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Martha Nell Smith: Iconic Power and the New Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson

Iconic Power and the New Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson

by Martha Nell Smith

Poet Emily Dickinson is an American cultural icon whose star power extends well beyond the borders of her native town, state, and nation. She is the subject (and curator) of our deep gossip, and of our archives—archives of documents and artifacts in the special collections of prestigious libraries, and in the Dickinson houses known as the Emily Dickinson Museum, virtual archives such as those at the Dickinson Electronic Archives, Radical Scatters, Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry, Emily Dickinson at Amherst College, and the Emily Dickinson Archive (forthcoming in 2013 from Harvard University Press with an Advisory Board headed by Leslie Morris, Houghton Library). There are also, of course, the archives of our intellectual, emotional, and even spiritual attentions. Exploring the archives of his affections, his passions, his loves, his grief in Dog Years: A Memoir, contemporary American poet Mark Doty weaves lines of Dickinson’s poetry throughout his musings on love and wonder, love human and love unconditional (or canine). DailyDickinson.com and Early Women Masters East & West signal her role as a spiritual, romantic, erotic, intellectual mentor, with the former offering nearly a poem a day and the latter a multimedia essay or twenty-first century reinflection of Dickinson’s love for flowers, “Emily Dickinson’s Nature Mysticism: A Photo Poetic Labyrinth.” Over the past decade and a half several listservs have been devoted to discussion of “Emily Dickinson,” and the vicious battles waged on the Emily Dickinson Discussion List (DICKNSON@LISTSERV.UTA.EDU), on EmMail (EmMail@yahoogroups.com), and the now defunct emweb (emweb@mgmt.utoronto.ca) are witnesses in our wired and wireless world that she (the author as well as her writings) enflames mighty, mightily possessive and very different passions.

A frequent Jeopardy question to answers such as “her only trip to Washington, DC, was one of the handful that this American poet ever made,” the figure Emily Dickinson has enjoyed cameos on television shows such as Steve Allen’s Meeting of Minds (where she converses with Attila the Hun, Charles Darwin, and Galileo. . .”Mr. Hun, how did you treat the people you conquered?”), Cheers, thirtysomething, The Facts of Life, and Damages, where when thinking about “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers - / That perches in the soul – ” (FP 314; JP 254), Glenn Close’s character asserts to her protégé that “The bitch [Emily Dickinson] will say anything.” The same poem is quoted in Nurse Jackie, a television drama about mainstream addiction, and the iconic figure appears in films as different as Being John Malcovich, Sophie’s Choice, and The Brave One (in which Jodie Foster recites “Because I could not stop for Death”). Early 2011 features “Emily Dickinson” on the popular, hip American sitcom 30 Rock. In that Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) exclaims, “I can fit Emily Dickinson’s whole head in my mouth.” “Emily Dickinson” is a cat, the entire episode spins off “spinsterhood,” and in doing so spoofs ghosts of loneliness that have clung to the icon and clouded audiences’ sense of the Emily Dickinson who lived and breathed in Amherst. The 16 year old image with which her readers are so familiar has been circulated on the 8¢ U.S. stamp, on throw pillows, on tshirts, on coffee mugs, on tote bags, on tattoos (Phillip Jenks’ entire back, for example, as shown in the independent film, LOADED GUN: Life, Death, and Dickinson, and which was tweeted and re-tweeted in summer 2011) , on DVD cases for The Belle of Amherst starring Julie Harris and on cases for the re-release of the United States Public Broadcasting System (PBS)’s Voices and Visions documentary segment on Dickinson, on postcards, on websites ranging from personal blogs to Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry, our online scholarly edition published by Rotunda New Digital Scholarship, University of Virginia Press. Lacy images featuring butterflies adorn a print-on-metal quotation of the first line of “I dwell in Possibility ‘ .” The iconic figure in a white dress haunts the cover of a 1966 Mujeres Celebres Mexican comic book and the sixteen-year-old face stares out from the EMILY DICKINSON 2008 Topps American Heritage CARD #6 (#1 & #2 are Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and #7 is Walt Whitman).

