QuickWire: Acrimony Accompanies Dickinson Papers to Online Archive

A bitter feud that has vexed Emily Dickinson’s poems and papers since the late 19th century appears to have followed them onto the Internet, where Harvard University’s Houghton Library will soon open an archive with high-resolution images of all the poet’s manuscripts and letters, as well as transcriptions and other information. The library holds roughly 60 percent of the Dickinson manuscripts; the remainder are in the library at Amherst College.

The split came about soon after the poet’s death, in 1886. Her sister, Lavinia, turned first to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, to publish Emily’s poems, only a handful of which had appeared in print in her lifetime. When Susan failed to make progress on the project, Lavinia sought out Mabel Todd—who was, as it happened, Susan’s husband’s mistress. Mabel Todd succeeded in publishing the first book of poems and in promoting them, but a vitriolic hatred established itself that pitted Susan Dickinson, her daughter, her daughter’s heirs, and their partisans against Mabel Todd and her heirs and backers.

That hatred has bedeviled scholars ever since, not least because Harvard ended up with the papers that had been in the possession of the Dickinsons—along with Emily’s writing desk and other items—while the manuscripts in the hands of the Todds went to Amherst. For years the two institutions squabbled over ownership and copyright issues, and researchers sometimes felt compelled to divide their loyalties.

And now, according to The Boston Globe, people at Amherst are complaining that Harvard has shut Amherst out of all decisions about the archive. “We’re not allowed to have control over the look of the site and the functionality of the site,” Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College, told the Globe. He also said the archive slights Amherst’s contributions, adding that “it should say a joint project.”

A Harvard spokesman declined to comment, the Globe said. The free archive is due to be unveiled sometime before the end of the month. Harvard has produced a video showing what it will offer. (The video, by the way, makes no mention of Amherst.)

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