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If only

Wouldn’t it be great if we had better records? If Thomas Wentworth Higginson had digital recording equipment, he might have augmented his recorded insights into Emily Dickinson:

Interspersed with these confidences came phrases so emphasized as to seem the very wantonness of over-statement, as if she pleased herself with putting into words what the most extravagant might possibly think without saying, as thus: “How do most people live without any thought? There are many people in the world,–you must have noticed them in the street,–how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” Or this crowning extravaganza: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?” I have tried to describe her just as she was, with the aid of notes taken at the time; but this interview left our relation very much what it was before;–on my side an interest that was strong and even affectionate, but not based on any thorough comprehension; and on her side a hope, always rather baffled, that I should afford some aid in solving her abstruse problem of life.

–Thomas Wentworth Higginson, from “Emily Dickinson’s Letters[Atlantic Monthly, 1891]

And William Shakespeare? Looks like we dropped the ball on that one:

With so little to go on in the way of hard facts, students of Shakespeare’s life are left with essentially three possibilities: to pick minutely over legal documents as the Wallaces did, to speculate (‘Every Shakespeare biography is 5 per cent fact and 95 per cent conjecture,’ one Shakespeare scholar told me, possibly in jest); or to persuade themselves that they know more than they actually do…In fact, it cannot be emphasized too strenuously that there is nothing—not a scrap, not a mote—that gives any certain insight into Shakespeare’s feelings and beliefs as a private person. We can know only what came out of his work, never what went into it.

–Bill Bryson, from Shakespeare [Harper, 2009]

 Times have changed. Or have they?

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