Notes on the Grammar and Gender of Mastery



These words occur in both editions of Noah Webster’s dictionary found in Emily Dickinson’s library[1] following the word “master.” The reader knows them in relationship to the word “master”—it oversees and drives their definitions, it makes them what they are, governs their function, superintends their compound meaning.

Webster’s first definition for “master” offers a clipped, succinct summary of the word’s expression of power and the relationship implied by it: “A man who rules, governs or directs either men or business.” The following examples clarify: “A man who owns slaves is their master; he who has servants is their master; he who has apprentices is their master.” Webster’s is an early 19th-century American dictionary, and all the editions written during Webster’s life were composed under the full legality of slavery in the United States. That slavery is present in the word’s first entry is not surprising, as plantations and “king cotton” drove the U.S. economy at this time, from the North to the South, many people in Webster’s New England owning Southern land and plantations, paying overseers and managers to do their work and enact their mastership by proxy.[2]

The quietly radical poet in Amherst, Massachusetts who owned two editions of Webster’s, turned their pages, poured over entries and the quotes from literature inside them was touched—as we all are touched—by the language and reality of mastery.


Noah Webster, entry ten for “master”: “One uncontrolled.”


After seventeen entries detailing specific roles defining the word “master,” all seventeen included in both editions, Webster adds: “The word master has numerous applications, in all of which it has the sense of director, chief or superintendent.” In plainer English: there are too many kinds of mastership to name—seventeen is sufficient for Webster.

The word “mistress,” as gendered corollary, does not come up.


What is a word? It is also a deed.[3] “Master,” as English knows it, is a compound of the Latin root magis, major (“greater”) and Teutonic ster, to steer. But more than syllables in air, the word “Master” controls the grammar of mastery, the concept of rulership, power, skill, and craft.


I spend time now with the sounds and senses that spin from “master” like spider-silk because I once thought I knew the word. Only it was a stranger. Not a total stranger, but (literally, in my case) the relative you did not know you had. The name that appears in your life suddenly, abruptly, as someone you share blood or bonds with—a name linked intrinsically with yours, despite your not-knowing, your ignorance; history is there.

I thought I understood something about what a master was, because my family has deep settler-colonial roots in North Carolina, and multiple third-great-grandfathers on my maternal side enslaved, built slave houses, owned plantations, named how many persons they owned and their ages on federal censuses.

I thought mastery was for men—that it was men who enslaved, men went to auctions and bid on other humans. That mastery was the violent ownership of men. I didn’t let my mind wander to women.

I should have.


Even before I identified more comfortably as nonbinary or earned the title “Dr,” I did not care for the address “Miss” or “Mrs.,” both short for “mistress.” Because of my personal history and experience—heavily and traditionally gendered, only allowed to wear skirts or dresses as a child, told I could study anything[4] in college because I would “not have to provide for a family”—in “Ms.” and “Mrs.” I heard subservience, assumed the kind of power relationship that existed between “mistress” and “master” could only be one of inequality and service.[5] In the fundamental, Protestant church I grew up in, it was accepted that the man “was the head of the family,” the leader and provider. A Mennonite neighbor, both more canny and more honest that many evangelical women, if she overheard the “head of the family” expression would add: “Yes, but the woman is the neck that turns the head.” This is how I understood power relationships between men and women, growing up. There was a hierarchy, and women had derived and manipulative power, if they wanted it.


The knowledge that rattled my mind’s cage this summer, mucking about in family genealogy on, was the discovery that white women in North Carolina, close neighbors of the Giddens’ family in my maternal family tree, were listed as “slave holders” on an 1830 census that was conducted in Samson County, North Carolina. It wasn’t a single Mary or Elizabeth that caught my eye, but the appearance of at least two or three women on every census pages. I was startled down to my bones, and incensed (knowledge—hard knowledge—often enters my body as anger). I was not raised by a second or third wave feminist, but I know the arguments of feminism—particularly white feminism. I do not hear contemporary feminists often talk about their colonial power. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’ book They Were Her Property examines just this power. “The term mistress,” writes Jones-Rogers, “did not signify a married woman’s subservient legal position or a woman’s subordinate status to that of a master. By definition and in fact, the mistress was the master’s equivalent…the term used to describe women’s control of subordinates was not mastery but mistress-ship.” I rocked back on my mind’s heels—I had never heard this phrase “mistress-ship.”