Joyce Carol Oates released a zany novelistic homage Wild Nights!, about Emily Dickinson and other American literary icons—Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway—in which EDickinsonRepliLuxe, “a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original individual,” one that is “programmed through age thirty to age fifty-five, when the poet died” (42-43), becomes a contemporary suburban couple’s companion; the humorous gothic tale reminds that almost every reader seems to want to possess his or her own Emily Dickinson. . .and can’t. In our fractured yet hyper-connected, twittering twenty-first century Brave New World, a seriously-lost-in-fandom blogger speculates how the world of downloads might change “If Van Morrison wrote a song about Emily Dickinson.” Gamers, first video and now online, devise scenarios for Emily Dickinson poetry slams and much more as she is the focus of the Game Developers Conference in 2005. The Emily Dickinson Random Epigram Machine rearranges and remixes phrases and lines from hundreds of her poems to render epigrams—“A Thunder storm combines the charms / Of Winter and of Hell,” for example—and keeps giving and giving with every reload. At least two mystery novels have centered themselves on the world of “Emily Dickinson” study, Jane Langton’s Emily Dickinson is Dead, and Joanne Dobson’s Quieter Than Sleep. New artistic responses to her life and writings such as Madeleine Olnek’s drama Wild Nights with Emily! (1999) and Meisha Bosma’s dance performance Violet in My Winter (2006) continue to abound. A December 1851 letter to her brother Austin is even quoted on the side of a contemporary Celestial Seasonings Echinacea Complete Care teabag box, presumably because of its reference to the “warmth within, and the more it snows and the harder it blows, brighter the fires blaze” (JL 65). This list could go on and on. After all, Emily Dickinson is not only on Facebook, she is YouTube, where a lesser-known daguerreotype included in Sewall’s Life of Emily Dickinson (and looking suspiciously like Susan Dickinson) has been animated to recite “I died for Beauty.” In 1979, Karl Keller concluded The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America, “the usual indigenous poet, even when as much of an anomaly as Emily Dickinson was in many ways, participates in the given and the ongoing and helps make the course of things. . . .But Emily Dickinson must be thought of as indigenous in still another sense: she is now strong enough as a writer in our literary history to transform our view of the culture itself. She makes it indigenous to her. We may understand much of it differently because of her” (334).

A cultural palimpsest of our emotions, desires, opinions, and literary histories, “Emily Dickinson” sometimes seems to be a device or machine used by readers for particular purposes. Struggles over authenticity, intentions, and authority inevitably ensue. Perhaps these various views are best analyzed not as quests for truth but as sophisticated gossip, teleological and even “theological,” of the deep sort Allen Ginsberg ascribed to “Curator of funny emotions” Frank O’Hara and his “common ear.” Whether vicious or generous, gossips are parallactic collaborators. Through information trading, consensus, and even dissensus, gossips construct events, people, places, objects. Critics, biographers, scholars, indeed all literary readers engage in gossip, trading “speculation, information, knowledge,” some of which (perhaps all, at least to varying degrees) is “illicit” in that it falls outside, goes beyond, exceeds any writer’s conscious intent (Henry Abelove, Deep Gossip xii).

Emily Dickinson is America’s sweetheart, as it were, the supposed (note that word) reclusive who somehow managed to be a genius. In Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation,” a "future Miss Lonelyheart" reads her Emily Dickinson while her "seriously agonizing young Bard" reads his Robert Frost. That 60s song is more earnest, as it were, and less ironic about the stereotypes we have for Dickinson than more recent, sometimes feminist-inflected rock & roll. The Lemonheads version of "My Life had stood a / Loaded Gun" is on an album called "Hate Your Friends." Dickinson’s unrelenting and courageous facing of our most deep, most complex and contradictory emotions is the kind of artistic bravery to which many in rock & roll, to which many artists, are drawn. Simultaneously reassuring and provocative, skirting the boundaries between safety and danger, Emily Dickinson captures our imaginations over and over again.

The conditions in which we read Emily Dickinson are far removed from the conditions in which she wrote her wonderful poems, letters, and letter-poems. Her most frequently addressed and trusted audience, the only reader for whom we can document she changed a poem, sister-in-law Susan Dickinson, was a nonprofessional poetry lover, whose words testify to the affective powers of Emily Dickinson’s poetry—“I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again.” The image that has presided over our readings, that of a sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson that festoons so many conference posters, book covers, and so on is something of an anachronism. That teenager had not written but would write the powerful poems we know so well, and was probably writing early versions of the explosive, exciting poems such as “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” that we have all come to love.

So what if another image crept into our mind’s eye, an image that is not solitary, staring out, and a bit fretful, but an that of a bold, assertive woman in her late twenties with her arm around another woman. What if the image in our mind’s eye was that of a woman writer rather than a teenaged girl?


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?

Last updated October 14, 2012