New York Review of Books
January 25, 2014
Was Emily Dickinson a radical poet of the avant-garde, challenging the regularized notions of predominantly male poets and editors regarding stanza shape, typographical publication and distribution, spelling and punctuation, visual and verbal presentation, erotic love, and so on? Or was she a poet of restraint, who restricted herself to a few traditional patterns of meter and stanza, referred to the wayward Whitman as “disgraceful,” and wore her prim white dress as a sign of those renunciations best expressed in that wildest word “No”?
It is a conflict reaching back to what has come to be called “The War Between the Houses,” when Dickinson’s manuscripts were divided into two main collections. One consisted of the poems Dickinson had sent to her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. The other was the pile of manuscripts discovered in a drawer after Dickinson’s death in 1886 by her sister, Lavinia. Susan had first volunteered to find a publisher for Dickinson’s poetry. When in Lavinia’s view she showed insufficient zeal in pursuing this goal, Lavinia turned—in what seems a deliberate act of hostility—to Susan’s rival for her husband’s affections, Mabel Todd. Todd, more comfortable in the literary world, secured the cooperation of Dickinson’s literary adviser Thomas Wentworth Higginson as coeditor for the project.
The manuscripts sent to Susan were sold to Harvard in 1950. The others, in Mabel’s hands, were donated to Amherst in 1956. The spoils of Dickinson are also divided, with her bedroom furniture at Harvard instead of in the Homestead, which was deeded to Amherst. (As the Amherst archivist Michael Kelly recently told Jennifer Schuessler of The New York Times: “They have the furniture, we have the daguerreotype; they have the herbarium, we have the hair.”) With the resources of the Internet, it was hoped that the two collections might finally be united, at least “virtually.” And so Harvard (which has published successive versions of Dickinson’s collected poems and thereby retained the copyright) launched its “digital Dickinson” project. When the archive was about to go “live,” however, a spat broke out, reported in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.