Overview and History
The Houghton Library is known for its holdings of papers of 19th-century American writers, and many would say that the jewel in that crown is the Emily Dickinson Collection.
Houghton's Dickinson Collection is the largest in the world. It preserves more than 1,000 autograph poems — handwritten by the poet herself — and some 300 letters.
The collection also includes such treasures as:
- Dickinson's Herbarium;
- the writing table and chair from her bedroom in Amherst, where she wrote much of her poetry;
- the family library, including the poet’s Bible, and books by the Brontës, the Brownings, George Eliot, Emerson, Shakespeare, and more; and
- family papers that provide insight into the context of the poet’s life and work.
The heart of the collection is the 40 hand-sewn manuscript books, or fascicles, into which the poet copied her poems. These "copies of record" for the poem show the alternate word choices Dickinson might make as she copied these poems to send to friends.
Unfortunately, these fascicles were disbound by the poet’s earliest editors. None survive as Dickinson left them, although in a few cases the thread used to sew the folded sheets together does survive.
The collection also contains many poems on loose sheets, never sewn into fascicles; poems sent to friends and family, particularly to her sister-in-law Susan and her nephews and niece; and many letters, principally to members of her family.
The history of the dispersal of Dickinson's manuscripts is a complicated one, and has been told in detail elsewhere (see the foreword to Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium). The Houghton collection consists of those papers inherited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, who eventually gave them to Alfred Leete Hampson, her co-editor on several volumes of Dickinson’s poetry.
As Hampson aged, he became concerned for the future of the collection, and wanted it to be available for research at a major university. Gilbert Montague, a distant cousin of the Dickinsons and a collector, heard that Hampson wanted to sell the papers. He decided to buy them and give them to his alma mater, Harvard.
Thus, as with most of Harvard’s greatest library treasures, the Dickinson Collection came to Harvard in 1950 as the gift of Gilbert H. Montague "in happy memory" of his wife, Amy Angell Collier Montague.
Once at Harvard, and more easily accessible to scholars, the collection formed the basis for the standard publications in the field of Dickinson studies. Additionally, Harvard and Boston-area faculty use the Dickinson Collection regularly in teaching literary history and criticism, and creative writing. And the collection is an indispensable resource for the many articles and monograph published on Dickinson yearly.
The Dickinson Room
The Dickinson Room is located on the second floor of Houghton Library. It displays family furniture (including the poet's writing table and chair), portraits, a portion of the family library, and a number of personal belongings closely associated with the poet.
The Dickinson Room is included in the public tour of Houghton Library offered every Friday at 2:00 pm, and at other times by appointment.
Emily Dickinson's Black Cake
“2 Butter. / 19 eggs. / 5 pounds Raisins.”
Those are some of poet Emily Dickinson's lesser-known lines.
Dickinson’s manuscript recipe for black cake, included in Houghton's Dickinson Collection and from which these lines come, was sent along with a bouquet of flowers to Nellie Sweetser in the summer of 1883. Read more about the recipe, and watch a video of Houghton staff recreating the cake.
Emily Dickinson Archive
Emily Dickinson Archive provides access to images of nearly all of Emily Dickinson’s extant poetry manuscripts.
A collaborative effort across many institutions, the archive provides readers with images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives, and offers an array of transcriptions of Dickinson’s poems. It also features digital tools intended to foster exploration and scholarship.
The site allows users to:
- browse images of manuscripts by first line, date, or recipient;
- turn the pages of and zoom into the manuscripts;
- search the full text of six editions of Dickinson’s poems;
- browse Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon, a resource indexing Dickinson’s word choices along with their contemporary definitions; and
- create an account to make notes on images, save transcriptions of poems, and create new editions of her poetry.
Dickinson-Related Collections at Houghton
The major collections that make up Houghton Library's Emily Dickinson collection are listed below.
Emily Dickinson Poems and Letters
Poems (MS Am 1118.3) The fascicles, as well as poems on loose sheets, many addressed to Susan Dickinson and other family members. The appendix includes a useful concordance of Johnson numbers, Franklin numbers, and Houghton call numbers. Color digital facsimiles available in open access.
Letters and poems sent to the Austin Dickinson family (MS Am 1118.5) Johnson HCL B. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
Poems and letters to Maria Whitney (MS Am 1118.10) Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
Letters to Josiah Gilbert Holland and Elizabeth Chapin Holland (MS Am 1118.2) Includes some poems. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
Letters to Lucretia Gunn Dickinson Bullard (MS Am 1118.17) Complete color digital facsimiles available; access restricted to the Harvard network.
Letters to various correspondents (MS Am 1118.4) Johnson HCL L; also includes (L55)–(L64), letters to Abiah Root cited by Johnson as HCL ARS; and (L65), a letter to Jane Humphrey cited as HCL JH1. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
Miscellaneous papers (MS Am 1118.7) Includes materials that entered the Houghton collections after 1950. Largely letters (including Johnson HCL SH and HCL Haven), but a few manuscripts, and the recipe for black cake. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
Because of their extreme fragility, the following items cannot be used in the original. All are available digitally, linked to their respective catalog records below.
Emily Dickinson. Herbarium, ca. 1839–1846. (MS Am 1118.11) Compiled by Dickinson when a student at Amherst Academy. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions. Additionally, published in facsimile as: Emily Dickinson's Herbarium. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. The Herbarium is searchable by both common (e.g. dandelion, lily) and scientific (e.g. Jasminum, Calendula) plant name.
