The Enigma of Emily Dickinson Still Alive and Well

Christopher Benfey’s article “Dickinson: Raw or Cooked?” in the New York Review of Books, revisits the long-standing feud between Harvard and Amherst Colleges over everything Emily Dickinson. The two institutions each own a sizable amount of Dickinson’s estate and effects. As Amherst Archivist Michael Kelly was quoted in the article: “They have the furniture, we have the daguerreotype; they have the herbarium, we have the hair.” But what Harvard and Amherst are essentially quibbling over is who has the right to characterize Dickinson. Which is a lucky situation for readers and fans of E.D. Harvard takes the traditional approach, defining Dickinson as a conservative poet who chose her meter and form and stuck to it. Amherst chooses to give us the ‘raw’ of the ‘raw or cooked’, posting Dickinson’s collection of splayed envelopes and paper scraps with scribbled-on bits of brilliance and cryptic three or four word phrases. Between Harvard’s dedication to upholding a view of the poet as tidy perfectionist and Amherst’s insistence on honoring the experimentalist Dickinson, I think we’re getting a surprisingly well-rounded view of a poet who hasn’t penned a word in nearly 130 years.

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