Amherst Magazine

Looking at Emily

By Daria D'Arienzo

emily daguerreotype
This daguerreotype image of Emily Dickinson for many years was “lost” within the poet’s family. Click for larger image.

© Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

This essay was originally delivered as a talk at the unveiling of Guillermo Cuéllar’s portrait of Emily Dickinson in the Special Collections at the Jones Library in Amherst on December 9, 2004. The talk was revised for publication, appearing first in the November/December 2005 issue of the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (vol. 17, no. 2).

Even today, at 175, after decades of scholars studying her poetry, her letters and her life, Emily Dickinson still haunts us. We want to know her, to follow her every move. She remains a very real part of our lives. We would like to see her when we walk along Main Street in Amherst—to stop at her window at the Homestead—though she’s been gone for all these many years.

While we all have an image of Emily Dickinson in our minds, we want to know what she really looked like. She painted a picture of herself with words—“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 – .”1 But can we take her at her word?

The earliest image of Dickinson is in Otis A. Bullard’s 1840s portrait (now at Harvard University’s Houghton Library) of the Dickinson children—Emily at 9, Austin at 10 and Lavinia at 6, almost 7. The painting tells us little—the siblings look almost interchangeable—though it is interesting that the painter has picked up on Emily’s interest in nature (as well as Lavinia’s in cats).2

emily profile
© Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

We glimpse a maturing young woman through a silhouette image (right) that arrived at Amherst College in 1956, together with many of Dickinson’s manuscript poems, notes and letters, a gift from Millicent Todd Bingham, who had inherited the collection from her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd. The silhouette was cut by an Amherst student, Charles Temple, in 1845, the year he graduated, when Emily was 14. “A native of Smyrna” (now Turkey), Temple was Dickinson’s French instructor at Amherst Academy in the early 1840s. Temple’s silhouette gives us an impression of the young girl she was—bobbed hair, upturned nose, distinctive chin and mouth. It’s a tantalizing image in its way—suggesting the plant slip before it grows to flower—and its darkness underscores the mystery that attends her.

Yet, even with these two youthful images, many of us will “see” Dickinson through another lens: that iconographic image captured forever in black and white, the single documented photographic likeness of the poet as a young woman—a sixth-plate daguerreotype, showing a three-quarter view of her seated with her arm resting on a cloth-covered table, holding a small bouquet of flowers and looking directly at us.

The story of this daguerreotype and how it came to Amherst College is, like Dickinson’s own story, full of twists and turns and mystery. There are more questions than answers. Is this the real Emily? Who took the daguerreotype? When was it taken? Why was it taken? Where did she sit for it? Why did it go astray? When, and by whom, was it found? And why does it now live in the Archives and Special Collections at the college?
Though the image was known to exist during Dickinson’s life and to have survived her, it was presumed lost for more than 50 years. Today we have Amherst resident Mary Elizabeth Bernhard to thank for her scrupulous work tracking down the name of the photographer who captured Dickinson’s likeness. Bernhard tells us that the photographer was William C. North, “Daguerrian Artist,” and that Dickinson and her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, sat for him in his rooms in the Amherst House sometime between December 10, 1846 and late March 1847.3

emily hair
A lock of Emily Dickinson's hair. © Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

The daguerreotype then passed from one person to another. Lavinia Dickinson, the poet’s sister, had said in the 1890s that it belonged to Maggie Maher, the family’s Irish servant. But did it really? It was photographed at least once, and those photographed images were retouched several times before the original daguerreotype apparently vanished, leaving only the derivative versions. The story picks up much later, on May 28, 1932, with the publication of Mabel Loomis Todd’s new edition of the Letters of Emily Dickinson. This edition used the derivative cabinet photograph of the daguerreotype for the frontispiece. It was then that Todd heard from Austin Baxter Keep (Class of 1897), a distant relative of the Dickinsons and one of three brothers who graduated from Amherst. Keep wrote to Todd about a treasured image that he had of the poet. He enclosed two prints of the image with his letter. But it was only in 1945, after Mabel Loomis Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, published Ancestors’ Brocades, that Austin Keep’s brother Wallace (Class of 1894) sent the daguerreotype to Bingham. According to Wallace Keep’s later recollections, Lavinia had given him the daguerreotype that he had seen in Emily’s room “as an expression of her affectionate regard”4 in the early 1890s, when he visited Lavinia at the Homestead after the poet’s death.