Emily Dickinson. Herbarium, [18--] (MS Am 1118.12) Unfinished; nothing is known of its history. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions.
Dickinson, Emily, recipient. Botanical specimens (MS Am 1118.13) Pressed botanical specimens sent to Dickinson, most of which are labeled with geographic locations in the Middle East. It is possible that some or all of the labeled specimens were sent to Dickinson by Abby Wood Bliss, a schoolmate from Amherst Academy, who went to the Middle East as a missionary wife in 1855. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions.
In addition to volumes in the Dickinson Family Library, Houghton has three books from Thomas W. Higginson’s library associated with Emily Dickinson:
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803–1882. Representative men: seven lectures. (Boston: J. R. Osgood and company, 1876.) Autographed by Mary Channing Higginson: MCH from Emily Dickinson — Christmas — 1876. Houghton call number: *AC85 D5605 Zz876e
Eliot, George, 1819–1880. Daniel Deronda. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876). Volume 2 only. Houghton call number: *AC85 D5605 Zz876e2
Eliot, George, 1819–1880. George Eliot's life as related in her letters and journals. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1885) 3 v. Vols. 2 & 3 autographed: T.W. Higginson from Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, Mass., 1885. With marginalia and notes by Higginson. Houghton call number: *AC85 D5605 Zz885e
Dickinson family, collector. Dickinson family artifacts (Dickinson Room) Portraits, furniture, jewelry, and household objects, many on display in the Dickinson Room. All objects have been photographed. Color digital facsimiles are available without access restrictions.
Dickinson family, collector. Dickinson family library (EDR 1-565) The titles in the Dickinson family library are also listed in HOLLIS; those records should be consulted for fuller bibliographic information than is found in the finding aid.
While some of these books contain markings, only a few can be directly associated with the poet. A few books from the Dickinson Family Library were not classed as EDR (see Houghton accessions *49-2604 through *49-2634). This oversight has been corrected (July 2010), and these titles are now EDR 566 through 589. More than half the volumes in this library have been digitized. Color digital facsimiles are available without access restrictions.
Dickinson family. Dickinson family papers: Guide. (MS Am 1118.95) Some images available; no access restrictions.
Dickinson family. Contracts and correspondence concerning publication of the works of Emily Dickinson (MS Am 1118.18) No images available.
Dickinson family photographs, ca. 1840-1940 (MS Am 1118.99b) Some images available; no access restrictions.
Graves, Louise B., collector. Reproductions of the Emily Dickinson daguerreotype. (MS Am 1118.15) Shows the stages of alteration to the Amherst daguerreotype done by Laura Coombs Hills. Some images available; no access restrictions.
Allen, Mary Adèle. Correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson (MS Am 1118.6)
Bianchi, Martha Dickinson, 1866–1943. Letters to Theodore Longfellow Frothingham (bMS Am 1996)
Bianchi, Martha Dickinson, 1866–1943. Martha Dickinson Bianchi papers (MS Am 1118.96)
Bianchi, Martha Dickinson, 1866–1943. Martha Dickinson Bianchi publication correspondence (MS Am 1118.97-1118.98)
Bowles, Samuel, 1826–1878. Samuel Bowles letters to Austin and Susan Dickinson (MS Am 1118.8)
Hampson, Alfred Leete, collector. Correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson's papers (MS Am 1923)
Johnson, Thomas Herbert. Correspondence with Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, 1950–1958. (MS Am 2513)
Ward, Theodora Van Wagenen, b. 1890. Notes and correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson (MS Am 2380)
Other individual items, such as silhouettes of the Dickinsons (MS Am 1118.14); a drawing of Susan Dickinson (MS Am 1118.9); and a transcript of the evidence given in the Dickinson-Todd trial (MS Am 2521); and manuscripts by friends of Dickinson such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson can be found through HOLLIS.
Helen Vendler, "Emily Dickinson and the sublime." Introduction by Leslie A. Morris, Houghton Library.
Accessing These Materials
There is no single database that can be searched for online versions of material in the Dickinson Collection. Both HOLLIS and HOLLIS for Archival Discovery will help in locating material, and the list of major collections above indicates which have images, and whether access to those images is open or restricted to the Harvard network.
Due to the fragile nature of many items in the collection, researchers are required to use the facsimiles of Dickinson manuscripts and letters that are available. All poetry manuscripts are available online in color digital facsimile in the Emily Dickinson Archive as well as through the library's finding aids. The fascicles have also been published in facsimile. Dickinson's autograph letters are available in color digital facsimile in the Houghton Reading Room.
Some books in the Dickinson Family Library contain markings, and in 2010 Houghton Library embarked upon a program to stabilize and digitize these fragile volumes. The volumes are restricted because of their condition, and other copies of the same editions are held by the Houghton Library or in Widener Library. Readers are expected to use these alternate copies.
Permission to consult the original manuscripts or letters by Emily Dickinson, or books from the Dickinson Library, must be approved in advance.
Reproductions and Permissions
For permission to quote from or reproduce from manuscript material of Dickinson, contact Houghton Library's Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts.
For permission to quote from published editions of Dickinson's work that are still in copyright (such as the Johnson and Franklin editions of the poems), and for all commercial uses of Emily Dickinson texts on this website, contact Harvard University Press's Permissions Department.