Issue 154, Spring 2000
On May 31, 1997, Daniel Lombardo drove from his home, in West Hampton, Massachusetts—a small hill town above the Connecticut River—to the Jones Library, in Amherst, where he has worked as the curator of special collections since 1983. The Jones Library has a privately endowed collection of local historical and literary documents, and Lombardo has devoted much of his professional life to Amherst’s most famous resident, Emily Dickinson. He is the author of a recent study, “A Hedge Away: The Other Side of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst.” He is also a member of the Emily Dickinson International Society, and he was on his way to its annual meeting, with an announcement to make.
A few days earlier, he had come across an unpublished poem by Dickinson in a Sotheby’s catalogue announcing its June 3 auction of fine books and manuscripts. According to the catalogue, the poem had been written in pencil, on a piece of blue-lined paper measuring eight by five inches and was signed Emily. On the top left-hand corner of the page was an embossed insignia. On the back of the page, someone had written Aunt Emily.
That God Cannot be understood
We do not know
His Motives nor
Comprehend his Deeds—
Then why should I seek solace in
What I cannot know?
Better to play
In winter’s sun
Than to fear the snow.
“I thought this was just extraordinary. In my recollection, it has been decades since a poem had come up this way,” Lombardo told me when I visited him at his office at the Jones Library, an eighteenth-century-style fieldstone building in the center of Amherst. Only five feet two, Lombardo had a bushy russet-brown beard, John Lennon glasses and shoulder-length hair. “The first thing I did was look at the handwriting. Dickinson’s handwriting, much as it changed through her lifetime, was very distinct,” he explained. “So I compared it to manuscripts that we had. I am not an expert in handwriting, but it looked right to me.” He also did a cursory check of the paper. “The poem was written on paper with a boss on it with the Capitol dome and the word Congress. I found that Dickinson had used Congress paper at two different periods in her life—in 1871 and again in 1874.”
In the early 1870s, Dickinson was in her forties. She was still living at home and rarely left her house and garden. Her most prolific period was over, but she was still writing about four poems a month. She had, over the years, written several playful pieces of impromptu verse or meditations like this one. Since 1864, she had also begun to use pencil more often. Lombardo had some reservations about the quality of the poem—it read a little like a Hallmark card—but there seemed to be an explanation for that, too. “The fact that the poem was ascribed to Aunt Emily suggested that it had been written for a child—most likely for Ned Dickinson, the poet’s nephew, who lived next door to her. “In 1871, he would have been ten,” Lombardo told me.
Although some “new” poems had been found in Dickinson’s letters in recent years, almost all of her known work had been assembled by her relatives and friends after her death, and a discovery like this was extremely rare. Lombardo was particularly interested in this poem because, although the Jones Library has an extensive selection of manuscripts by the former Amherst professor Robert Frost, its collection of Dickinson manuscripts is relatively small. Almost all of her letters and poems are held by two larger and far wealthier institutions—Amherst College and Harvard’s Houghton Library. For the Jones Library, the poem would be a major acquisition.
Sotheby’s estimated the poem’s value at between ten and fifteen thousand dollars, but the Jones Library had an acquisitions budget of only five thousand dollars at its disposal. So Lombardo launched an appeal at the Emily Dickinson International Society meeting. “All of Dickinson’s work and her life,” he says “are informed by the town she lived in. And I felt I had an obligation to at least try to bring the poem to Amherst.”
Home is the key word. For the people of Amherst, Dickinson is an object of pride and of industry. Cafes offer tins of gingerbread baked to her original recipe. Scholars fill the town’s bed and breakfasts, and patronize its restaurants. Each year, thousands of Dickinson fans, from as far away as Japan and Chile, make the pilgrimage to the ivy-covered, Federal-style house on Main Street where the poet lived her reclusive life. As they enter the second-floor bedroom, they see the sleigh bed where she slept, and the little card table by the window where she wrote her poems.
The Emily Dickinson International Society meeting took place in the Trustees’ Room, a wood-floored reception room with a fireplace at one end. After a lunch of grinders and potato chips, Lombardo gave a brief presentation on the poem and outlined what a marvelous opportunity this was for the library. The response was enthusiastic. A Dickinson scholar from Case Western University stood up and pledged a thousand dollars. “The spark really went around the room,” Ellen Louise Hart, a Dickinson scholar, recalls. “Graduate students were bidding a thousand dollars even though we all knew they couldn’t afford it.”
“It mattered so much that we had found a new poem,” Susan Juhasz, a Dickinson scholar from the University of Colorado at Boulder, remembers, “It was very heady, very exciting.”
“There was this great sense of community,” Lombardo recalls. “It was as if we were all starting on an adventure together.” He spent the next two days on the phone and raised a total of twenty-four thousand dollars.
Some of the scholars present privately doubted the quality of the poem. “My sense of it was, I don’t like this poem,” says Juhasz. “I thought if Dickinson wrote that, it was a bad day.” Another Dickinson scholar, Margaret Freeman, wondered whether Dickinson had copied one of her niece’s poems or copied a poem she’d seen in an anthology. Neither voiced her reservations. Everyone had been swept along on a wave of euphoria.
