Guide to Emily Dickinson at the Morgan Library

Christina Parrella
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When she died in 1886, Emily Dickinson had published only 10 of the nearly 1,800 poems she wrote throughout her life. (Those that were published often went unattributed and might have been submitted without her consent.) With the benefit of hindsight, that seems incredible: the poet has been firmly canonized as a preeminent American literary voice, and her work has garnered widespread acclaim. Now a new exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum, I’m Nobody! Who are you? The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson, aims to give museumgoers a look at the famously reclusive artist’s life and work. In conjunction with Amherst College, the Morgan presents 24 of Dickinson’s original manuscripts—handwritten, of course—along with objects belonging to her family and other, never-before-seen items. Read on for a look at seven key pieces that shaped Dickinson’s life and work.

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"Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson" (ca. 1840), by Otis Allen Bullard. Courtesy, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Emily Elizabeth, Austin, and Lavinia by Otis Allen Bullard
The exhibit’s first painting is of Dickinson and her siblings, with whom the poet remained close throughout her life. Artist Otis Allen Bullard painted the children in early 1840. (Emily is holding a book illustrated with a flower in its center; she was fond of botanical specimens, as well as illustrations of flowers.) This is the first time the painting has been on view outside the Houghton Library in Harvard since the university acquired it in 1950. 

Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. Courtesy, Emily Dickinson Museum. Photo: Michael Medeiros

Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, featuring rose wallpaper (The Morgan Library displays a replica of the original print)
Dickinson penned most of her work in her bedroom—one of the reasons for her reclusive reputation. Her early editors and publishers emphasized this quality, though it was later refuted by those who studied her life and correspondence with family, friends and schoolmates. Upon her death, most of her manuscripts were discovered in her bedroom. Others were with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson.

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson (ca. 1847). Courtesy, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections.

Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype, c. 1847
Dickinson was 16 when this photo, the most famous image of the poet, was taken. That same year she entered boarding school at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She spent one year there, customary for women at the time, before returning home. 

Lock of Emily Dickinson's hair sent to Emily Fowler (ca. 1853). Courtesy, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Lock of Emily Dickinson’s hair sent to Emily Fowler Ford, c. 1853
In the daguerreotype above, Dickinson appears to have dark hair, but the color was actually more auburn. She sent this lock of hair to Emily Fowler, a friend and schoolmate, who had recently returned from a trip.

"I'm Nobody! Who are you?" (ca. late 1861). Courtesy, Houghton Library, Harvard University

“I'm Nobody! Who are you?” by Emily Dickinson, c. late 1861
Dickinson’s work has challenged scholars for generations, especially for her creative use of punctuation and her original diction. This poem, which provides the title for the exhibition, was included in a hand-sewn booklet she made six months following the outbreak of the Civil War. In all of her “fascicles”—handmade collections of her work, like chapbooks—it appears only once.

"The way Hope builds his House" (ca. 1879). Courtesy, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

“The way Hope builds his House” by Emily Dickinson, 1879
Home, death, grief and faith are major themes in Dickinson’s writing. This poem was written on an envelope, in the shape of a house.

"Poems" (1890), by Emily Dickinson; Boston: Roberts Brothers. Courtesy, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Poems by Emily Dickinson  
The first volume of Emily’s published work, titled Poems, was published in late 1890 by Roberts Brothers, a small Boston imprint. The volume was edited by two of Dickinson’s friends. Five hundred copies were published; buoyed by positive early notices and handsome packaging, the book sold out quickly and was reprinted twice before the year was finished.  

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I’m Nobody! Who are you? is on view at The Morgan Library & Museum through May 21. 


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