Detail from currently the only authenticated photograph of Emily Dickinson in existence, taken by William C. North ca. 1847 when Dickinson was 17 years old.
One of the great benefits of digitizing manuscript collections is that it enables us to view these documents in configurations that would have been difficult, if not impossible, with the original artifacts.
When users click through to the Emily Dickinson Collection within Amherst College Digital Collections (ACDC) they see thumbnail images of a dozen or more of Dickinson’s manuscripts. As they begin to scroll through the entire collection they can immediately grasp that Emily Dickinson had a very creative relationship with paper.
To achieve this same level of visual familiarity with the originals would require pulling each folder from the box, gently examining the items, then requesting the next folder from the staff at the reference desk.
Although I do not consider myself an Emily Dickinson scholar or specialist, I want to share several of the more striking examples of Dickinson’s extraordinary manuscripts.
Those interested in delving into the rich world of scholarship focused on Dickinson’s manuscript practice should consult the works of Susan Howe, Martha Nell Smith, Marta Werner, Virginia Jackson, and Alexandra Socarides, among others.
Many groups of students, scholars, and tourists visit Amherst every year to tour the homes of Emily Dickinson and her brother Austin.
Although Dickinson did lead an active life outside the home in her youth, her increasing reclusiveness in her later years give the very notion of house and home a special resonance in her work.
As such, the unusual piece pictured below is of particular interest, just one of Dickinson’s many “envelope poems” – the focus of a recent book, The Gorgeous Nothings by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin.
In this instance, Dickinson has cut apart an envelope so all that remains are the flap and a portion of the body.
She orients the paper so the point of the flap is at the top then she fills that peak with words: “The way hope builds his house…” Or, to phrase it more directly, she writes a poem about a house on a piece of paper that looks like a house.