During his remarks at the opening of the Morgan Library & Museum’s new exhibit, “I’m Nobody! Who Are You? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” Mike Kelly had a surprising announcement: Amherst College had just acquired two previously unknown Dickinson items.
The announcement was fitting, since the exhibition brings together 100 Dickinson items that range from the rarely seen to the never-before-exhibited. These include a number items from the College, such as a lock of hair, daguerreotypes and hand-cut silhouettes.
The newly acquired items include the personal notebook of a friend of the poet, with transcriptions of Dickinson’s poems, and a long-lost piece of a manuscript already held by the College.
“The discovery of this manuscript fragment that has been lost for more than 100 years is truly remarkable,” said Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst. “No one imagined these pieces of paper would ever be reunited, but they fit together perfectly.”
Steve Finer, an antiquarian bookseller based in Greenfield, Mass., found the manuscript fragment among the effects of Cheryl Needle, a fellow bookseller who died last year. Leslie Morris, a curator at Houghton Library at Harvard University, spotted the item in Finer’s catalog and immediately contacted Amherst. Finer delivered the manuscript to Amherst on Jan. 12, a week before the Morgan exhibition opened.
Kelly noted that how the fragments became separated will likely always remain a mystery. Scholars over the years have attributed the mutilation to such culprits as Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson and Lavinia Dickinson. The 4.5-inch-by3.25-inch slip of paper has segments of two poems—“I’ve got an arrow here” (F 56) and “‘Lethe’ in my flower" (F 54)—with one on each side of the paper.
The second acquisition is the commonplace book of Dickinson’s friend Gertrude Lefferts Vanderbilt. Between 1862 and about 1895, Vanderbilt recorded her favorite pieces of poetry and prose by numerous authors, including 10 texts by Dickinson, in the pocket-sized notebook. Tom Congalton of Between the Covers brokered the sale of the item to the College.
“We already knew that Dickinson wrote at least two poems for Vanderbilt, but now we have additional evidence of Vanderbilt’s high regard for her friend,” Kelly said. “This is vital evidence for how Dickinson’s poems were circulated among her many friends and admirers during her lifetime.”
Amherst already holds the Dickinson’s manuscript of “Dying! –To be afraid of thee,” which she wrote to Vanderbilt after an accidental pistol shot in March 1864 left the Brooklyn socialite near death. A second poem to Vanderbilt, “To this world she returned,” is held at Harvard. It is possible that Vanderbilt is the source for Dickinson’s poems that appeared in three separate New York periodicals in the 1860s. Only 10 of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime.
Both new items were acquired after the Morgan Library exhibit had been finalized, but they will be on display on the first floor of Frost Library, near the Frost Café.