The manuscripts of Emily Dickinson have long been scattered across multiple archives, meaning scholars had to knock on numerous doors to see all the handwritten drafts of a poet whose work went almost entirely unpublished in her lifetime.
“To have all these manuscripts together on one site and to have it so thoroughly searchable is extraordinary,” said Cristanne Miller, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and a member of the project’s advisory board.
But the project, organized and financed by Harvard, has also generated enough behind-the-scenes intrigue to fill an imaginary Journal of Emily Dickinson Studies Studies, as one board member jokingly put it.
Since planning began two years ago, there has been a revival of decades-old tensions between Harvard and Amherst, which hold the two largest Dickinson collections. And sometimes-bitter debate has flared on the advisory board, with some members saying that Harvard’s choice of which materials to include provides too narrow an answer to a basic question: Just what counts as an Emily Dickinson “poem,” anyway?
“The scholarship with any major figure produces factions and divisions,” said Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson scholar at Mount Holyoke College, who is not involved with the project. “But with Dickinson, the truly bizarre thing is the quarrel has been handed to generation after generation after generation.”
The trouble began when Dickinson died, in 1886, leaving behind just 10 published poems and a vast and enigmatic handwritten paper trail, ranging from finished-seeming poems assembled into hand-sewn books to fragments inscribed on advertising fliers, envelope flaps, brown household paper, even a chocolate wrapper……