No, no, this is the real Emily Dickinson…more photos, more theories



I have joined the “world’s top thinkers” at last.  A few days ago I discussed the investigation into whether the woman on the left in the portrait above is Emily Dickinson, with her friend Kate Scott Turner at right.  The post received several comments, more tweets, and some other pick-up.

Janet Lewis, as she looked about the time I met her.

Yesterday, the post was mentioned on BigThink, which describes itself as “Blogs, Articles and Videos from the World’s Top Thinkers.”  I’m grateful to the post for something other than the promotion, however:  Thanks to my fellow “linkees” cited in the article, I found the putative portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1860, that I had tried to find several times in the past without success.

Here’s why:  Sometime in the 1980s, I made a visit to the Los Altos home of Janet Lewis, the poet, author, and widow of Yvor Winters.  The immediate reason for my interview I cannot recall – in any case, the article was never published, and remains somewhere in my garage on a 5″ floppy, along with the interview notes. I knew too little about the octogenarian writer at the time, but I am glad now I had the opportunity for the meeting, for whatever the reason – and yes, I remember the Winters’s legendary loquat tree.

"a gypsy face"

I also remember gazing up a photo in her kitchen, displayed high on the wall. Janet Lewis followed my gaze, and asked, “Do you recognize who that is?”  I didn’t.  “That’s Emily Dickinson, grown up.”  It was a matchless photo, attentive and sensual.  She told me it was included in the Richard Sewall biography of the poet, and that she had torn it out from the book and put it on her wall.  Years later I ordered the biography online precisely to recover that portrait.  But it had apparently been debunked in the meantime, and removed from later editions.

Now the photo has a new champion, poet Daniela Gioseffi, and author of a new biographical novel about Dickinson. From the comments section of an article about her book she writes (with some light editing on my part – it needs more):

The foreword to my book Wild Nights, Wild Nights, The Story of Emily Dickinson’s Master (at http://www.Amazon. com and explains exactly how I researched the photo to include it. There is no doubt in many Dickinson scholars’ minds that it is Emily Dickinson at thirty years, as the features match when sized against that old 17-year-old photo that every one knows above, when the images are sized alike and put one over the other. What many non-scholars of Dickinson who have not read as fully as I have do not understand is that the well-known photo of her was taken when she was a sickly 17-year-old just arisen from a sickbed. She herself in later years is described by those who saw her a bright-eyed, clear-skinned, attractive and womanly. Yes, she was diminutive all her life, but she described herseld as having “a gypsy face” and this photo fits her own description of herself that her sister Lavinia agreed with.

I want the portrait to be true because I like it, and because it connects me, in an odd sort of way, with Janet Lewis.  To admit such a biased and unscientific judgment in writing, however, risks my removal from a blog for the “world’s top thinkers.” I am in something of a quandary.

"small, like the Wren..."

So let me throw in another red herring – the portrait at right that would date to about the 1850s.  Its defense is here, and the image would appear to fit Emily’s self-description: “[I] am 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.”

And what about the new discovery above?  According to Austin Allen, one of the world’s top thinkers over at BigThink:

Of the two women, Kate is the one with a thousand-yard stare. (She’d been recently widowed.) But look closer at her friend: there’s something peculiar about that gaze. The pupils are asymmetrical, as they are in the known photo—Emily may have suffered from both astigmatism and iritis—but they’re also large, dreamy, and a little amused. Dickinson once compared her eyes to “the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves”; the woman in the picture just about lives up to the simile. …

Look: the mystery woman has even thrown an arm around her friend, a gesture we can hardly imagine the Recluse of Amherst making. If she was on the cusp of crisis, it doesn’t show yet. In my heart of hearts I doubt it’s Emily—that chin just doesn’t match up—but pending further reports on clothing samples, image records, nasolabial folds, etc., I’ll keep believing and disbelieving at once, which, as Emily said, “keeps Believing nimble.”

At least I’ve recovered the photo of “my Emily” at last.

Postscript on 9/5:  Some nice pick-up from the Poetry Foundation here.  I’m not only a W.T.T., but an “amateur sleuth” as well.

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8 Responses to “No, no, this is the real Emily Dickinson…more photos, more theories”

  1. Max Taylor Says:

    I would have expected the photo which dates to the 1950s to reveal the author’s legendary beehive hairdo, hoop earrings, and poodle skirt.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Typo corrected. Thanks for the catch, Max!

  3. Austin Allen Says:

    Hi Cynthia — Thanks for the mention, and believe me, my judgments in this debate are unscientific also. I’d love to see the picture from the Sewall biography turn out to be authentic; it’s certainly the most striking of the handful that have been brought forward.

    Unlike many of BT’s contributors, I’m not one of the world’s top anythings–just an enthusiastic and opinionated reader, as well as a longtime fan of The Book Haven.


  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Awwww, c’mon, Austin! You can be one of the world’s top thinkers if you really try! The bar seems to be low nowadays – room for a few of us to scramble over…

    I’m pleased that you, too, like the Sewall biography portrait. As Janet Lewis told me way back when, it throws a whole different light on her life and work. For one thing, it’s suddenly hard to believe all those passions were unrequited, isn’t it?

    Glad also you’re a longtime fan of the Book Haven! Happy to meet you!

  5. Lory Pollina Says:

    Just wanted to add a vote for the Sewall photo. I have spent 39 years studying Emily’s work and even copied the Sewall portrait in a painting I did, and by the end, I realized it was the real thing. The lips are identical to Emily’s and studying a face the way you have to to paint a copy, one has to get all the ratios and proportions right, and by the end I was convinced. The newly discovered portrait does not seem to feel right, I can’t really let my defenses down and believe, where the other, I can.

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Interesting. Thank you, Lory.

  7. Ana Noone Says:

    The photo you want to be Emily looks more like Lavinia, especially in the eyes and the nose.

  8. peaches Says:

    You know I can see the confusion. But the Sewall photo matches Lavinias profile more. If you look, Lavinia had a more narrow forehead and her hair line is further up than Emilys. I really think that is Lavinia. Also her hairstyle is almost identical to another photo of her. Lavinia had the shorter bob style hair. Also the face shapes match Lavinias perfectly. Also Emily didn’t really seem like the earring type. That fits Lavinia more.

    You know what is interesting, is that the known photo of Emily is of her pressing her lips together, and the one above with her in the chair, she is pressing her lips together. It makes me think that maybe it is her, and that it was maybe a signature thing.