newly discovered photograph of Emily Dickinson

April 21, 2000

(updated May 21, 2000)

In the spring of 1862 Emily Dickinson initiated a correspondence with the liberal minister and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose advice to young authors she recently had read in the Atlantic Monthly and whom she would come to call her "Preceptor." She sent him some of her verse as well, and although he did not rave about her poetry, he clearly found this new writer of considerable interest. Shortly after they began to correspond he evidently asked her to send him a photograph of herelf. Her coy reply of 15 April 1862 is justly famous. "Could you believe me--without?" Dickinson asked, for she "had no portrait, now." But, she continued, "[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." Believing her description accurate, she asked, "Would this do just as well?"

This striking verbal portrait is even more significant because of the paucity of images of this famous American writer. Hitherto, she has been known only through an oil painting of the Dickinson children, a silhouette, and a daguerreotype taken ca. 1847 when Emily was a student, in her mid-teens, at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. There was no known image of her as an adult.

Now we may have one. Philip Gura recently purchased the item pictured below. This 3 7/8" by 5 1/2" albumen photograph, which originally was mounted on photographer's board, is identified in pencil on the verso in nineteenth-century hand, "Emily Dickinson/Died/r[?]ec[ieved?]/1886 [the year she died]." Some people see the word "Dec" instead of "rec" and think it may mean "December." This may be, but if so, it might indicate the month in which the image was received, for she died in May.

Recent assessment of the image suggests that it may be a cabinet-card-sized paper copy of a daguerreotype taken in the mid-1850s, perhaps made from the original after Dickinson's death.

Although the idenitification is not yet fully established, in this image we see the same strong features evident in the daguereotype owned by Amherst College. Preliminary comparison of computer-generated negatives of the well known daguerreotype (which is a mirror-image and thus shows her features reversed) and those of this photograph reveals strong similarities in the eyes, nose, mouth, and slope of shoulders. Within a few weeks, a forensic anthropologist will more thoroughly analyze this image to the extant daguerreotype. Prof. Gura also is trying to trace the fairly distinctive chair to studios in communities which Dickinson might have visited, and as well trying to link the handwriting to someone in Dickinson's circle of acquaintences.

An article about this photograph appears in the May 22, 2000 issue of The New Yorker.