|There I was, a new researcher in the mysteries of the
poet Emily Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts. At the moment it was
2003 and I was staring at Polly Longsworth’s book, The World of Emily
Dickinson. What caught my attention were the four images of Emily which
Polly reproduced in her book. Four images? As a good New Englander, I
believed I had a passing familiarity with Miss Dickinson. I was shocked
to find that, besides the oft reproduced photograph of her, there
existed an 1840s painting and two silhouettes, one a small bust of
Emily, the other a board containing 5 black silhouettes of the Dickinson
family standing together.
Leaving aside the common photograph and the naïve painting, I
concentrated on the two silhouettes. What did I know about silhouettes?
Well, I knew silhouettes were black; they usually resided in great
aunts’ houses; they were old; and they sometimes garnered large amounts
of money. Summing up these facts, I figured I was probably a bit short
On the Internet I found Penley Knipe’s 1999 article, Shades and
Shadows. From it I learned a short history of silhouettes; the making of
silhouette paper; the difference between ‘hollow cut’ bust silhouettes
and black paper silhouettes; and the cutting of silhouettes using a
machines like the physiognotrace, or free-hand cutting like that done by
Edouart and others.
Some time after reading Penley’s paper, a fortuitous stop at the
library of the New Hampshire Historical Society introduced me to the
1976 book on Edouart, Silhouettes of Eminent Americans. I was
struck by the similarity between Edouart’s silhouettes and the Dickinson
family group in the Longsworth book. Could the group have been cut by
Edouart? I knew I needed to see the marvelous Dickinson silhouette group
in the original, whether cut by Edouart or not. So began my hunt..
A search of the internet inspired me to visit the Jones Library in
Amherst, Mass., and the Mt. Holyoke College Archives in S. Hadley,
Mass., since both seemed to have images of the silhouette group. I was
hoping one might be the original. However, both institutions had only
copies and knew nothing of the original.
Polly Longsworth was my next hope. After all, it was her book which
had started my search. An email to her elicited the information that she
did not know the location either, but suggested I should try Yale as it
had Dickinson material.
Ignoring Yale for the moment, I decided to contact Amherst College
Archives. I knew they had the original photograph of Emily Dickinson.
Surely they had the original silhouettes. It turned out that, indeed,
the Archives had the little silhouette bust of Emily, but not the family
group or knowledge as to its location.
Yale was next by default. A call to their Archives was as fruitful as
all the other inquiries. They had no information on the whereabouts of
the silhouettes, though they had a copy.
My search was not going well. I had to think of another avenue of
attack. I decided to rummage through the different biographies written
about Emily Dickinson to see where the silhouette group had first been
used as an illustration. Several books reproduced the grouping, but none
seemed to have the information that would lead to the original.
Then came the ‘eureka’ moment. Like a gold miner striking a lode, I
finally unearthed the author. Jay Leyda, in his Hours and Years of
Emily Dickinson, turned out to be the first to publish the
illustration. I frantically rifled through his footnotes and
illustration information only to find that every illustration in the
book was credited except the silhouettes of the Dickinson family. Now
things really were not going well. Given that Leyda seemed quite
scrupulous in attribution, why the momentary lapse on the one
illustration on which I needed a credit? It took some time for me to
deduce that the only sensible answer to that question was that Leyda
owned the silhouettes.
Sadly, both Jay Leyda and his wife were deceased, closing that avenue
of inquiry. Diligent searching on the Internet, however, produced the
name of Leyda’s executrix. A telephone call to her gave me the
information that some of Leyda’s material was at the Tamiment Library,
NYU, New York City.
I emailed the Tamiment about the missing silhouettes. Soon a large
envelope came bouncing through the postal system. In the envelope was a
copy of a letter written by Jay Leyda that, like a treasure map,
divulged the location of the treasured silhouette group. The location
was the one place no one had thought to make inquiry and, like Poe’s
Purloined Letter, the location was practically in plain sight.
Leyda’s letter was written to Harvard University’s Houghton Library and
stated that Leyda was donating the silhouettes to the Houghton Library
which had a large collection of Dickinson material. I was elated. If the
silhouette group was at Harvard, it was very close to me.
A telephone call to the Houghton Library confirmed that they had the
original silhouette group and that I could examine it by making an
appointment. I lost no time in setting up a date.
Before the visit, homework was essential in order to become more
versed in silhouettes. I borrowed several books listed on Peggy
McClard’s website and read through them. I also spent hours combing
through the online records of Newbanks’ Historical Newspapers for
references to silhouettists and their art. By the day of my Harvard
visit, I felt at least slightly more informed.
On arrival at the Houghton Library, I was seated and then handed a
large box. Upon opening it, I had the distinct pleasure of looking at
the very first original silhouette group I had ever encountered. As I
viewed the 5 black paper silhouettes of the Dickinson family, I noted
the 8” height similar to the size of many of Edouart’s cuttings, but no
Edouart signature was visible; nor did the cutting seem nearly as fine
as that of Edouart. No matter who cut the Dickinson group, however,
seeing it still produced a trill of excitement. I had finally achieved
my goal. I had found and touched the original silhouette group, after
months of questing. At that moment I decided that no matter what future
research unveiled about the Dickinson silhouette group, finding the
original at Harvard University was, in itself, a grand hunt. It was a
lesson in persistence while also giving me an appreciation of
silhouettes and their creators. And, in the future, perhaps my hunt will
make it easier for some other researcher to discover the original
© Susan Anderson 2010