“Rarely photographed” does not accurately describe Emily Dickinson. There is exactly one authenticated photo of the famously reclusive poet — a daguerreotype showing her as a teenager in 1847. But a second photo believed to be Dickinson has just surfaced, and scholars are excited.
“Emily Dickinson is an icon in American literary history, but our image of her has been frozen,” says Martha Nell Smith, a professor at the University of Maryland who is credited with bringing the new image to light. “This powerfully changes our image of Dickinson.”
Born in Amherst in 1830, Dickinson spent her entire life in and around the tiny Western Massachusetts town. She was the subject of a 1976 Broadway play, “The Belle of Amherst,” starring Julie Harris, and her stately home near the Amherst College campus is now the Emily Dickinson Museum.
But for all of that, Dickinson has remained something of a riddle. Smith says the celebrated poet’s supposed back story is almost a cliche: She wore white, toiled in isolation, and wrote because of a broken heart. That there are almost no photos of her only enhanced the myth.
Smith said she was first contacted about the new photo over three years ago. She received a letter from a collector who claimed to have a daguerreotype, purchased at an antique shop, depicting Dickinson and another young woman. Smith was highly skeptical and sent the man, who is not being identified, a note politely thanking him.
“It was basically a form letter because I get things like this all the time,” says Smith, who has written or edited five books about Dickinson and also oversees the Dickinson Electronic Archives. “People say, ‘I found a new poem’ or ‘I found an envelope with Emily’s toenails.’ OK, that’s an exaggeration, but it’s that kind of thing.”
But the collector, who bought the picture at a shop near Springfield, didn’t give up. He and Smith went back and forth over e-mail and, eventually, while attending a daguerreotype conference in D.C., arranged to meet at a restaurant a block from the White House.
“He flips open the laptop and I looked at the picture,” says Smith. “I was trying to be impassive, but I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, that could be Emily Dickinson.’ We needed to think how to bring this out in the world.”
What followed was a lot of testing, comparing the facial features of the teenage Dickinson, shot in 1847, with the woman in the newly discovered picture. (Experts believe the photo was taken in 1859.) After studying both, professor Susan Pepin of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center deemed the eyelids, nose, earlobes, and the women’s cowlicks to be almost identical. The new photo was revealed at a conference in August of the Emily Dickinson International Society.
The other woman in the photo has been identified as Kate Scott Turner Anthon, with whom Dickinson was known to be friendly and perhaps, says Smith, briefly romantically involved.
While there’s no guarantee the photo is of Emily Dickinson, Smith said she’s convinced.
“I’ve been keeping this close to the vest for a few years because I wanted it to be verified,” she said. “And I think it is.”