Just for Fun

Hiding In Plain Sight

Guest Article written & Copyright © 2010
by Susan Anderson (my research buddy)
Seeking the Dickinson Family Silhouette

  • Dickinson Family Silhouette

Link to Yale University Yale University Library Manuscripts & Archives
Dickinson Family Silhouette

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 information.

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 Dickinson silhouettes.

© Susan Anderson 2010