A New Photo of Emily Dickinson? Well—Maybe—
Only two authenticated images of Emily Dickinson exist: one a painting of her (and her siblings) as a child, the other an iconic photograph of her as a teenager. In the past fifty years two images have gained publicity as possible "new" photos of the poet; both have largely been discredited, though the jury is still officially out on the second. Now the Amherst Archives and Special Collections reports that yet another daguerreotype has surfaced, and at least one expert is claiming it's the real thing.
Dr. Susan Pepin, Director of Neuro-Ophthalmology at Dartmouth Medical School, has conducted a close anatomical comparison of teenaged Emily and the mystery woman. Her conclusion: "I believe strongly that these are the same people." (The report is full of startlingly precise details, suitable for lending a scientific luster to English class presentations. Did you know that Emily Dickinson had a "prominent left nasolabial fold"? Now you do.)
The candidate photograph has been dated to the late 1850s; the sitter under scrutiny looks to be in her late twenties or early thirties. (The timeline fits: Dickinson was born in 1830.) The dress she's wearing was a decade out of fashion at the time, which for Dickinson sounds about right. Her fellow sitter has been identified as Kate Scott Turner, a friend of the poet's. The mystery woman has a larger chin than teenaged Emily, and a smaller nose in proportion to the lips, but the eyes are strikingly similar.
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.
Why care if it's Dickinson or not? Literature has few saints and even fewer true enigmas, since biography tends to air whatever the books kept hidden. But beginning in the 1860s, Emily Dickinson disappeared almost entirely into her writing, spinning a myth around herself that even her best biographer, Richard Sewall, couldn't fully untangle. She shut the door on a normal life and became a poet, full stop. Even her letters are prose poetry. Her work from 1861 through 1865 is one of the great explosions of creative energy in the history of the arts, as well as one of the great records of trauma absorbed and outlived. (Scholars have blamed her early-thirties crisis on everything from manic depression to epilepsy to psychosomatic blindness to unrequited love, but none of these diagnoses seems adequate to the scope of the poetry.) She's a heroic and tragic figure, and the essence of both her heroism and her tragedy is her unavailability to us outside the work.
A new photograph would bring us just a little closer. 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."
[Image detail courtesy Amherst Archives and Special Collections. Full, enlargeable image available at Book Haven.]
Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.
No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.
A NASA astronomer explains how astronauts dispose of their, uh, dark matter.
- When nature calls in micro-gravity, astronauts must answer. Space agencies have developed suction-based toilets – with a camera built in to ensure all the waste is contained before "flushing".
- Yes, there have been floaters in space. The early days of space exploration were a learning curve!
- Amazingly, you don't need gravity to digest food. Peristalsis, the process by which your throat and intestines squeeze themselves, actually moves food and water through your digestive system without gravity at all.
The Harvard psychologist loves reading authors' rules for writing. Here are his own.
- Steven Pinker is many things: linguist, psychologist, optimist, Harvard professor, and author.
- When it comes to writing, he's a student and a teacher.
- Here's are his 13 rules for writing better, more simply, and more clearly.
A growing body of research shows promising signs that the keto diet might be able to improve mental health.
- The keto diet is known to be an effective tool for weight loss, however its effects on mental health remain largely unclear.
- Recent studies suggests that the keto diet might be an effective tool for treating depression, and clearing up so-called "brain fog," though scientists caution more research is necessary before it can be recommended as a treatment.
- Any experiments with the keto diet are best done in conjunction with a doctor, considering some people face problems when transitioning to the low-carb diet.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.