Telling It Slant–Harvard Nobodies Miss “Gigantic Opportunity”

A “gigantic missed opportunity” to “peel back the layers of interpretation and classification that have built up over the years and get back to the original documents.” So says Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst College, according to Liz Bury for the Guardian. Kelly is trash-talking Harvard, which partly financed and shaped the Emily Dickinson Archive project, newly available online this week. Harvard’s Houghton Library “felt it best to start with a subset of Emily Dickinson’s work” (so says a Harvard curator of modern books and manuscripts, according to Bury). But the new Dickinson site includes only 539 of the 850 Amherst College manuscripts. Kelly maintains that this can only “problematise the current scheme” and reinforce the unjust hegemony of the 1998 Harvard edition of Dickinson’s poem.

Who better to mediate, or at any rate interpret, this conflict than a Dickinson biographer from faraway Oxford, Lyndall Gordon. Background: the Harvard collection was owned originally by Susan Dickinson, wife of Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson. The Amherst papers come from Mabel Loomis Todd. Gordon says “it all goes back to the adultery and the two homes. Austin had an explosive affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,” and the “war between the two houses…is extraordinarily, pulsatingly alive in the present,” having been “handed down from generation to generation.” The colleges are none too cozy either, are they?

Harvard has, says Bury, “positioned the archive as open to change and revisions at a later date,” quoting Morris: “We also plan to make the application programming interface (API) open.” A likely story! According to the Boston Globe, a written agreement “called for Harvard to share its digital collection with Amherst (but) as of (mid-October) Harvard had not done so, according to Kelly, prompting Amherst’s lawyer to call Harvard’s lawyer and inquire of their whereabouts. (Colin) Manning (of Harvard) said a hard drive containing the Emily Dickinson manuscripts was sent by FedEx last week.” That sounds sensible, if it were still about 1999. Harvard, methinks thou hidest and liest. Wherefore art thy Ve-Ri-Tas?

Could it be that was being managed–or worse, is being redone–by a committee of Harvard and Amherst alums?  Success in circuit lies–but maybe not in a health website.


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