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Jonnie Guerra: Thirteen Reactions to Looking at the New Dickinson Daguerreotype

Thirteen Reactions to Looking at the New Dickinson Daguerreotype
By Jonnie Guerra

It’s September 6 when the emails and Facebook messages begin.
“CBS is doing a story on a new picture taken of Emily Dickinson in 1859, unearthed at Amherst College. You sort of know a bit about her, yes?”
“I saw this tweet this morning and just had to share. Were you aware of this second photo?”
On Being (@Beingtweets)
9/6/12 7:12 AM
Now isn’t this fascinating! A second photo of Emily Dickinson surfaces. This time as a woman: tmblr.co/Z37ZbySt9TlS (ASIDE: Someone tweeted the tweeter to say that it sounded as if the first photo were of ED as a man and suggested that “adult” might be a preferable descriptor to “woman.”)

“So, was Emily’s white dress in the laundry that day?”

I love the new face and its direct, clear gaze—she’s looking right at us. The eyes make me think of Linda Pastan’s poem of tribute and its reminder that “. . . legend couldn’t explain Dickinson’s “sheer sanity/of vision.” I also love that Emily chose to sit for this photograph with a friend and the mystery of exactly what it means that the “friend” is Kate Scott Turner. What was the impulse to have this daguerreotype made—Kate’s impending departure from Amherst, Emily and Kate’s reunion, or some other occasion that the two marked as special? Will we ever know?

My partner Mike says that he has formed his own “picture” of Dickinson from reading her poetry. I only know that in the room where we watch television, his Emily Dickinson, one of the dolls crafted by the unemployed philosophers’ guild, sits on my mother’s antique table, and she wears bird feathers entwined in her red-yarn head. Not like a Native American headdress. More like a crown of hope.

Does the daguerreotype really show a smiling Dickinson? Some of the newspaper articles say so, but I see only the barest trace of a smile. This suggests to me that the photograph happened too fast either for the smile to materialize or, maybe, for Dickinson to reset her face to remove the smile that she didn’t want to be captured “forever.” Had Kate or the daguerreotypist said something amusing that Emily was responding to? Was Dickinson nervous, happy, or both? And what about ED’s teeth: was she reluctant to show them? I’ve read that people seldom show their teeth in nineteenth-century photographs for a reason. Until now I have never thought about ED’s teeth.

I read Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Ddickinson in 1981 during one of those phases of procrastination that occur in the life of a dissertation writer. I remember it fascinated me so much that I finished it in a single afternoon. Patterson’s thesis surprised me at least partially by its challenge to the legends about ED’s purported male lover, her “Master.” Seeing the new daguerreotype made me want to reread Patterson’s book, so I went online to track down a copy. I found only one, priced at $245.29. The book originally cost $5.00.

A year or two before his death in 1986, I heard Jorge Luis Borges talk about Emily Dickinson. He said that, when he read her poetry, he could hear her voice. I, too, believe I can hear Dickinson’s voice when I read her poetry, but it is not a voice that conjures up the iconic image of teenage Emily. As I sit in my study, I count seven versions of the 1847 daguerreotype within easy sight of my desk: two Emily dolls, a finger puppet, a framed postage stamp, Barry Moser’s portrait of ED from the 1986 conference at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and two book covers. The new daguerreotype may not yet be imprinted in my mind’s eye, but it connects with the voice I hear when I read the poems.

“The Daguerreotype is good for its authenticity. No man quarrels with his shadow, nor will he with his miniature when the sun was the painter. Here is no interference, and the distortions are not blunders of an artist, but only those of motion, imperfect light, and the like. “
Journal of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1841
We know that Emily and others in her family “quarreled” with the 1847 daguerreotype. Did Emily think the 1859 photograph presented a better likeness of her “daily face” than the decade-earlier one? Why did no one else in her family ever mention the existence of this second daguerreotype and what journey led to the daguerreotype’s being discovered in an antique/junk shop in western Massachusetts?

Dear Miss Dickinson:
You should delay publication of another photograph until you have completed a makeover. The black lace trim on the dress you are wearing is “spasmodic”; the blue checks, simply “uncontrolled.” We advise you to consider a white dress.
Clinton Kelly and Stacy London
Co-Hosts, “What Not to Wear”

A friend expressed surprise that the new daguerreotype was “so formal.” The comment made me wonder what a candid shot of ED and Kate would look like. How much advance planning went into the production of this photographic portrait of the two? Which one of them arranged the sitting? Did they discuss what they each would wear? Who decided on the pose? Finally, why is Emily’s arm around Kate or, at least, on the back of Kate’s chair?

Both the 1847 daguerreotype and Dickinson’s white dress have played significant roles in literary history, in the Dickinson cottage industry, and in adaptations of the poet’s life and work in the visual and performing arts. The daguerreotype has been subjected to caricatures and reinventions too numerous to catalog, though Brad Ricca’s recent transformation of Emily into a rock star complete with sunglasses and a guitar for the 2012 annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society is too marvelous not to be mentioned. Martha Graham , William Luce/Julie Harris, and Lesley Dill—to name only a few of her twentieth-century adaptors—have made the white dress of ED legend a metonym for the poet. How long will it take for the 1859 daguerreotype to become an influence on Dickinson’s reception in the academy and the art world?

“It would be difficult to overestimate the amount of time the mid-nineteenth-century New England woman, even the woman of means, devoted to the making and keeping of clothing. Because of such time and energy requirements, women used clothing for many years afterward to guarantee cost-effectiveness.”
Daneen Wardrop, Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing, p. 56
Wardrop’s commentary on the 1847 daguerreotype—on ED’s dress, decoration, and hairstyle—are instructive as we view the new photographic portrait. Here, too, the poet wears a patterned dress, simple ornamentation, and hair pulled back so that her earlobes are only partially exposed.

Mystery novels such as Jane Langton’s 1984 Emily Dickinson is Dead and Joanne Dobson’s 1997 Quieter Than Sleep have at the core of their plots a Dickinson-related discovery. It seems life imitates art as much as art imitates life. Will the new daguerreotype lead to any murders? What discovery will be next?

To see her is a picture—
. . .
To own her for a Friend
A warmth as near as if the Sun
Were shining in your Hand—
(Fr 1597)

Last updated October 2, 2012