A Poetry Fight of Dickinsonian Proportions

When the Emily Dickinson Archive was released online recently, it rekindled a literary rivalry between Harvard University and Amherst College that goes back over a hundred years.

The archive “gives free access to high-resolution photos of thousands of the poet’s manuscripts, including envelopes or bits of paper with poems jotted down on them, letters, doodles and many, many exuberant em-dashes,” National Public Radio reports.

But Harvard has been accused of taking too much credit for the project, in part to boost the status of Ralph Franklin’s 1998 collection of Dickinson poems, which was published by Harvard University Press, reports The Guardian.

The Dickinson collection held at Harvard’s Houghton Library was originally gifted to Harvard by Susan Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother Austin. The collection at the Amherst College Library was donated by Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s lover.

“It all goes back to the adultery and the two homes,” Oxford University Dickinson biographer Lyndall Gordon told The Guardian. “Austin had an explosive affair with Mabel … [who was] an incredibly accomplished young woman … But she was malicious, and she maligned Susan, and so it became embittered very quickly.”

Todd collaborated with Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish the first collection of Dickinson’s poems in 1890, four years after the Belle of Amherst passed away.

Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Museum includes both the house where Dickinson was born, lived—in self-imposed reclusiveness—and wrote, as well as the neighboring house of her brother Austin.

According to executive director Jane Weld, however, the Museum is pleased that the archives have become more accessible, regardless of who is making them available or getting credit for the work.

“As readers know,” Weld tells the Advocate, “Dickinson’s connection to home was unusually intense. Here, in this place of inspiration and reflection, they can find a solid touchstone to Emily Dickinson and an avenue to appreciating her poetry. We need both—access to the manuscripts and the material context of the poet who produced them.”

(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)

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