Harvard, Amherst feud over Emily Dickinson (yes, the dead poet)


The longstanding feud between Harvard University and Amherst College over who has the best claim to maintaining Emily Dickinson’s legacy has a new chapter: Tensions is bubbling over what Amherst believes is Harvard’s big-footing on a project involving the digital publication of some of her works.

Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, wrote:

Wednesday’s launch of the Emily Dickinson Archive, a Harvard-led open-access website compiling hundreds of images of the poet’s surviving manuscripts, was supposed to be a celebration of successful scholarly collaboration. But a public dispute with Amherst College over control of and credit for the project has clouded the once-heralded launch.


Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1886, and was famously known for being reclusive. She published only a few poems during her lifetime. The fate of her works became tangled in family politics shortly after she died and in the 1850s, both Harvard and Amherst wound up with large troves of her work. For decades the two schools have engaged in a tug of war over who has the largest and rightful Dickinson collection.

The latest chapter started, as explained in the Boston Globe, when Harvard asked Amherst nearly two years ago to share some of its large Dickinson  collection for a joint digital project. Amherst agreed, but now Amherst officials are complaining that Harvard did not allow them to have real participation in the project or give their school proper credit.

Mike Kelly, head of archives and special collections at Amherst, was quoted as saying:

We’re not allowed to have control over the look of the site and the functionality of the site…. It should say a joint project.

Colin Manning, a Harvard spokesman, wouldn’t directly comment about the Amherst complaints to the Globe but said that Harvard had reached out to many institutions and organizations that had Dickinson material.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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