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A New Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson?

UPDATE, May 24, 2019: Readers might want to examine the conclusion of Martha Nell Smith's 2012 essay on the possibility that the new image a collector assures us is Emily Dickinson is in fact she. As that essay says, that's not necessarily the most important thing about the power of this new image. Seven years after the daguerreotype was first featured in this space, we continue to ask the same questions. What Dickinson looked like has resonated profoundly since 2012. Two movies have featured her life--A Quiet Passion (2016) and Wild Nights With Emily (2018). As does this daguerreotype, those cinematic depictions encourage more critical reflection on iconic power and our reading, writing:

"Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes" section from Smith's "Iconic Power and the New Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson" (2012)

At the very least, the possibility that there is a new photograph of Emily Dickinson, one that is strikingly different from the iconic image that stares out at me from the 2008 Topps fan card on my desk and is on or in nearly every book on two walls of my study, is game-changing. This possibility has opened up important new questions about the daguerreotype that has for a century served as the only image of this premier American poet. Is that well-known daguerreotype of a sickly teenager? Is that really a credible representation of what most people saw when they saw the flesh and blood Emily Dickinson? Why have we not asked more questions about that rather wan "known" image?

Whether a new picture is in fact Emily Dickinson is not a very sophisticated question unless accompanied by another: why do we struggle so over the image of this icon? What's at stake? Isn't how would this image change literary history a much more interesting question? Dickinson is more popular today, in 2012, than ever. Would she be if the image we had of her for this past century looked not like the one we know, but like the one you see before you in this exhibition? Does it make any difference what a poet looks like? What a woman poet looks like? What a 19th-century woman poet looks like?

UPDATE: On September 4, 2013, the Collector who discovered it deposited the 1859 daguerreotype at Amherst College Special Collections. He received no money for doing so, but signed a deposit agreement, and also agreed that the daguerreotype could and should undergo further testing. Anyone who wishes to see the daguerreotype should contact Amherst College Special Collections directly at https://www.amherst.edu/library/archives/askus or at (413) 542-2299.


A cultural palimpsest of our emotions, desires, opinions, and literary histories, the image of a teenage 'Emily Dickinson' has presided over this international icon. But what if another image crept into our mind's eye, an image that is not solitary, staring out, and a bit fretful, but is that of a bold, assertive woman in her late twenties with her arm around another woman. How might that change our literary history? The Dickinson Electronic Archives 2 is a scholarly environment showcasing the possibility of interdisciplinary and collaborative research and exploring the potential of the digital environment to reveal new interpretive material, cultural, historical, and theoretical contexts. In doing so, the DEA2 opens a space of knowledge exchange for a networked world of scholars, students, and readers by offering a series of exhibitions on subjects of keen interest to readers of Emily Dickinson. Each exhibition will offer spaces for commentary that are of different sorts. At present the DEA2 offers a discussion forum, a space like that patrons inhabit as they walk through and talk about an exhibition, a space like that moviegoers inhabit when they stop for a nightcap or late night snack and discuss the movie just viewed. The DEA2 also offers Essays and Other Writings Responding to the 1859 Daguerreotype, and will do so for every exhibition we offer. The next, RAVISHED SLATES: Re-visioning the "Lord Letters," will be curated by well known Dickinson scholar Marta Werner. For our first exhibition, we present a new image that a collector and many others believe is of Emily Dickinson, and we are very pleased to feature his research findings, which will all be marked as the work of "Sam Carlo." Besides his findings and the articles and additional research we will be adding here, readers will undoubtedly want to consult two other important articles by our partners and early principal investigators. Those dynamic essays are located at the Amherst College Special Collections  and the Emily Dickinson Museum.  We share with both the Museum and Special Collections the "hope that anyone with information about the photograph will come forward. We want to hear the evidence, whether it's favorable or unfavorable to the proposed identification of the image as Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner. Perhaps someone in the Springfield, Massachusetts area, where the daguerreotype was purchased, will remember something about the provenance of the piece and let us know" (Amherst College Special Collections). We all believe that additional research must be done to verify that this new picture is or is not Emily Dickinson. Please note that we welcome anyone who would like to join our Discussion Forum and advance the conversation about this exciting discovery by “Sam Carlo.”


