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A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.

American poet Emily Dickinson was born this week, on December 10 in 1830.

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For rare book collectors, Dickinson is one of the most troubling and elusive writers. Of the nearly 1,800 poems she wrote, just twelve were published in her lifetime. These, anonymously printed in local newspapers such as the Springfield Republican and Brooklyn Daily Union, were heavily edited and thus cannot be considered true and accurate representations of Dickinson’s own poetry.

The bulk of her work was published after her death by friends Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Once again, the punctuation and capitalisation were extensively altered from her original manuscripts to conform to the standards of the time, as well as the poems suffering a certain amount of re-wording. In addition, being published after her death, they are never enhanced by her signature. While nominally collectible, these anthologies cannot be considered genuine examples of her work either.

Dickinson’s poetry is experimental and innovative for the time the poems were written, composed of shorts lines without capitals, slant rhyme, unconventional punctuation and capitalisation. Therefore versions of her poems edited to comply with the 19th century norm destroy the very essence of her unique style.

An unadulterated edition of her poetry did not appear until over a century after her death, in 1955. Thomas H. Johnson’s version is a modern book, mass produced, and therefore holds little value or interest for rare book collectors.

This problem, between authenticity and rarity, poses a puzzle for collectors. The solution is that the only authentic examples of Dickinson’s poetry are the extremely rare handwritten manuscripts, compiled as she reviewed her poems, made clean copies, and assembled collections between 1858 and 1865.

Emily’s sister Lavinia discovered her cache of these poem manuscripts after her death. Emily had made Lavinia promise to destroy her letters after her death, and Lavinia kept her promise, burning most of the poet’s correspondence. Luckily, Emily had said nothing of the manuscripts, and these survived.

Dickinson was famously reclusive and introverted, leading a strange and sheltered life. The mystery surrounding her, her increasing isolation and refusal to leave the house, provokes an additional interest from collectors. Seeking out her scarce works mirrors the study of Dickinson’s elusive character, the search for truth and authenticity.

By Louise

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