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Dickinson: A famous poet’s faded photographs

“Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.”

— Emily Dickinson

 

Emily Dickinson’s immortal image has always been that of a pale teenager. There are no verified photographs of her as an adult and only one of her as a youth. She was so reclusive in later years that even her Amherst neighbors rarely saw her. They called her “the Myth.”

The only authenticated photo of Emily was taken at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary circa 1846 when she was about 16 years old. This ubiquitous image is familiar to everyone — the slight girl seated at a table, her hair pulled back, the shadow of a prim smile on her pale face.

Other purported likenesses have turned up from time to time, all eventually discredited except for two, which are easily found online. Each of these images has advocates and detractors, but each remains unproven. The debate over them, as over any idol, has been spirited.

One image (at Amherst) is a circa 1859 daguerreotype which purports to show Emily as an adult, seated next to a female friend. This “Emily” is about 30 years old, strong and fit, strapping even, quite unlike the teen, other than the hair and eyes. One study says the eyes match the 1846 daguerreotype, another that the nose, mouth and chin are so different as to be exclusionary.

The other image (a Professor Gura’s) is of a small woman whose face and size resemble the teen. A forensic study says her features all align with the 1846 image; others dispute it.

Gatekeepers of Emily’s legacy have generally favored the strapping 30-year-old, whom they describe as bold and assertive, in charge of her life and surroundings. This is what some advocates evidently wish the mature poet to be. We’re told that even if this image isn’t Emily, it forces us to reimagine her as an adult, and that changing our perception of the poet from timid teen to strong-willed woman could change literary history.

Of course, such change isn’t necessary to Emily’s legacy. Her boldness is in her writing, not in her physical appearance or demeanor.

Even if we could go back to the Dickinson homestead when Emily was alive, we probably wouldn’t see her. We would see the two family homes (now a museum), the acres of trees and gardens, the dusty road in high summer, perhaps even “a narrow fellow in the grass,” chilling us to the marrow as it did her. As she famously wrote of such encounters:

 

“But never met this fellow,

Attended or alone,

Without a tighter breathing,

And zero at the bone.”

 

For reasons not clear, Emily became reclusive as an adult. She rarely saw visitors after the 1850s or ventured from the homestead after the 1860s. Too many snakes perhaps.

Even Emily’s posthumous editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, who had an adulterous affair with Emily’s brother, Austin, never saw her in person. The closest she got was listening to Emily playing the piano from the next room. Today we might be irresistibly tempted to peek inside. “Yo, Emily!”

At 40, Emily was described as “a plain, shy little person” with “childlike” qualities. She called herself “small, like the Wren.” The woman in the 1859 daguerreotype is neither plain nor small. The woman in the other photo is a closer fit.

Born in 1830 and “called back” in 1886, Emily left nearly 1,800 unpublished poems at her death. When the first collection was issued in 1890, Mabel and Austin could find no image of Emily other than the 1846 daguerreotype, which they did not like.

So to modernize the poet, her image was doctored, her hair curled, her dress updated. That image became the frontispiece of her first book. Immortality followed, along with endlessly unanswered questions.

For 130 years, enthusiasts have tried to rebrand Emily. All I want is to try her famous cake and pudding. Her genius was poetry. Her talent was baking. She even wrote poems while skimming the milk and waiting for her bread to rise.

Finding a new image of the “Recluse of Amherst” is a Holy Grail of 19th-century photography, though none may exist. Emily had a disdain for photographs which made her father worry that she would die without a “mould” of her as an adult. Perhaps she did.

Even if you find a likely image, proving it’s her will be the hard part.

 

Mark Godburn is a bookseller in Norfolk and the author of “Nineteenth-Century Dust-Jackets.”