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Emily Dickinson papers: Prosaic fight over poet’s papers

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Petty squabbles often drag on longer than big ones. That’s long seemed the case with the contested ownership of the papers of Emily Dickinson, the legendary Massachusetts poet who died in 1886 and whose manuscripts eventually found their way to rival archives at Harvard University and Amherst College.

For decades, Harvard insisted that Amherst’s papers were fraudulently obtained. Other scholars, meanwhile, have accused Harvard of seeking to exercise too much control over the reclusive poet’s legacy. Given the history, both institutions deserve credit for making their collections available in a new joint online compilation. The site, due to debut this week, will offer fans and scholars digital access to manuscripts of Dickinson’s poems and letters, as well as contemporary transcripts of poems that lack a surviving handwritten manuscript.

Still, hints of conflict remain. Amherst was upset that the college had little input, and that the site doesn’t mention Amherst’s role more prominently. When the collection launches, Harvard can afford to be magnanimous in sharing credit. Whatever the merits of its side of the dispute may have been decades ago, the matter is not worth fighting over anymore. Dickinson’s poems belong to the world now.

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