Emily Dickinson, From Fascicle to Open Access

“Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) bequeathed to us nearly 1,800 poems; in some passionate years she wrote almost a poem a day. Like all capacious writers, she baffles complete understanding: to enter her poetics entirely a reader would have to know by heart (and by ear) all her poems. Ideally, too, her reader should possess the King James Bible as firmly as she did, and should have read the poetry of the English past as fervently as she had… Yet readers worldwide, even when they have lacked her background, have flocked to her poems, responding to her candor, her grief, and her wit.”—Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries

Emily Dickinson’s writing table and chair, on display in the Houghton Library’s Dickinson Room

Emily Dickinson’s writing table and chair, on display in the Houghton Library’s Dickinson Room.

In 1950, Harvard’s Houghton Library received its world-renowned Dickinson Collection as a gift from the poet’s heirs, together with publication rights. Soon thereafter, the well-known literary historian Thomas H. Johnson was chosen as editor, and the three-volume Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by Harvard University Press in 1955. This landmark edition presented, for the first time, transcriptions of all of Dickinson’s known poems, noting variant words and including multiple versions of poems. In 1958, the Press followed up with a three-volume edition of Dickinson’s letters, edited by Johnson and Theodora Ward.

In 1998, R. W. Franklin and the Press published a new three-volume edition containing 1,789 of Dickinson’s poems, the largest number ever assembled. Arranged chronologically based on new dating analysis, The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition transcribed the entire known corpus of approximately 2,500 textual sources, giving as many as seven versions of some poems. In 1999, the Press published Franklin’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, which follows the same numbering system as the Variorum but offers, in one volume, a single version of each poem.

In 2016, the Press published Cristanne Miller’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. This is the only major edition of the complete poems to distinguish in easy visual form the approximately 1,100 poems Dickinson took pains to copy carefully onto folded sheets and gather with string into booklets (fascicles)—arguably to preserve them for posterity—from the poems she kept in rougher form or apparently did not retain. Miller’s Introduction describes Dickinson’s practices in copying and circulating poems and summarizes contentious debates within Dickinson scholarship.

HUP’s long engagement with the works of Emily Dickinson extends to the Emily Dickinson Archive, which makes high-resolution images of manuscripts of Dickinson’s poetry and letters available in open access, along with transcriptions and annotations from historical and scholarly editions. The first release, in Fall 2013, focuses on the corpus of poems that Franklin identified in his Variorum but includes transcriptions by Johnson and other editors who published Dickinson’s poems in collections starting shortly after her death. Under the guidance of General Editor Leslie Morris, with an Advisory Board of distinguished scholars, EDA is a growing collaboration that includes Amherst College, Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, Boston Public Library, Digital Public Library of America, Emily Dickinson Lexicon at Brigham Young University, Harvard Library, Harvard University Press, and Houghton Library at Harvard.

Key Features of Emily Dickinson Archive

  • Find poems easily with multiple index and reference tools
  • Study the poet’s own handwriting, variants, and arrangement of her work
  • Read and compare editions, word choice, and transcriptions through time
  • Engage in new scholarship using tools for creating annotations, transcriptions, and reading lists

View additional works by and about Emily Dickinson from Harvard University Press »

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