There Dickinson’s readers can contribute to this exhibition on the new daguerreotype that very well may be an adult Emily Dickinson. Readers are also welcome to submit essays to accompany the analytical reports on the work of the early principal investigators, as well as critical essays by Dickinson scholars, by scholars beyond the world of Dickinson, and by any and all interested, informed readers. Essays may be scholarly or more personal and reflective. As knowledge about this find is constantly evolving and rapidly growing, updates to this exhibition will be constant and are indicated by dates at the bottom of pages. In our Exhibition, readers will be able to learn much more about Emily Dickinson’s relationship with Catherine (Kate) Scott Turner Anthon, the woman likely pictured here on Emily’s left (our right).  Understandings of and knowledge about their relationship have been truncated, and we will be adding new information as well as revising and building upon previous work on Kate Anthon and her relationships with the Dickinsons, especially Emily and Susan Dickinson. The Dickinson Electronic Archives projects have always had a focus on Dickinson's relationships with her correspondents, contemporaries to whom she sent more than a thousand surviving letters (there were many more that did not survive), and these new exhibitions extend that previous work, all of which is still available at http://archive.emilydickinson.org/. Those who have never heard of Catherine (Kate) Scott Turner Anthon should know that Rebecca Patterson published The Riddle of Emily Dickinson (1951) to tell "the story of three women: Emily Dickinson, her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert [Huntington] Dickinson, and, most especially, Kate Scott, about whom least is known" (32).  During the height of a period that would become known as the "Lavender Scare," Patterson courageously reported her research findings and argued that Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott (as Kate preferred her Amherst friends call her) were deeply in love with one another. Because Patterson's work was widely dismissed, not enough research has been done on Kate Anthon. Working with Margaret Dakin of the Amherst Special Collections, and Margaret Freeman, who edited Patterson's posthumously published Emily Dickinson's Imagery (1979), as well as with others, the DEA2 will be releasing more detailed information about Kate Scott Turner Anthon, who remained close to Susan Dickinson until the end of her life, as the bits of correspondence between them already published on the DEA make clear.  "Katie 'Jane'" looks forward to receiving one of Susan's articles for the Springfield Republican and "also Matty's poems."     


The daguerreotype was discovered in western Massachusetts in 1995, and the dealer purchased it from a home in the Springfield area. Compelling evidence suggests that the picture was taken in Springfield, probably by J.C. Spooner, who purchased Otis Cooley's studio in 1855. Many who have studied the well known daguerreotype of Emily believe that Cooley was the photographer of that image. Verification of the daguerreotype as plausibly Dickinson includes analysis of the eyes by Dr. Susan Pepin (Dartmouth Medical Center) and extended comparison to those of the teenaged Emily in the image we know so well. Biographer Polly Longsworth was instrumental in obtaining Dr. Pepin's expert opinion; Longsworth has previously published extensive images showing the daguerreotype of the 16 year old Dickinson and attempts of family members, who did not like the image that is now so well and widely known, to make it resemble the Dickinson they knew (The World of Emily Dickinson 124-125). Also, besides Dr. Pepin's report, moles visible on Kate’s face have been compared to her image in other photographs. As this Exhibition shows, the dresses both women are wearing provide suggestive clues that bolster the case for the two women being Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner Anthon (Kate wore mourning black during this period, which she is wearing in this picture).  This Exhibition also provides advanced computer opaque facial overlays. This is the first comparison of the known daguerreotype and this new one:

Besides the comparison of the 16 year old Emily Dickinson to the picture of an Emily Dickinson who would be in her late 20s, Tom Thamm has also produced several other comparisons. For this exhibition, the Dickinson Electronic Archives gives special thanks to "Sam Carlo," discoverer of the photograph; Dr. Susan Pepin, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center; Polly Longsworth, Dickinson scholar and biographer; Margaret Dakin, Amherst Special Collections Archives Specialist; Jane Wald, Executive Director, Emily Dickinson Museum.
Exhibitions: Marta Werner, RAVISHED SLATES: Re-visioning the "Lord Letters"; Gabrielle Dean, Emily Dickinson's Reading Culture, forthcoming 2014; Jessica Beard, An Exploration of Dickinson's Space, forthcoming 2015. Last updated September 9, 2013