In her book, Jones-Rogers details the incredible legal and financial literacy of colonial white women in the South, and the reality of their human capital—simpler ownership and inheritance than “real estate,” which was traditionally limited to men and their sons.

“For [white women],” states Jones-Rogers, “slavery was their freedom.”


What does the dictionary that belonged to Emily Dickinson, author of “the master letters,” have to say about “mistress-ship”?

Webster offers nine entries for “mistress,”—note that only the eighth and ninth entry have to do with the definition that we now often think of first: “A woman in keeping for lewd purposes.” “Mistress” comes from the same Latin root as “master” (the feminized magistra), and the first entry reads “A woman who governs; correlative to servant, slave or subject.” That is: “mistress” holds the same relationship to servant, slave or subject as “master” does—they are equal terms for directing others of lesser or inequal power.

What blows me away—like a gale wind—is that we have not let this language of mistress-ship or mastery go. It is embedded in our speech, our forms of address. I hear the word “masterful” or “mastery” on a near weekly basis among other writers and readers. (Not to say that this is entirely bad, but how the word is used and who uses it is something we should consider, particularly as professional language practitioners). But more slyly yet is the continued and contemporary address of “Master” and “Mistress”—or Mr. and Mrs., as we use them now.

Notes Webster: “As a title of respect given to adult persons, it is pronounced mister; a pronunciation which seems to have been derived from some of the northern dialects.”


The photographer Sally Mann has noted that “master” and “miss” were how people of color addressed her siblings and herself as children growing in Southern Virginia, state seat of the second capital of the Confederacy in Richmond.

We are not as far from the language of mastery—and by direct implication, enslavement—as we think.

The language runs deep, so deep. Trees, we are told, have rootspread that can run two to three times the diameter of the tree’s visible crown. So it is with the syllables on our tongues. The words we do not pause over. The histories of power and ownership that run through the hallways of our family homes, dressed in white sheets.


The entry for “master” found in the Emily Dickinson Lexicon[6]:

master [-s] n

ME meister,<L. Magister.

1. Jesus Christ as Savior.

2. Individual having control over another by virtue of love.

Why turn to Dickinson’s dictionary? Why drag an antinomian poet and private personality into a conversation of mastery? Because you can withdraw from the world, but not withdraw from language; because you would have to withdraw from language to withdraw from the world. There is no such thing, wrote Wittgenstein, as a private language. Language necessitates shared meanings and signs, symbols, gestures—lived experiences, society, community. Dickinson participated in all of these forms of life.

Dickinson’s three unsent, draft letters (written between 1858-1862) addressed to “Master” have intrigued poets and scholars for decades. No one knows the intended recipient. But as the Emily Dickinson Lexicon entry above (boldly) asserts: the concept of “Master” was embedded in Dickinson’s theology and in the way she read the spiritual and physical world. Her master letters center on describing literal sickness and spiritual “wounds,” employing dramatic metaphors of sea and the shore alongside the existential reality of death. Dickinson’s “master letters” read as letters penned during crises, petitions from “Daisy” to “Master”—the letters’ recipient figured as the sun the daisy, or “Day’s Eye,” turns towards, phototropically.

In her second and longest master letter, Dickinson writes “God made me – Master – I did’nt be – myself. I dont know how it was done. He built the heart in me – Bye and bye it outgrew me – and like the little mother – with the big child – I got tired holding him.” God’s authorship of Dickinson’s heart enables her own mistress-ship of it—she acknowledges her participation in the hierarchy of being as (little) mother to (big) child, and (perhaps) suggests that she set that hierarchy aside: “I got tired of holding him.” Though she seems to mean her heart grew heavy, there is slippage with the antecedent of “God.” The idea of setting God aside—Dickinson’s first “master,” in a sense—is strengthened by what immediately follows regarding her engagement with the theology of redemption. Having just said that she is tired, Dickinson confesses, “I heard of a thing called ‘Redemption’ – which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for it – you gave me something else. I forgot the Redemption and was tired – no more -.”

