Emily Dickinson Online Archive Offers New Tools For Scholars

Dickinson scholars celebrate the launch of online archive, but not without concerns.

An autographed letter by Emily Dickinson written in autumn 1884 is on display on Dec. 3, 2012, at real estate broker Douglas Elliman's Gallery in New York.
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An online Emily Dickninson archive offering thousands of pages of her work was launched Wednesday. The website, edickinson.org, is the first to bring the papers of Harvard University, Amherst College, the Boston Public Library and five other institutions to a single online treasure trove, where images of her manuscripts can be searched, browsed and zoomed in on.

Any time an expansive collection of an esteemed poet's work is made more widely accessible, it's cause for celebration. However Dickinson's legacy makes it an even more special case. Only 10 of her poems were published in her lifetime in the traditional sense, though scholars have explored the idea that many letters she sent that often contained her poetry merits its own distinction of publishing.

And in these letters and other original manuscripts now available online, every detail – every pen scratch, every erasure mark -- is worth examining, experts say.

"It makes quite a difference for them to be able to examine what a poet might have labored through and end up with what we receive as a poem," says Martha Nell Smith, a University of Maryland English professor and an early champion of digitizing Dickinson's oeuvre.

Furthermore, Dickinson was known to organize her poetry in collections known as fascicles, and take other artistic measures in show she presented them.

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"She had so little control over the published versions of poetry at the same time that she exercise such strong creative control over the manuscripts as she arranged them," says Dana Luciano, a Georgetown University professor who will be teaching a Dickinson class in the spring.

For instance, a poem like "A poor - torn heart – a tattered heart" – which printed in plain text looks to be a simple poem about heartbreak – takes on a satirical edge when one sees how Dickinson first sent it to her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson, with cheesy, curiosity shop images attached. "It is sort of making fun of the 19th century convention that sentimental women is broken hearted, that must be why she's writing," Smith says.

Adornments like these and other decisions Dickinson made -- spelling, grammar, line break and punctuation choices – were often left out or altered in early, posthumously published editions of her works in an effort to "clean up" her poetry. The archive presents an opportunity to compare how her works were changed at every stage of reproduction.

But more than just a tool to access the manuscript, the archive is work in itself for scholars to study and discuss.

"I want to use the archives and teach the archives actually as a document," Luciano says. "I want to think about the way particular versions of Emily Dickinson are produced every time we try to produce an account of Dickinson's work."

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The launch of edickinson.org has also brought about a discussion, with extra scrutiny paid to Harvard's contributions. The school is only offering the manuscripts and letters its identified to be associated with the poems of the 1998 Harvard University Press-published Ralph Franklin anthology, a decision other scholars have criticized.

"It's fabulous that the manuscripts of Harvard that have been identified as poems are now online," says Smith, who served on the advisory board managing the launch of edickinson.org. "That doesn't mean that I don't think that it's an unproblematic archive."

The project also appears to have exacerbated a long-held rivalry between Harvard and Amherst, the other major holder of Dickinson's works, with Amherst officials suggesting Harvard pushed them out of the process.

Those who don't know Dickinson well may think of her as a lonely recluse who spent her life pent up in her Massachusetts home, perhaps adding a tinge of irony that much of work is now freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. But it's a reputation those who have studied her work are quick to dismiss.