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History in Your Hands: A digitized Dickinson letter

Emily_DickinsonFinding aid

A 17-word letter from poet Emily Dickinson to a neighbor is now widely available to researchers through a new “History in Your Hands” exhibit in the online VCU Libraries Gallery.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) lived most of her life in the family home in Amherst, Mass. She lived quietly. While often identified as a recluse, Dickinson kept close relations through correspondence, which often included poems.

The VCU Libraries letter was written to Mrs. Henry F. (Adelaide Spencer) Hills, the wife of  a businessman. The Hills family had their summer home in Amherst. Adelaide was a frequent correspondent with her neighbor, Emily. After Mrs. Hills’ death in 1910, the letter passed into the hands of her children, specifically her daughter Susan Clapp Hills Skillings, and then to Susan’s heirs. The letter was purchased for the VCU Libraries in 1972 by The James Branch Cabell Library Associates Board. It is the only Dickinson letter VCU Libraries holds.

Like much of Dickinson’s correspondence, this letter is a brief note, written in pencil. Thomas H. Johnson, who published the authoritative work of Dickinson letters, identifies this as letter #614 with a possible publication date of 1879. Prior to the letter’s recent digitization and online publication, it was known only to scholars through transcriptions. Because of its fragility, access to the letter is restricted. Permission to view the original must be granted by the head of Special Collections and Archives. Inquire at the reading room desk or send an email to libjbcsca@vcu.edu.

If you’re interested in learning more about the poet and her work, the Emily Dickinson Museum offers many resources related to Emily Dickinson and to Dickinson scholarship. The two major collections for Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and family papers are Amherst College and Harvard University.

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About the History in Your Hands series of exhibits:

Every archival collection holds a story. Manuscripts and artifacts bear witness to past events, but only a careful researcher can piece together the facts of history and reveal the narrative within the collection. VCU Libraries Special Collections and Archives houses many fascinating primary source materials that wait for inquisitive minds to study them. History in Your Hands exhibits present featured manuscript collections that we believe merit further research. Only when you take “history in your hands” can you begin the process that will allow the full story to be shared.

If you have any questions or comments regarding these materials or this exhibition, please contact the Special Collections and Archives staff in James Branch Cabell Library.

Finding aid

Image:  Emily Dickinson. Daguerreotype. ca. 1847 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. This image is in the public domain. Amherst College Archives & Special Collections is the home of the original.

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