The Business of Digitizing Dickinson

It is a cliché that college students discover themselves over the span of four years through the classes they take and the books they read. Often times, we hate the books and the writers we’re forced to read and write papers on. But the hatred turns to appreciation once we finally connect with the writer. One such writer is Emily Dickinson. Harvard University recently announced its plan to digitally publish all of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts, letters and transcripts.

Literary nerds of course have much to celebrate, seeing as this is a landmark event in poetic history, but Harvard’s methods should leave a bad taste in the mouths of these fans, as the university uses tactics that would  make even Dickinson grimace.

Online publishing does nothing to taint Dickinson’s legacy or make her work less special; really, it does quite the opposite. If her work is more accessible, it can be more widely appreciated. It is unfortunate but mathematically probable that  most people do not know who Emily Dickinson is, let alone know her work, or where they can read her work. The Internet era allows everyone and especially English majors to share their favorite pieces or lines on social media, thus allowing her legacy to pervade throughout the web.

This all sounds good and not so good. While the idea of publishing Dickinson’s archives online has benefits and would promote scholarship on an international level, Harvard’s methods for achieving these scholarly goals are rather mischievous and unsavory.

In an almost Shakespearean feud, Harvard and Amherst College have battled over the true rights to Dickinson’s archive since her death in 1886. A comical miscommunication, involving mistresses, missing wills, and self-interested family members resulted in half of Dickinson’s archive going to Harvard with the other half residing at Amherst.

Of course, Harvard adopts an Ivy League sense of entitlement over the liberal arts Amherst, but really it is all trivial and a bit petty. Lawyers have been hired, lawsuits filed, and politically correct press statements made. This judicial rigmarole is what one reads poetry to escape from. Essentially, Harvard is not giving Amherst ample credit for its role in collecting the manuscripts and allowing Harvard to publish them. This madness, more than anything else, taints Dickinson’s legacy and the intention of her work.

In a way, learning of Harvard’s pettiness and selfishness kind of ruins how extraordinary this publication is.

If Harvard wants to promote scholarship and foster a new generation of learners and Dickinson appreciators, then it should conduct this process in a more mature, open-minded and less pretentious manner. A back-and-forth struggle between this institution and Amherst hurts the literary souls around the world, because really that is not what great literature is about, and it especially is not what Emily Dickinson’s legacy should be.

Possibly the reason Emily Dickinson rarely published her work was to avoid potential absurdities such as this. It is important for the world to read her work, to tap into her brilliance and to find inspiration.

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is not the product of business transactions. It is the work of a woman who contributed to the world a unique imagination through her poetry.

And now that her written words are digitized we have the choice of reading her poems or watching a YouTube video.



Savannah Peykani is a first-year English major. She can be reached at