Emily Dickinson is one of America's most original poetic voices. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830, she rarely ventured outside her father's grounds after the age of 23; she died there in 1886. These bare facts of a solitary and outwardly uneventful life do not explain how she produced such brilliant, startling poetry. She wrote that "Publication—is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—" and presumably was content to be known locally for her gardening skills rather than her writing. Of the 1,789 poems that survive, only 10 were published in Dickinson's lifetime, all anonymously. While her family and friends knew that she wrote—she often enclosed poems in letters—it was not until after her death, and the discovery of hundreds of poems stuffed into the drawers of her bedroom bureau, that the extent of Dickinson's accomplishment was known.
It is this disjuncture between mundane life and sublime poetry that accounts for the continued fascination Dickinson holds for scholars and the general public. The Dickinson Collection attracts pilgrims from all over the world to work with the poet's manuscripts and letters, and to visit the Dickinson Room, which contains the family library and a selection of furniture (including the famous bureau, and the small bedroom table at which the poet wrote most of her poetry), paintings, and objects.
The Dickinson Collection came to Harvard in 1950, the gift of Gilbert H. Montague "in happy memory" of his wife, Amy Angell Collier Montague. Mr. Montague, a distant cousin of the Dickinsons, purchased the collection from Alfred Hampson, who inherited it from Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's niece. Hampson was eager that the manuscripts be available for research at a major university, and Montague knew his alma mater would provide the proper environment to nurture the reputation of Emily Dickinson.
The Dickinson Collection is not a static memorial, but the center of an active research community. The collection has formed the basis for the standard publications in the field: Thomas Johnson, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955); Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward, eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958); Ralph Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (1998); with an electronic Poems and Letters now in the planning stage. Harvard and Boston-area faculty use the Dickinson Collection regularly in teaching literary history and criticism, and creative writing. Visual artists incorporate manuscripts and objects into video, sculpture, and other art forms.
The library works closely with the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Emily Dickinson International Society to bring its collections to the public. Descriptive information about the family library and about Dickinson's manuscript books or fascicles, letters, herbarium, and family photographs are now on the Web, with a growing number of linked digital facsimiles.
Collection Profile: Leslie A. Morris
Overview: William P. Stoneman
Illustrations: Imaging Services, Harvard College Library