So when, in 1956, Millicent Todd Bingham gave Amherst College her Dickinson collection of poems, letters and fragments, the resurfaced daguerreotype came too, after being in essence “lost” within the family for many years.

The daguerreotype’s next journey began on May 23, 1978, when it traveled for conservation work to Rochester, N.Y., to the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House. There the conservator, Alice Swan, discovered some vestiges of previous coloring on Dickinson’s forehead, on the pin and on the flowers.

But there is a bit more to this story. Despite the evidence of some pigment on the daguerreotype, it is only in the last 20 years that we have been able to see Dickinson in true color. In April 1983 William R. Bailey, of Middletown, Ohio, learned that Amherst College had some connection to Dickinson. He wasn’t sure what it was, so he called the college to see if someone could tell him something about the poet and to ask whether the college would be interested in some Dickinson-related items he had. After his call was passed around a bit, Bailey ended up with John Lancaster, who worked in the Archives and Special Collections. After talking with Lancaster, Bailey clearly understood the nature of the library’s connection with Dickinson. So, on April 18, 1983, William Bailey gave Amherst a letter, personal and affectionate, from Dickinson to her lifelong friend Emily Fowler (later Ford), who was away from Amherst.5 The letter made the biggest splash at the time, but Bailey also gave Amherst a shiny ringlet of Dickinson’s striking auburn hair, which the poet had sent to Emily Fowler in 1853. Today, it is this lock of hair that has the biggest impact on how we “see” the poet.

The undisputed provenance of the hair makes the gift particularly significant. Emily Fowler Ford was William R. Bailey’s great-grandmother, and was herself the daughter of William Chauncey Fowler, who taught rhetoric, oratory and English at Amherst from 1838 until 1843. She was also the granddaughter of Noah Webster, one of the founders of the college.

The New York Public Library’s Berg Collection has Emily Fowler Ford’s collection of her many friends’ hair—and Emily Dickinson’s is noticeably absent from it. Instead, thanks to William R. Bailey, Amherst College has the hair, though the Berg Collection has the letter Dickinson sent with it. In that letter Dickinson writes, “I shall never give you anything again that will be half so full of sunshine as this wee lock of hair....”6 Bailey inherited the hair from an uncle in 1940 and made the gift to the Amherst College in memory of his mother, Gillian Barr Bailey (Emily Fowler’s granddaughter), in the name of all her children. So, for 130 years this important clue to seeing Dickinson in color was in the possession of Emily Fowler Ford’s descendants.

William Bailey’s call to the college was serendipitous; that he ended up with John Lancaster was luck, and that Amherst ended up with a lock of beautiful auburn hair was fate. Bailey’s gift of the lock of hair to the college cemented the 19th-century relationship between the Dickinson and Fowler families. It is also the single piece of physical evidence of Dickinson herself that has survived 175 years. Something of the mystery is solved, and Dickinson’s ringlet and the daguerreotype are reunited safely in the Amherst College Library. When the two are held next to each other, the lock truly “colors” how we see the poet, and its intensely personal nature helps bring her to life.

Daria D’Arienzo is the head of Archives and Special Collections.

Notes:

  1. Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Letters of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 268.
  2. Lavinia is holding a piece of paper on which is depicted a cat. In some reproductions of the image, the bottom of the portrait is cropped so the cat is not visible.
  3. Mary Elizabeth Kromer Bernhard, “Lost and Found: Emily Dickinson’s Unknown Daguerreotypist,” The New England Quarterly 72:4 (December 1999), pp. 594-601.
  4. Millicent Todd Bingham, Emily Dickinson’s Home (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955), p. 521.
  5. The letter, in an altered form (Letters, no. 161), had been dated 1854 by Johnson.
    The actual date was spring 1852; see Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (New York: Random House, 2001), p. 259, n.
  6. Letters, p. 99.