been Dickinson's muse and audience from 1857 until 1865.
Dickinson's love for William Smith Clark explains most of her reclusive behavior, much about her poetry and letters, and why her work was so severely censored by her family before being published. The story needs to be told in order to understand Dickinson and her writing at all.
Clark, a near neighbor, was connected to Dickinson by dozens of shared friendships and even kinship. He went to the same church, and he would have been in the Dickinson houses often throughout his life. He is reported to have died from "an affection of the heart" just two months before Dickinson's own death (Goodell, "William Smith Clark" 520-523).
A young, spirited, and dashing man, William Smith Clark was, "personally and socially attractive, a brilliant talker, a good listener too, fond of telling stories full of anecdote and adventure and wit and repartee. Col. Clark was the life of the social circle, the faculty meeting, the gathering at the corner of the streets, the legislative hall or the popular assembly" [Begin Page 50] (Tyler, "Ex-President" 3-4). He rode his beautiful horses with a power and style that even newsmen admired. He was cocky, a bit conceited, yet a good listener, a gentle, sensitive, and educated man, a man who encouraged the women in his life to use their minds, and a man who was an aspiring writer himself.
William Smith Clark was born July 31, 1826, in Ashfield, Massachusetts, the son of Atherton Clark, an impoverished country doctor, and Harriet Smith Clark, the daughter of another physician. Clark grew up primarily in Easthampton, Massachusetts, fourteen miles from Amherst. He studied at the new Williston Seminary and entered Amherst College in 1844. In college he thought of medicine as a career. He had always been interested in science, especially the study of caves and caverns, precious metals, gemstones, mining, and meteorites, but later he became devoted to botany.
A graduate of Amherst College in 1848, Clark later taught botany, zoology, and chemistry there. He and Edward Dickinson often disagreed but were the two most effective founders of Massachusetts Agricultural College (now the University of Massachusetts at Amherst), and Clark worked closely with Austin Dickinson on numerous town and Amherst College projects. Clark taught at and was President of Massachusetts Agricultural College, and he also founded, taught at, and was President of Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido Imperial University) in Japan.
When Clark graduated from Amherst in 1848, he had been in college with Austin Dickinson for two years at a tiny school that had only eight professors and about 140 students. The students were thrust together in chapel twice each day and at other convocations often. Clark was not a member of the oldest social fraternity at Amherst, Alpha Delta Phi with Austin Dickinson, but in the upstart rival, Psi Upsilon. Both young men were among the very few from Amherst classes graduating before 1853 to be elected retroactively to Phi Beta Kappa. They spent the Amherst commencement week of festivities each summer at congenial meetings of the alumni and Phi Beta Kappa, jockeying for leadership.
William S. Clark taught science at Williston for two years, earning money for graduate school. In 1850 he went for his Ph.D. at Georgia Augusta University in Göttingen. On the way to Germany, Clark spent six weeks in London and fell in love with Kew Gardens and the botanical collections of Linnaeus at the British Museum. He also found extensive botanical gardens at Göttingen.