This setting aside—or forgetting—of redemption does not mean “God” is a light concept to Dickinson. Hardly. In fact, there are multiple poems written around the time of the final master letter that engage the language of “master,” several appearing in fascicle 32. One of Dickinson’s poems, “He fumbles at your soul,” was titled “The Master” by Dickinson’s sister-in-law and posthumous editor Mabel Loomis Todd in the 1896 volume of Dickinson’s poetry. It appears in fascicle 22, dated c. 1862, and appears with the following variants:

He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys –
Before they drop full Music on –
He stuns you by Degrees –

Prepares your brittle substance
For the etherial Blow
By fainter Hammers – further heard –
Then nearer – Then so – slow –

Your Breath – has (time) chance to straighten –
Your Brain – to bubble cool –
Deals One – imperial Thunder – bolt –
That (scalps) peels your naked soul –

When Winds hold Forests in their Paws –
(The Universe – is still) The Firmaments – are still –

One of the delights of Dickinson’s metaphor-rich poetry is that it need never be about one thing only. “He fumbles at your soul” could be about the sublime sonics and physical experience of a thunderstorm, or a divine theophany, or a physical epiphany (or assault). The reader can say with confidence that it is poem about visceral and ferocious power—no wonder Mabel Loomis Todd read it and thought it must address “the” (divine) master, and describe control at the level of the cosmos and the human soul. If Todd intended another meaning by titling Dickinson’s poem “The Master,” we will probably never know. Even without the explicit title, the description of sheer power and agency (“He fumbles at your soul,” and “that peels/scalps your naked soul”) considered alongside the poems with explicit “master” language, creates a constellation of meaning out of which the “master” letters derive their own shape and sense. While Dickinson employs the address “Master” analogically—its degree varying based on its referent—regardless of the recipient, Dickinson employs the term to indicate power and deference, as in the poem “A Wife – at Daybreak,” that closes with the lines “Eternity – I’m coming – Sir – / Master – I’ve seen the Face – before -.”

To acknowledge power is not to be without power—to be mistress or mother is not to be without power.

Language itself is power, a speaker has power.

While there are no new archival discoveries offering new entries or understanding to the mystery of Dickinson’s master letters, it is past time that readers understand that “master” (and mistress) is also the language of the American plantation and other white settler-colonial institutions (the church, the school, the government, the home). When Lucille Clifton, a Black woman poet, uses the word “master” in her poem “Study the Masters,” there is both a wide historical difference in the deployment and position of that address and a revolution of the language of master—Clifton revolves the language, turns the language of mastery on its head, see-saws the appellation of “master”:

like my aunt timmie.

it was her iron,

or one like hers,

that smoothed the sheets

the master poet slept on.

Clifton’s Aunt Timmie’s handiwork as well as her words—“some cherokee, some masai and some / huge and particular as hope”—demonstrates how the language of mastery has corrupted how we understand labor, skill, and poetry, setting up some people as arbiters of what is good while subordinating the labors of others. It recenters the labor done—the domestic, caretaking work that keeps a house running—and the laborer at the poem’s center. Aunt Timmie is ironing—the catalyst and subject. The master poet is sleeping, physically and metaphorically.

In “Study the Masters,” with her usual deft incision and clarity, Clifton shows us what the poverty of America’s understanding of the word “master” (and “mistress”)—and their violent institutional power—has robbed us of:

if you had heard her

chanting as she ironed

you would understand form and line

and discipline and order and


What I hope for, as a writer and a critic, is a wider focus for America—for our poetry and our labor, for the labor that is also our poetry—a truthfulness of language and an expansion of how we think about our relationships to power, which all of us have in fluctuating abundance.

What are the power relationships you have confessed to only in unsent letter drafts?  

What are the fantasies of power keeping you from actual work, from Aunt Timmie’s knowledge of “form and line / and discipline and order and / america”?

[1] Noah Webster’s first 1828 edition and the 1844 reprint of the 1841 second edition, revised and expanded—Webster died shortly after completing the 1841 American Dictionary of the English Language.

[2] Because one is from New England, or really any geography, does not mean your family is unattached from U.S. violence. The UK and Europe sold the Confederacy their wool for uniforms, munitions, sent spies, their skirts sometimes heavy with the weight of gold sovereigns, sewn into their hems.

[3] Wittgenstein, Stanley Cavell.

[4] Which actually made my mother a liberal among our conservative communities.

[5] Some of my reading suggests that, against what we might think, freedoms have in some ways gotten worse for women—or, rather, our collective, societal view of women has deteriorated since colonial times.

[6] “Master,” Emily Dickinson Lexicon: