Kicking off Emily

by - Sunday, January 09, 2011

So I think I've written a pretty ok set up for my Dickinson paper. The problem remains that I don;t have any idea how the heck to write about poetry. Still, I feel like some actual progress was made tonight (also worked on my ever-expanding ACE List). Now, I am going to run with the hope I have a brilliant idea while simultaneously kicking off the week with 2 stickers.

Seriously, how do you write about things you don't look at? Gross. ANyway, here's the chunk that's closest to finished:

In April 2000, Philip Gura, a professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina “discovered” a photograph of famous American poet Emily Dickinson on eBay. The newly-found artifact displayed Dickinson, seemingly in middle age, sitting at a table in a carved and throne-like chair; on the back of the small photograph, someone wrote “Emily Dickinson-died. December 1886.” In “How I Met and Dated Miss Emily Dickinson: An Adventure on eBay,” Gura brags that after winning this photograph in an aggressive bidding war with another scholar and famous collector, he began a tripartite quest to authenticate it; he tried to place the handwriting on the back (assuming that the date marked the owner’s acquisition, since Dickinson died in May), identify the chair she was sitting on as a prop in a particular portrait studio, and compare the physiognomy of the sitter with the already-established daguerreotype of Dickinson.
Though Gura’s argument for physiognomic similarity is well-founded, the two photographs tell different stories about Dickinson. In the earlier photograph, taken by Q*(!*(!, a 16 or 17 year-old Dickinson sits in a relatively shallow and empty space in a small wooden chair to the right of a cloth-draped table and a book. She rests her arm on the table, elbow almost touching the book, but her hands seem to be fidgeting with an object which is obscured by her constant movement in a slow shutter speed. This image of the poet, preceding her prolific years of writing, certainly would appeal to Dickinson scholars; her straightforward gaze, slight smirk, proximity to a book, and restlessness in front of the camera foreshadows what was yet to come for the poet. Though daguerreotypes are known for having an ethereal, almost ghost-like quality, Dickinson’s image seems as fixed as her gaze. In the later photograph, Dickinson still sits at a small table (in a more ornate chair) but the edges fade out, so Dickinnson’s body only occupies the center. Where the younger photograph represents a fledgling literary persona, foreshadowing later writing, this daguerreotype was taken well into Dickinson’s life. This later photograph features a similar straightforward stare, but the poet’s shoulders turn in, the book is gone, and her hands lay still. MORE HERE
In his article, Gura notes that his peers’ reactions to his finding were skeptical at best. Despite the precious status of the teenage photograph, Gura observes a panic around the possibility of a second image of Dickinson. He tells a story of a particular exchange he had with an unnamed colleague; this scholar said, “As an aside, though, if it could be authenticated… I’d predict that many, many people might react with irrational denial, vituperation, or both. The daguerreotype has become such an icon, an object of near veneration.” This man’s concern can perhaps be validated by the careful skepticism this photograph is still met with, but why would scholars be so resistant to a new object? Why does the “discovery” of this photograph offend them? The appeal of the earlier daguerreotype is self-explanatory; onlookers in her own time and scholars now marveled over the small physical details available about the poet, fixating on her dress, the physiognomy of her body, and the mystery which surrounded her physical being. Indexes of Dickinson’s body have been highly prized and preserved; Amherst houses the teenage daguerreotype as well as a lock of Dickinson’s hair (taken from a letter she sent to her friend Emily Fowler). These object’s history have been written about extensively, so one might be surprised that the new photograph, even if authenticated, might be met with denial or anger, even if the portrait’s rhetoric differs from her previous image.
This contradiction between contemporary desire to preserve the preciousness of Dickinson’s bodily indexes and the desire to negate new objects could be read as a continuing effort to uphold the mythic image of poet as continually denying being seen or represented. These stories about Dickinson as a hermit or as a very specific sort of image often devolve into caricature, but it is worth considering how Dickinson’s own words encourage and nuance scholars perception of these recent findings. Close inspection of Dickinson’s language in letters and (even more so in) poems reveal Dickinson’s own perception of her physical body and its best representation- in words. Dickinson argued to her contemporaries that her words could more powerfully illuminate her body than a photograph.
Replying to publisher T.W. Higgins’ request for her photograph in 1852, Dickinson famously stated “Could you believe me—without? I have no portrait but 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—would this do just as well?” Based on their style, we can be certain that Dickinson was aware that photographs of her existed, but her reply makes clear that she did not find them suitable portraits. Dickinson then describes herself in metaphor, referencing a bird, a fallen part of a tree, and leftover liquor; though these visuals could work purely aesthetically, giving Higgins’ local referents, but they also allow some room for play. MORE HERE? Rather than consider the mythos around Dickinson’s biography, I hope to explore how the poet may have encouraged the fascination with her body while simultaneously stressing her language’s ability to explore and encourage a natural representation of her body.

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