Emily Dickinson, or the Rivalry of Harvard and Amherst

Controversy exists everywhere.  This week, a generations-old battle between Harvard University and Amherst College spilled into the public’s view, all surrounding the launch of the Emily Dickinson Archives.

The Emily Dickinson Archives (EDA), launched by Harvard University this past week, purportedly “seeks to make available in one virtual place those resources that seem central to the study of Dickinson’s work,” according to the website’s About page.  The EDA combines Dickinson sources from multiple archives across the United States, all under a Creative Commons license for open access.

The Emily Dickinson Archive website, opening up old wounds.

The Emily Dickinson Archive website, opening up old wounds.

The EDA has come under fire by multiple officials at Amherst.  Leading the charge is Mike Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst, who argues that Harvard spearheaded the project without outside input.  According to an article in the Boston Globe, Kelly believes that Harvard is taking total control of Dickinson’s history, a move with which he disagrees.

The controversy between Harvard and Amherst, not dissimilar to the Hatfield and McCoy feud, has its roots in the past.  When Emily Dickinson died, her papers were essentially divided between the family and Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst professor and the mistress of Dickinson’s brother.  Although the story becomes more complicated (explained well by the aforementioned Boston Globe article), the majority of the papers of Emily Dickinson were ultimately divided between Amherst and Harvard.  The animosity between the institutions, sparked by the argument of who has the true rights to Dickinson’s works, continues to this day.

Emily Dickinson could not have guessed what controversy her death would bring to the world of archives.

Emily Dickinson could not have guessed what controversy her death would bring to the world of archives.

The fact that the EDA is causing controversy is, quite honestly, a shame.  It is great for researchers and students of all levels that Dickinson’s work is being made easily available online and in an open access format.  Any criticism of the site, or of any of the participating institutions, should be taken in light of the great helpfulness of the EDA, and digitization projects in general, to the public.

The private correspondence between Harvard and Amherst, or any other participant for that matter, is currently not known.  It is impossible at this point to tell whether these contributors were told that they would have any input in the design of the site.  However, what is clear is that the EDA does not claim to have been a collaborative effort.  Although it combines documents for many different institutions (other than Amherst, the Boston Public Library contributed a great amount of primary sources to the site), the EDA presents no other pretenses of cooperative efforts.

As far as the controversy between Harvard and Amherst is concerned, animosities between institutions always seem to pop up when public outreach efforts are proposed.  An example of this can be seen between England and Greece.  With the construction of a new Acropolis museum in Athens a few years ago, the British Museum came under fire for its retention of the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon.  Similarly to the Harvard-Amherst dispute, nothing good has come out of the contention between England and Greece.

Are the Elgin Marbles truly similar to the Emily Dickinson papers?

Are the Elgin Marbles truly similar to the Emily Dickinson papers?

A solution to the feud between Amherst and Harvard over the Dickinson papers is, to a certain extent, moot at this point.  The concept of one institution giving up – or losing in a court battle, for that matter – their Dickinson documents is unfathomable.  Furthermore, with the fact that both Harvard and Amherst have pre-existing digital repositories for Dickinson documents, the issue of who retains what sources is not as important as it was in the pre-Internet age.  It is now much easier for a researcher to access Dickinson-related material from either Harvard or Amherst because of their digitization projects; even if a scholar needs to access the physical original, it is simple to find out which repository holds the document.

The conflict between Harvard and Amherst, like so many other feuds in our society, probably will not fade without our lifetime.  Even with the launching of the EDA, controversy abounds over the ownership of Emily Dickinson’s personal papers and original poems.  Despite this, the public as well as those in academia can take comfort in the fact that these sources are, in their own ways, now more available than ever before.  That is what is truly important.

2 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson, or the Rivalry of Harvard and Amherst

  1. It’s kinda hard to see what the debate is about – neither Amherst nor Harvard seems to be restricting access to the documents, so why does it matter who has what? Also, the EDA says it’s making available in one place “resources that seem central” to Dickinson’s work, so is that just her work itself, or secondary sources as well?

  2. Pingback: Guest classic author. Emily Dickinson | Just Olga

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