Harvard Stops Author From Printing Poems

In a rare move to protect the integrity of University-owned manuscripts, Harvard recently denied an English professor permission to publish his interpretation of a collection of Emily Dickinson poems housed in Houghton Library.

Scholars of Emily Dickinson have always disagreed over the correct interpretation of her poems. Her handwriting was extremely difficult to read, and her system of punctuation and structure was unusual.

Professor Phillip Stambovsky, an English professor at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn., has been working on a edition supposedly more faithful to Dickinson's originals than editions currently available.

But his project was shelved by the University of North Carolina Press because Harvard, which owns the copyright, denied him authorization to use the poems.

"His request is different from a type consisting of various interpretations. That is fine. But, Professor Stambovsky was putting his individual interpretation only [in the anthology]," said Melinda T. Koyanis, the copyright and permissions manager for Harvard University Press (HUP).

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, HUP is currently developing its own Dickinson anthology, but Koyanis said the University's refusal to grant Stambovsky permission to print his anthology was "a completely separate issue."

Koyanis said that HUP reviews all requests from scholars wishing to interpret the Dickinson poems owned by Harvard, but Stambovksy's interpretation was "inaccurate" and "even the word choice was wrong."

"We do what is in the best interests of the Dickinson collection," she said.

Koyanis also said that in general, the University publishers do not authorize stand-only anthologies, i.e. anthologies consisting only of Dickinson poems.

Harvard controls the property rights to Dickinson's original manuscripts, which are kept at Houghton Library, as well as the copy-rights to those poems through HUP.

Harvard has more than 1,000 of the surviving Dickinson poems in its collection, according to Leslie A. Morris, curator of manuscripts in the Harvard College Library.

Some of Dickinson's other works are available at Amherst College and at the Boston Public Library, but Harvard's collection is the largest, Morris said.

Harvard purchased the collection in 1950 from Alfred Hampson, a relative of Emily Dickinson, she said.

Facsimiles of the manuscripts are available to anyone, but scholars who want to view the originals at Houghton Library must undergo a screening process because the manuscripts are so delicate.

"To the best of my knowledge, [Stambovsky] had not written a request [to see them]," said Morris.

The University of North Carolina Press turned down Stambovsky's project, but the project is now being considered by Yale University Press and the University of Massachusetts Press, according to the Chronicle.

The Chronicle also states that Stambovsky believes Harvard cannot legally restrict interpretations of the poems, and he hopes that something will eventually be done about the process by which Harvard grants permission