Auction of Emily Dickinson’s Hair Sparks Controversy

Including some debate over whether the hair is what it purports to be

Emily Dickinson Museum
The Emily Dickinson Museum.
Андрей Романенко, CC BY-SA 3.0

Are we living through an Emily Dickinson renaissance? The acclaimed poet has been the subject of two acclaimed films in the last five years, as well as the streaming series Dickinson. A 2017 exhibit of Dickinson’s work at the Morgan Library & Museum drew praise from attendees, with The New York Times declaring that it “turns the Morgan into a pilgrimage site, a literary Lourdes, a place to come in contact with one aspect of American culture that truly can claim greatness.”

With increased attention to an artist’s work can also come increased interest in that artist’s ephemera. That can take a lot of forms — but in the case of Dickinson, there’s one very specific auction that’s drawn some attention as of late. That would be a listing on eBay for a lock of Dickinson’s hair, currently on sale for $450,000.

If you think that this is an odd fate for their hair of one of the country’s most revered writers, you are absolutely correct. At Literary Hub, Jen DeGregorio explored how this listing came about — and the part another acclaimed poet may have played in obtaining it.

The other poet in question is the late James Merrill, whose accolades include the Pulitzer Prize and multiple National Book Awards. When he was an undergraduate, according to various rumors, Merrill and two friends broke into the house where Dickinson’s niece lived and made off with some Dickinsonian artifacts, including hair believed to be Dickinson’s.

That, at least, is one origin story for how the hair ended up in Merrill’s possession. Another explanation is that the hair was part of something Merrill ordered from a rare book dealer. Either way, the whole thing raises plenty of ethical questions. There’s a whole lot more in the article itself, including the near-impossibility of actually verifying that the hair is what it purports to be. Scandal, ethical conundrums and literary intrigue — someone could write a poem about it.

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