The Online Emily Dickinson Archive Makes Thousands of the Poet’s Manuscripts Freely Available


Per­haps the most famous of all lit­er­ary reclus­es, despite her­self, Emi­ly Dick­in­son left a posthu­mous­ly dis­cov­ered cache of poet­ry that did not receive a prop­er schol­ar­ly treat­ment until the pub­li­ca­tion of The Poems of Emi­ly Dick­in­son by Thomas H. John­son in 1955, which made avail­able Dickinson’s com­plete body of 1,775 poems in their intend­ed state of punc­tu­a­tion and cap­i­tal­iza­tion. For the first time, read­ers out­side the small Dick­in­son fam­i­ly cir­cle could read the work she cir­cu­lat­ed pri­vate­ly in so-called “fas­ci­cles” as well as the hun­dreds of poems no one had seen dur­ing her life­time.  There is some ques­tion over whether Dick­in­son wished to pub­lish for a wider audi­ence. She shared her work only with fam­i­ly and friends, some of whom pub­lished ten of her poems in news­pa­pers between 1850 and 1866, most like­ly with­out her knowl­edge or con­sent. Many urged Dick­in­son to pub­lish. Author Helen Hunt Jack­son wrote to her: “You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.” Nev­er­the­less, Dick­in­son “hes­i­tat­ed,” an impor­tant word in her lex­i­con, expres­sive of her pro­found agnos­tic doubts about the val­ue of fame, suc­cess, and immor­tal­i­ty.

Pos­si­bly due to the lack of schol­ar­ly inter­est before Johnson’s col­lec­tion, Dickinson’s trove of man­u­script drafts has remained scat­tered across sev­er­al archives, send­ing researchers hoof­ing it to sev­er­al insti­tu­tions to view the poet’s hand­i­work. As of today, that will no longer be nec­es­sary with the inau­gu­ra­tion of the online Emi­ly Dick­in­son Archive, “an open-access web­site for the man­u­scripts of Emi­ly Dick­in­son” that brings togeth­er thou­sands of man­u­scripts held by Har­vard, Amherst, the Boston Pub­lic Library, the Library of Con­gress, and four oth­er col­lec­tions. Though noth­ing can sub­sti­tute for the almost mys­ti­cal feel­ing of being in the phys­i­cal pres­ence of a favorite author’s arti­facts, the site is an enor­mous boon to schol­ars and lay read­ers alike, since it is open to any­one, unlike most spe­cial col­lec­tions in uni­ver­si­ty libraries (although brows­ing the thou­sands of hand­writ­ten images can be exhaust­ing unless one knows what to look for).


As The New York Times describes it, the archives’ cre­ation led to some dis­sention among par­tic­i­pat­ing insti­tu­tions. For the past year, Amherst has main­tained an online data­base of their Dick­in­son col­lec­tion (includ­ing the man­u­script of “The way Hope builds his house,” above). Har­vard has been more reluc­tant to make its man­u­scripts avail­able. Nev­er­the­less, the project’s gen­er­al edi­tor, Leslie M. Mor­ris, says that the aim of the archive “was to down­play the issue of own­er­ship and focus on Emi­ly Dick­in­son and her man­u­scripts.” No behind the scenes wran­gling seems to have inter­fered with the website’s ease of use. Read­ers can search the text of man­u­script images or browse images by library col­lec­tion, first line, date, recip­i­ent (of let­ters), or edi­tion. The site also includes a “Lex­i­con,” with def­i­n­i­tions of the poet­’s favorite words from her own dic­tio­nary, Webster’s 1844 Amer­i­can Dic­tio­nary of the Eng­lish Lan­guage, and users can also search for poems by word. All in all it’s an impres­sive project made all the more so by its free avail­abil­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Sec­ond Known Pho­to of Emi­ly Dick­in­son Emerges.

Hear Walt Whit­man (Maybe) Read­ing the First Four Lines of His Poem, “Amer­i­ca” (1890)

Penn Sound: Fan­tas­tic Audio Archive of Mod­ern & Con­tem­po­rary Poets

The James Mer­rill Dig­i­tal Archive Lets You Explore the Cre­ative Life of a Great Amer­i­can Poet

Bill Mur­ray Reads Poet­ry at a Con­struc­tion Site

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • mila moretti says:

    Once I Wish upon a star…And Now it’ s full as Opera

  • tom boring says:

    Let­ter #238 — to Sue, ‘sum­mer 1861’ : “…Could I make you and Austin — proud — some­time — a great way off — ‘twould give me taller feet — …” I believe she would have loved to have her genius rec­og­nized by a larg­er audi­ence but knew she could­n’t han­dle the social con­se­quences of fame.

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