Wednesday, January 25, 2017

My Hunt for Emily Dickinson

 I keep reading about the new Emily Dickinson show at the Morgan Library& Museum in Manhattan and I can't wait to see it.  It's called  "I'm Nobody!  Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson". (It's there until May 21.)  It has all sorts of news and gossip about the mysterious and reclusive poet.  As the NY Post commented "This is shaping up as a good year for the "Belle of Amherst" who never married and died, aged 55...In April we'll see Cynthia Nixon play her in the film 'A Quiet Passion.'"  Reading this inspired me to re-post a photo essay I published seven years ago about my near miss at acquiring a photographic image of Emily--which, to antique photo collectors like myself, would be the equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them.)

There are a few photographs of long-dead celebrities that are so rare, people will pay close to a million dollars for them. If you come across a previously unknown image of, say, Abraham Lincoln, Edgar Allan Poe, John Brown, John Wilkes Booth, Jesse James, to name a few, you have discovered a real treasure.

One of these iconic images would be a new portrait of Emily Dickinson. That’s what a professor at the University of North Carolina, Philip F. Gura, thought he had found on an E-Bay auction that he won on April 12, 2000. It was an albumen photograph (the bottom row above).

Later Gura wrote a delightful description of his torturous six-month search to validate the image. It’s called “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay.”

Read it on

Gura wrote about Emily Dickinson: “Even though she lived when the new invention of photography was changing the ways people thought about themselves, there is only one known photographic likeness of her, taken by William C. North. It was made between December 1846 and March 1847, and shows a thin teenager suffering from what her family took as the first symptoms of tuberculosis.

“A second photograph of Dickinson has long been the Holy Grail of artifacts for scholars in my field…”

Gura paid $481 to win the albumen photograph with “Emily Dickinson” written on the back. As soon as it arrived from the eBay seller, the professor set about trying to validate it. He soon had calls from The New York Times and the New Yorker, who were vying to be the first with the news of his discovery.

Then NPR and many papers around the world were knocking at his door. After much trouble, Gura finally found a forensic anthropologist who was able to measure and compare various anatomical landmarks on the two faces (the original verified dag above left and the new-found albumen photo in the third row). This seems so much quicker and easier on TV shows like CSI and Bones!

Meanwhile two historians of costume analyzed the sitter’s clothing and determined that the albumen photo was a copy of an original daguerreotype taken sometime between 1848 and 1853.

In the one verified image of Emily — the daguerreotype at the upper left-- she is either sixteen or 17 years old. It was taken at Mt. Holyoke and is in the possession of Amherst College.

After all his research, Prof. Gura still doesn’t have a positive "yes" answer. But he believes that it is indeed Emily and quotes one reporter: “Although the forensic analysis of Gura’s photo strongly suggests the woman is ED, no one can say for sure. By the same token, no one apparently can say that the woman is NOT Dickinson.”

Something that was not reported by international media, (but is reported here exclusively on A Rolling Crone), is that I had a very similar experience to Philip Gura’s. But it happened exactly four months earlier. On Jan. 13, 2000, I purchased on eBay a 1/6 plate daguerreotype of a young woman who looked strikingly like Emily Dickinson. The famous verified Emily image is on the left above, on the right is my dag, which I purchased for $127.50 from a seller in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.

The eBay auction had the title “Fine Dag – Lovely Woman – Emily Dickinson???”

But the seller was not making any claims that he couldn’t prove: “Purchased some time ago from an estate auctioned [sic] near Amherst, Mass. A fine daguerreotype…an intriguing and attractive young woman. …Some say she is, some say she looks like, Emily Dickinson. And some say not. Draw your own conclusion (there is one surviving dag of this noted Amherst author.) A fine daguerreotype either way.”

I studied the small photo on eBay and tried to compare it to the one verified dag. Like Philip Gura some months later, I waited in suspense for it to arrive. I imagined the excitement, the glory, the press attention if it proved to be an actual second image of the Belle of Amherst.

You must admit, looking at the two dags side by side, that the resemblance is striking. Even the style of dress and hair and the pose itself. (Emily is near a book and holding what I think is a flower in the official dag. In my image the woman has an adorable beaded bag hanging from her arm. They even seem to be wearing the same kind of dark bracelet, which may or may not be a mourning bracelet made of human hair.)

But I didn’t have to consult forensic anthropologists and costume historians to validate my image when it came. I took one look at the actual dag that lay in my hand and I realized she couldn’t be the real Emily, because, judging from the one true photograph, Emily had dark brown eyes and the woman in MY image had pale blue eyes.

I should have known this, because Emily once wrote to an admirer (who asked for a portrait) this description of herself: “I…am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur-and my Eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the guest leaves – would this do just as well?”

So mine is not a priceless iconic image, and the world’s press is not about to come calling — as it did four months later when Professor Gura discovered his image of ED on eBay. But I like ”my” Emily anyway and would never part with her, because this woman was a contemporary, perhaps a neighbor — perhaps even a relative -- of the real Emily. She certainly has a remarkable resemblance to the mysterious and secretive Belle of Amherst, who wore white and refused to come out of her room in the last years of her life, talking to visitors through a closed door.

And then after her death, her sister Lavina discovered the 1800 poems hidden away in her drawer. The first volume was published four years after Emily died in 1886 at the age of 55.

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