Emily Dickinson’s Original Manuscripts (but online!)

The Emily Dickinson Archive, found at www.edickinson.org, describes itself as “an open access website for the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson.” Inside, one can browse a collection of images of Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts, which are housed separately under links leading to library archives maintained by the American Antiquarian Society, Amherst College, Beinecke Library, Boston Public Library, Houghton Library, Library of Congress, Smith College Libraries, and Vassar Special Collections. Of these collections, I found the Beinecke Library manuscripts the most compelling.

Daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson, c. Early 1847.

All of the collections feature the handwritten letters and poems of Emily Dickinson, but unlike the others, the Beinecke collection also features pages from the 1890 collection of Dickinson’s poems. It was the first collection of her work to be published after her death and was compiled and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. So unlike the other collections, the Beinecke Library offers the original printed pages of Dickinson’s first published collection as they would have appeared to readers in 1890. Even the binding holes are visible on the sides of the pages. Amongst these poems is the piece “I know some lonely houses off the road”, and the images of the manuscript found in the archive showcase some of Susan Dickinson’s handwritten corrections on the page. The evidence of Susan Dickinson’s further editing of the already printed manuscript offers evidence of the long process of showcasing Dickinson’s work with its original intentions. It’s some intriguing insight into the early days of what would ultimately be a decades long and possibly still-ongoing process of restoring Dickinson’s original poems, punctuation and capitalization and all.

Cuneiform Tablet. 11 Jan. 2020.

One of the most interesting elements of this particular manuscript is a seemingly random countdown of numbers in the middle of one of Emily Dickinson’s letters to her correspondent Samuel Bowles. On the page, Dickinson has written the numbers 1 through 16 for apparently no reason, (a side note: her number “9” looks like a stickman without arms, and the tail of her “5” curves in like a swirl.) The archive offers no notes or justification for these numbers being here, though earlier in the manuscript it clarifies Susan Dickinson’s marks on the page as “Corrected by Susan Dickinson in manuscript.”

A newly printed copy of these manuscripts would not feature the historical aesthetic of the yellowing paper, nor would it feature Dickinson’s original handwriting and scribbled out notes and corrected lines. Not only are these original copies incredibly cool to look at, but they also seem to give some limited insight into the author’s mind. There’s an inherently personal nature to these texts that’s missing from later printed copies, and I think the significance of these original copies goes beyond just the literal words on the page. Taken as a whole, the digital surrogates of these manuscripts are the preservation of historical artifacts. Nowadays we don’t view the original Gutenberg Bible or a cuneiform tablet as literature so much as we view it as an artifact, but in fact, they’re both. And the same goes for the Dickinson manuscripts.

With that said, I think there are some significant drawbacks to this digital surrogate. With Dickinson’s manuscripts in particular, the handwriting is often illegible. The archive does not offer any sort of printed transcription of Emily Dickinson’s handwritten words, and so attempting to read the pages which occupy roughly a fourth of the laptop screen is somewhat of a futile exercise. Ironically, when it comes to reading Dickinson’s poems in this digital surrogate, the heavily altered versions of her work that were published in the 1890 collection after her death are actually more useful than the original handwritten manuscripts. I think in terms of actually reading Dickinson’s poems, a print version is a much more suitable format, but I think it should be noted the Dickinson archives are different from other digital surrogates in the sense that their handwritten nature is something unique to Dickinson’s manuscripts. Digital surrogates of other original manuscripts might not encounter the same legibility issue.

Digital surrogates provide elements of a text that would not be possible in a PDF copy or a reprinted version. Despite the digital format, there’s a semblance of the aesthetics of the original work, and in the case of Dickinson’s manuscripts, somewhat of a connection to the literal pen of the author. The biggest drawback is the lack of a physical book in your hand, though at least in terms of historical artifacts, it’s unlikely one can get his or her hands on the physical artifact, so digital surrogates are a good middle ground.

Works Cited:

Reading View for Beinecke Library, http://www.edickinson.org/collections/7067/image_sets/7067?image=1721.

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