One of the strengths of the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College is the large number of manuscript fragments — scraps of paper, pieces of envelopes, and a range of other ephemera on which Dickinson jotted a few lines, or even entire poems. One such fragment is identified by Thomas Johnson as “Prose Fragment #96” in his edition of Dickinson’s letters. It’s Amherst manuscript #868: “Of our deepest delights”
This fragment is clearly a piece of a concert program, but no one seems ever to have done the work to find out more about this piece. Fortunately, there is an important clue present on both sides of the paper:
If the program had been torn in half just a little higher up the page, the name Howard Parkhurst might have been lost. As it is, a quick check of the Amherst College Biographical Record (Sesquicentennial Edition, 1973) reveals that he was a member of the Class of 1873. It also tells us that he studied music in Stuttgart, Munich, and Berlin as well as Liverpool between 1873 and 1875. From 1875 – 1882 he taught music and served as organist for various churches around Boston, then it was back to Germany for a couple of years to study with Rheinberger and Kellarmann. Finally, Parkhurst settled in New York city where he taught music and published books about birds from 1884 until his death in 1916.
The next stop was one of our Class Albums for the Class of 1873, so we can put a face to the name:
From the Biographical Record and Class Albums I moved on to consult Parkhurst’s Biographical File — the Archives keeps a file for every student who ever attended Amherst College. Sometimes these files are overflowing with manuscripts and photographs and invaluable details, but sometimes they contain nothing more than the form the alumnus filled out for an alumni directory or class reunion book. Parkhurst’s file isn’t particularly full, but it does contain exactly what I hoped for:
This clean copy of the same program found in the Dickinson Collection provides the next clues: the date and location of the Organ Concert. Inside, we can read the whole musical program performed that afternoon in June:
Now that the exact date was known, it was easy to pull the corresponding volume of The Amherst Student off the shelf to see what further details might emerge. I found two stories in the paper that fleshed out the circumstances of this concert.
One of the first things one learns about exploring the world of Emily Dickinson in and around Amherst is that Dickinsons are thick on the ground around these parts. The “Mr. Dickinson” who played the accompaniments for the chorus could have been Sidney Dickinson of Northampton, a member of the Class of 1874. Or it could have been Edward Dickinson, also of Northampton, or Frederick Billings Dickinson of North Hadley — these last two members of the Class of 1876.
It is highly probable that one, or possibly two, Dickinson men from Emily Dickinson’s family were also present. 1873 is the year that father Edward Dickinson stepped down as Amherst College Treasurer and brother Austin Dickinson took up that post. A fundraising concert for the benefit of the newly constructed College Chapel is likely to have brought at least one of these men to the concert, though we have no concrete evidence of either.
The chapel in question was featured here in July in a parallel campus tour of buildings that are no longer standing — Stearns Church. Only the steeple of the church remains, next to the entrance of the Mead Art Museum.
But to return to Emily Dickinson and the torn scrap of manuscript that started this search. What does all of this detail tell us about her? Having exhausted all of the verifiable facts in the case, we now step into the realm of speculation. It is likely that either her father or her brother or both attended this concert, which would easily explain the presence of a copy of the program floating around the Dickinson Homestead. But is it not possible that Dickinson herself might have attended the concert?
I suppose we haven’t quite exhausted the facts of the case. To be utterly thorough, someone really ought to look up the words to the pieces performed that June day. Do any of those words resonate with the lines Dickinson wrote on her copy of the program? Are any of the pieces performed that day known to have been particular favorites of the poet? Were any of the female members of the chorus friends of Dickinson? Then there’s the question of natural curiosity about the brand new building on the college grounds. And a detail that may or may not be meaningful — the church had not yet been formally dedicated. Would Dickinson have been more or less likely to visit a church that was not yet formally a church?
These are all tantalizing questions, and certainly further research may shed some light, but possibly not. One of the wonderful frustrations of the Dickinson Collection and all the supporting contextual materials here at Amherst College is that we are constantly reminded of the limits of historical knowledge. We know for certain that this piece of a concert program bears pencil marks created by Emily Dickinson. We know a few things about the concert, but beyond that, we must live with uncertainty and speculation.