October 25, 2013

The controversy behind Emily Dickinson’s online archive


The open access Emily Dickinson Archive went live on Wednesday, with high-resolution photos of all the author’s letters, autograph manuscripts, and envelope scribbles. But it arrives with heated controversy between Amherst College, who holds 40% of the archive in its collection, and Harvard University, who put the open access site together with little input from Amherst.

The debate over the rightful holder of Dickinson’s work can be traced back to 1886. When Dickinson died, her sister Lavinia Dickinson discovered her collection of poems, few of them published. She asked her sister-in-law to look them over, but eventually turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst professor. Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an author and Harvard graduate, edited and published three books of Dickinson’s work by 1896.

In exchange for the work, Dickinson’s brother promised Todd some land. (This is where the story gets juicy: the two were also in an extramarital relationship.) Todd says he didn’t deliver, so she donated 850 poems and 350 letters to Amherst upon her death.

Some 700 poems and 300 letters stayed in the Dickinson family and were later sold to a distant cousin named Gilbert Montague. He donated this collection to Harvard, his alma mater, in 1950. So who can lay claim to Dickinson’s

“Mabel never gave it back to the Dickinsons,” said Martha Dell Smith, executive director and coordinator of the Dickinson Electronic Archives, in an interview with The Boston Globe.

Harvard approached Amherst about putting together an archive jointly, but Amherst had one of its lawyers call Harvard to demand that it provide Amherst with digital copies of its Dickinson holdings as specified in a July agreement between the institutions.

“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, said to The Boston Globe. “It should say a joint project,” he adds, but there is little mention of Amherst on the site.

“No one ever threatened a lawsuit,” Kelly said in The New York Times. “We were just reminding them that we had an agreement. They have followed it to the letter.”

Colin Manning, a spokesman for Harvard, said the hard drive with the collections in question had been sent via FedEx last week. If the argument has any repercussions in coming weeks, we’ll keep you updated.


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.