Overview and History
Houghton Library holds the papers of many American writers, including those of the 19th-century Amherst poet Emily Dickinson.
Houghton's Dickinson Collection is the largest in the world. In addition to preserving more than 1,000 poems and some 300 letters in her hand, the library also holds the poet’s writing table and chair, the Dickinson family library including the poet's bible, as well as Dickinson's herbarium.
At the heart of the collection are 40 hand-sewn manuscript books, or fascicles, in which the poet copied her poems. These manuscripts record the variations in word choice Dickinson considered. 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 does survive.
For those interested in how the collection ended up at Harvard, researchers can consult the introduction to the 2006 facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium.
Emily Dickinson Archive Online
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 that support 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.
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), family portraits, a portion of the family library, and a number of personal belongings closely associated with the poet. The Dickinson Room is included in public tours of Houghton Library (currently paused due to the pandemic, but check the library’s website for updates) and can be seen at other times by appointment. To request a tour of the room, contact the library.
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, 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.
Dickinson-Related Collections at Houghton
The following collections constitute the bulk of Houghton Library's Emily Dickinson Collection:
Emily Dickinson Poems and Letters
- Emily Dickinson Poems: The fascicles, as well as poems on loose sheets, 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.
- Emily Dickinson letters and poems sent to the Austin Dickinson family: Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
- Emily Dickinson poems and letters to Maria Whitney: Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
- Emily Dickinson letters to Josiah Gilbert Holland and Elizabeth Chapin Holland: 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.
- Emily Dickinson Letters to Lucretia Gunn Dickinson Bullard: Complete color digital facsimiles available; access restricted to the Harvard network.
- Emily Dickinson letters to various correspondents: Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
- Emily Dickinson miscellaneous papers: Includes materials that entered the Houghton collections after 1950. Largely letters, 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 accessed in the original. All are available digitally, linked to their respective catalog records below.
- Emily Dickinson. Herbarium, ca. 1839–1846: Compiled by Dickinson when she was 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--]: Unfinished; nothing is known of its history. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions.
- Botanical specimens received by Emily Dickinson: 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.
Dickinson Family Artifacts and Papers
- Dickinson family artifacts: 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 library: The titles in the Dickinson family library are also listed in HOLLIS and can be browsed using this canned search; those records should be consulted for fuller bibliographic information than is found in the finding aid. More than half the volumes in this library have been digitized. Color digital facsimiles are available without access restrictions.
- Dickinson family papers: Some images available; no access restrictions.
- Dickinson family contracts and correspondence: concerning publication of the works of Emily Dickinson: No images available.
- Dickinson family photographs, ca. 1840-1940: Some images available; no access restrictions.
- Reproductions of the Emily Dickinson daguerreotype: Shows the stages of alteration to the Amherst daguerreotype done by Laura Coombs Hills. Some images available; no access restrictions.
Dickinson Family Circle
- Mary Adèle Allen correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson: Images available; no access restrictions.
- Martha Dickinson Bianchi letters to Theodore Longfellow Frothingham: No images available; no access restrictions.
- Martha Dickinson Bianchi papers: Some images available; no access restrictions.
- Martha Dickinson Bianchi publication correspondence: No images available; no access restrictions.
- Samuel Bowles letters to Austin and Susan Dickinson: No images available; no access restrictions.
- Alfred Leete Hampson correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson's papers: No images available; no access restrictions.
- Thomas Herbert Johnson correspondence with Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, 1950–1958: No images available; no access restrictions.
- Theodora Van Wagenen Ward notes and correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson: Some images available; no access restrictions.
Other individual items, such as silhouettes of the Dickinsons, a drawing of Susan Dickinson, a transcript of the evidence given in the Dickinson-Todd trial, and manuscripts by friends of Dickinson such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson can be found through HOLLIS.
- Virtual Open House Tour of the Dickinson Collection at Houghton Library given by Curator Leslie Morris hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum on April 14, 2021
- Making Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake video by Houghton Library staff baking Emily’s cake from December 2015
- Lecture by Helen Vendler, “Emily Dickinson and the Sublime” with introduction by curator Leslie Morris on March 31, 2011
Accessing These Materials
There is no single database that can be searched for online versions of material in the Dickinson Collection. Patrons should use both HOLLIS and HOLLIS for Archival Discovery to locate material.
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 the library.
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, contact Harvard University Press's Permissions Department.