Sunday, May 15, 2011

15 May 1886 Death of Emily Dickinson. Do You Know the Stamp? The Souvenir Cover?

On this day in 1886, the poet Emily Dickinson died in the home in which she was born, here in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although she published a few poems and shared more in manuscript with friends and family, the bulk of her oeuvre of 1789 pieces was, of course, discovered only after her death. The history of their publication and editing is a story in its own right, in some ways more dramatic than that of her life.

The Emily Dickinson Museum describes the funeral as follows:
Dickinson’s white-garbed body lay in a white coffin in the Homestead parlor, where the family’s former pastor Rev. Jonathan Jenkins of Pittsfield (Mass.) led a prayer and Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Cambridge (Mass.) read Emily Bronte’s poem on immortality, “No coward soul is mine.” Higginson, who gazed into the casket before it was closed for the service, reported: “E.D.’s face a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 54 [55]; looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle; perfect peace on the beautiful brow. There was a little bunch of violets at the neck; one pink cypripedium; the sister Vinnie put in two heliotropes by her hand ‘to take to Judge Lord’” (Years and Hours, Vol. II, 475).
The honorary pallbearers, among them the president and professors of Amherst College, set the casket down after exiting the Homestead’s back door, and their burden was shouldered, at the poet’s own request, by six Irish workmen who had been hired men on the Dickinson grounds.
Following her late directions, they circled her flower garden, walked through the great barn that stood behind the house, and took a grassy path across house lots and fields of buttercups to West Cemetery, followed by the friends who had attended the simple service. There Emily Dickinson was interred in a grave Sue had lined with evergreen boughs, within the family plot enclosed by an iron fence.
Originally the grave was marked by a low granite stone with her initials, E.E.D., but some decades later niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi replaced it with a marble slab bearing the message “Called Back.” The title of a popular Hugh Conway novel, the words were also the complete content of a letter the poet sent her cousins as she entered her final phase of illness.
Below is the Dickinson commemorative stamp (Scott # 1436) that the US Postal Service issued in Amherst in 1971.

Designed: Bernard Fuchs
Modeled: Leonard C. Buckley
Vignette: Arthur W. Dintamen
Letters engraved: Albert Saavedra
Printed: Giori Press

It is based on the famous 1847 daguerreotype—or: "derogg-a-type" (some sort of Freudian slip?)—as outgoing Amherst College President Anthony Marx embarrassingly referred to it at an elite reception following Garrison Keillor's benefit performance there for the Dickinson Museum last winter. (Good luck with that, New York Public Library!)

That youthful image, jealously guarded in the Rare Books and Special Collections of Amherst College—and in fact specially brought out for the above occasion—is the only authenticated representation of the poet, although other candidates appear from time to time and remain the subject of debate.

Emily DickinsonImage via Wikipedia

Although I was young in 1971, I had been a stamp collector for some years, and I also already knew something about Emily Dickinson and her work. Just what it was, I no longer remember precisely (this was even before Julie Harris's performance of the "Belle of Amherst" on network television in 1976, which I do remember quite well). I believe that we read Dickinson in school; it would have been about the right point in the curriculum, as I recall. Perhaps my mother had taught me about her, too. At any rate, Emily was already a growing presence in my life. (A few years later, I bought my own first paperback edition of her poems.)

So, I ordered a first day of issue cover.

It was the heyday of the first day of issue "souvenir cachets," as these unofficial, privately and often commercially embellished envelopes were known. Mount Holyoke College, which counts Dickinson as one of its most distinguished students (if not actual  "graduates") maintains a page that catalogues the proliferation of those items and other covers involving the stamp. (Note: Back in Emily's day, of course, it was the "Mount Holyoke Female Seminary," as one irate aficionado prissily informed visiting Dickinson scholar Lyndall Gordon after a lecture at Amherst College last fall.)

Below is a rare unused copy of one such cachet, produced by the particularly prolific "Art Craft" company.  It is one of the more repulsive exemplars of the genre. Even leaving the general bad taste aside, it is reprehensible because it is everything that Dickinson was not: sentimental, conventional, cloying, dishonest.


The whole presentation is profoundly false, but it begins with the distortion of Dickinson's image, a distortion admittedly ascribable to the poet's own conflicted family. Never happy with the haunting daguerreotype that so appeals to our modern sensibility, they were also dissatisfied with their own early attempts to modify and soften it. In 1897, at the request of Emily's sister, Lavinia, Boston artist Laura Hills first added the fuller and more styled hair and a flat angular lace collar. She subsequently turned the collar into a full-fledged ruff, part of a white dress rather than a superimposition on the old dark one. Emily's niece and zealous guardian of her legacy Martha Dickinson Bianchi had the new image modified still further in 1924, when she published The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Taken altogether, the Hills image with its subsequent modifications is quite an accomplishment, in that it manages to be infantilizing and meretricious at once.

I haven't the time or the energy to produce a digital graphic comparison right now, but sometimes the simplest approach is the best: Just cover the falsified image of the hair on the souvenir cachet with your fingers, and you'll see the lineaments of the poet's only authentic image emerge.

I didn't go for one of those fancy cachets. I'm not sure I saw an advance advertisement, but in any case, I think I was, haltingly, already developing a sense of taste and historical evidence. For example, I viewed with a certain skepticism the inordinate interest of some my friends in the deliberately exotic philatelic productions (some were issued on gold foil) of the feudal states of the Arabian Gulf, which to my mind were geared to the market of gullible western collectors rather than actual postal users. (1, 2)

In any case, a kid back then had limited funds and no checking account. The standard practice was to send a request, containing cash payment for the stamps and the proverbial "self-addressed envelope," to the "Postmaster" of the issuing locale, and then, lo and behold, a week or so later, the coveted cover would arrive in the mail.

Looking at mine for almost the first time since then, I see that I made a mistake in the Zip Code by transposing the digits to read 00102 rather than 01002. I know better now. I even know not to pronounce the "h" in Amherst. Not sure which I learned first. Anyway: been there, also got the t-shirt. A week ago at the North Amherst Rezoning Visioning session, I was surprised to hear that the head of the Cecil Group, the consultants who also took part in the public design process for Kendrick Park, still had not absorbed that little linguistic fact of life (though he also, upon learning this, appropriately poked fun at himself).

The spring is always a big season for Dickinson-related events here in Amherst, first and foremost the Poetry Walk, which takes place on the Saturday closest to her death anniversary. This year's Poetry Walk was distinctive, and it was moreover preceded by other events of note (hint: got a cell phone?). Separate reports to follow.


• Houghton Library, Harvard University:  Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamps and Ephemera (1 Box: includes stamps, Amherst newspaper articles, ephemera, and a pane of 50 stamps "in a presentation binder stamped in gold lettering: 'Harvard University.'" [in case anyone had any doubts about...what])

• US Postal Service: Women on Stamps

•  National Postal Museum

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