Normally, the release of an archive of autograph poem manuscripts online for free open access should be a matter for celebration, not consternation – especially when the poet in question published only a handful of poems in her lifetime and left almost her entire achievement in manuscript. But the dispute between the Houghton Library at Harvard University and Amherst College over the creation of the Emily Dickinson Archive has gone public with reports in The Guardian and elsewhere. As reported, Amherst essentially accuses Harvard, one of the main financial backers of the project, of restricting and drip-feeding the documents available, and generally slanting the presentation, to reinforce the standing of the 1998 Harvard University Press edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

emily dickinsonThe introduction to the Archive certainly lends credence to Amherst’s reported claims. It explains that the Archive: “makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts available in open access, and provides readers with a website through which they can view images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives. This first phase of the EDA includes images for the corpus of poems identified in The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998).”

The Amherst College “Emily Dickinson at Amherst College” website points up an implicit comparison in its guide to Emily Dickinson resources online. “All of the Dickinson manuscripts held by Amherst College have been fully digitized and are now freely available to all through Amherst College Digital Collections,” it states, then adds: “The Houghton Library at Harvard University has made portions of its Dickinson holdings available online.” Amherst also pre-empted Harvard in first putting up its Dickinson collection for open access.

Harvard’s own site, meanwhile, states: “The heart of the collection is the forty hand-sewn manuscript books, or fascicles, into which the poet copied her poems …  These “copies of record” for the poem show the alternate word choices Dickinson might make as she copied these poems to send to friends.  Unfortunately, these fascicles were disbound by the poet’s earliest editors, and none survive as Dickinson left them.”

Emily Dickinson is one case where open access to the actual physical originals of her poetry is especially important. “She often jotted down single lines and raw snatches of poetry on whatever materials were close at hand,” notes the Amherst College web page. “Her writing materials range from slit open envelopes … to scraps of wallpaper and a chocolate wrapper. It is impossible for any transcription of these fragments to capture the important details of how Dickinson originally laid out her poetry on the page.”


Unfortunately, with academic politics and the game of reputations being the way they are in scholarly literary circles, I think the interpretation of Harvard’s actions reported in the Guardian article is all too credible. I don’t see any reason for HUP’s 1998 publication to dictate what’s made available in an archive like this, unless someone has a motive in doing so. And even if there are time and money constraints, why make that book the decider on what goes out first?

And other academics have been just as irresponsible over the affair. Quoted in the Guardian, Dickinson biographer Lyndall Gordon, states that the tension between Harvard and Amherst lays bare “a war between the two houses which is extraordinarily, pulsatingly alive in the present, and has been handed down from generation to generation … “It all goes back to the adultery and the two homes … Austin had an explosive affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, an incredibly accomplished young woman who arrived in Amherst.”

So there you go. The issue of open access to an invaluable literary resource is sexed up and trivialized in an anxious attempt to make it appear breathlessly contemporary. Emily Dickinson’s legacy is clearly in good hands.


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