Emily Dickinson was well known for her reluctance to publish her work. Only a smattering of her poems appeared in print during her lifetime, anonymously and likely without her knowledge. A fellow author scolded her for her reticence: “You are a great poet — and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.”
Now, Harvard will sing aloud for Dickinson. This week, the university plans to roll out the Emily Dickinson Archive that digitally gathers, for the first time in one place, all surviving Dickinson autograph manuscripts and letters, along with contemporary transcripts of Dickinson poems that did not survive in autograph. The website says the aim is to provide a resource from which scholarship can be produced.
The development of the digital collection has not been without bumps and resentments — many rooted in the conflicts over ownership of Dickinson’s work that date to the late 19th century and reflect the deep and abiding fervor that her work inspires.
The project got underway nearly two years ago when Harvard approached Amherst College, another major repository of Dickinson manuscripts. After a prolonged back-and-forth, during which Harvard commenced planning the digital project, Amherst in July agreed to share its collection for inclusion. It estimates that its manuscripts comprise 40 percent of the Emily Dickinson Archive.
Ever since, Amherst officials say, the project has been driven by Harvard with little feedback and input accepted.
“We’re not allowed to have control over the look of the site and the functionality of the site,” said Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College.
The site makes little mention of Amherst’s contributions. “It should say a joint project,” Kelly said.
Colin Manning, a Harvard spokesman, declined to comment on the controversy.
“For the first time, most of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts will be available in open access on a single site,” he said. “The manuscripts as Dickinson actually wrote them can be examined and studied by students and scholars worldwide, which is incredibly exciting. A number of partners worked cooperatively over the last two years to make this project a reality. Bringing together manuscripts from multiple libraries and archives makes this new site a powerful tool for students, scholars, and readers.”
Additionally, the written agreement called for Harvard to share its digital collection with Amherst. As of last week, Harvard had not done so, according to Kelly, prompting Amherst’s lawyer to call Harvard’s lawyer and inquire of their whereabouts. Manning said a hard drive containing the Emily Dickinson manuscripts was sent by FedEx last week.
The conflict echoes the longstanding dispute between Harvard and Amherst over who may lay more rightful claim to Emily Dickinson. When Dickinson died, her sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of her poems.
Lavinia approached their sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, about editing the poems. Susan Dickinson delayed too long, and Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an Amherst professor and Emily Dickinson’s brother’s mistress.
Todd enlisted the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the two edited the poems — changing punctuation, amending the text, and adding titles. They published three volumes of Dickinson’s work, the last in 1896. Two years later, a dispute arose between Todd and the Dickinsons.
Todd said Emily Dickinson’s brother had promised her a piece of land and failed to deliver, according to Martha Nell Smith, a professor of English at the University of Maryland and executive director and coordinator of the Dickinson Electronic Archives.
When the Dickinsons asked Todd to return her trove of Dickinson material, she refused, Smith said. In 1956, Todd’s daughter gave the collection — some 850 poems and fragments and 350 letters — to Amherst College, where Dickinson’s grandfather had been a founder and her father and brother served as treasurers.
Meanwhile, the manuscripts that remained in the Dickinson family — some 700 poems and 300 letters — ended up being sold to Gilbert Montague, a distant cousin of Dickinson, who gave the trove in 1950 to Harvard, his alma mater.
Ever since, the two institutions have jockeyed for the mantle of most complete Emily Dickinson collection. Up until a few decades ago, Harvard suggested that Amherst did not have rightful ownership of the collection because “Mabel never gave it back to the Dickinsons,” said Smith, who is a consultant to Harvard on the digital collection. As recently as the 1950s, there was talk of a lawsuit over publishing rights, Kelly said. “There’s always been a hint of animosity over these manuscripts.”
Which has helped to fuel the most recent controversy over the digital project, he said.
“What it boils down to is Harvard claiming total control over all aspects of Emily Dickinson and we don’t agree,” Kelly said. “She belongs to the world.”
The new digital collection comes as Dickinson’s popularity is soaring, said Smith. People from 16 countries flocked to a conference on Emily Dickinson this year at the University of Maryland; some 65 percent of the attendees were scholars, but another 35 percent were lay people, she said.
“Her popularity swells and wanes — right now, she’s more popular than ever,” Smith said. “She’s both easy and difficult to read. The difficulty makes her beloved because many of her poems appear to be very simple and actually are challenging intellectually and poetically.”