Lombardo had no serious doubts about the poem’s authenticity—after all, it was being auctioned by Sotheby’s and no one else seemed to have raised any questions about it. Before he bid on it, however, he made a call to Ralph Franklin, the director of Yale’s Beinecke Library and the world’s leading expert on Dickinson’s manuscripts and “packets” or fascicles, as they are also known—the improvised books she made by copying her poems onto folded pieces of paper and binding them together. After her death in 1886, some of her packets were broken up and other pages that had been left unbound were scattered. Franklin spent years laboriously reconstructing their original order—on the basis of her handwriting, the paper she used, and even the angles and the worn edges of the needle holes in the pages—and produced the definitive, two-volume set, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Franklin told Lombardo that he had been aware of this poem for a few years and was planning to include it in a new variorum edition of her poems that he was preparing for Harvard University Press.
The auction was held at Sotheby’s on June 3. Lombardo could not attend, so he arranged to bid by phone from the Jones Library. There was a write-in bid for eight thousand dollars, and the bidding continued from there. By sixteen thousand dollars, the pace had started to slow and Lombardo stepped in with a bid for seventeen. His bid was immediately countered by one for eighteen thousand. Lombardo bid nineteen. His opponent bid twenty. Lombardo bid twenty-one. Because Sotheby’s would add a fifteen-percent commission to the selling price, this was his last possible bid, and he felt sure that whoever was bidding against him would keep going. But at twenty-one thousand dollars the hammer came down. Lot 74 was going home to Amherst.
“I went and told everyone who was waiting outside the door,” Lombardo said. “They all started hugging me. It was as if the sky had opened up, a lightning bolt had come down, and God had said, ‘This is your moment.’ ”
As he waited for the poem to arrive, Lombardo began to organize an exhibition. He wanted to present as much information as possible about the poem, so he began to look into who had written the words Aunt Emily. He had samples of handwriting belonging to Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Emily’s niece, and he got in touch with Brown University. They sent him photocopies of letters by Ned Dickinson. Neither of these matched the writing on the back of the poem, but he assumed that Dickinson could have written the poem for one of her numerous cousins.
Lombardo also wanted to present to the public as much information as possible about the poem’s history: its provenance. So on June 20, he called Marsha Malinowski, a vice president at Sotheby’s who was also a senior expert in the Department of Books and Manuscripts and had been one of the Sotheby’s employees to handle the June 3 sale. Malinowski told Lombardo that she was delighted that the poem was going back to Amherst and would be happy to ask the consignor for permission to waive Sotheby’s standard confidentiality agreement and reveal his or her identity. A week later she called back and told him that the consignor of the poem had unfortunately not agreed to waive the agreement. She could say only that the poem had come from a collector, who had bought it from a dealer in the Midwest who had died.
Three days later, Lombardo got a call from Ralph Franklin, suggesting that he speak to Brent Ashworth, a collector of historical documents in Provo, Utah, about the provenance of the poem. In the course of a conversation about another Dickinson manuscript, Ashworth had told Franklin that, more than a decade earlier, a Salt Lake City rare-documents dealer named Mark Hofmann had offered to sell him an unpublished Emily Dickinson manuscript for ten thousand dollars. Ashworth had also seen the Sotheby’s catalogue, and he believed that the poem Hofmann had shown him was the poem Lombardo had just bought.
At the mention of Hofmann’s name, a chill went down Lombardo’s spine. Like everyone else in the rare-manuscript trade, Lombardo was familiar with the Mark Hofmann story. Time, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times had all written about Hofmann, and he had been the subject of four books. Hofmann was widely considered the Rembrandt of American forgers, a man who combined an obsessive attention to historical detail with extraordinary craftsmanship. Hofmann was also a notorious double murderer, and had, by the time of last years’ auction, served twelve years to a life sentence in a Utah prison. “I remember the Mormon forgeries and the murders he had committed,” says Lombardo. “I also knew that if the poem was not a forgery, the fact that it had been in Hofmann’s hands would be the kiss of death.”
Hofmann’s life of crime began in Salt Lake City, when he was twelve years old and began forging rare coins. Like many young Mormons, after finishing high school, he fulfilled his required two-year service as a Mormon missionary. On his return, he enrolled in premed at Utah State University. His mother’s anguish over her father’s polygamy (a practice that had, at one time, been embraced by the Church) had already caused him to question the faith as a teenager, and his studies now pushed him farther into doubt. Although he still behaved like a practicing Mormon, he often disturbed his friends by criticizing the Church and aligning himself with well-known anti-Mormon activists. “It’s important to me to find things out about the history of the Church so I can prove it’s not true,” he told his girlfriend. Eventually, he dropped out of college and set himself up as a rare-documents dealer.
Forging coins had taught Hofmann two lessons he would never forget: that objects have no intrinsic value, and that people want to believe. His first document forgeries proved both. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has always been a religion with an obsessive hunger for “faith-promoting” documents—manuscripts that could help to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The founding myth of Mormonism involves Joseph Smith, Jr., a seventeen-year-old farm boy, who, in 1823, was directed to the top of a hill in upstate New York by an angel called Moroni, where he discovered two gold plates encrypted with the Book of Mormon—written in a language that would later come to be known as “Reformed Egyptian.” According to the Book of Mormon, when Joseph Smith was transcribing and “translating” the gold plates, he copied out a few passages and gave them to his friend and scribe, a farmer named Martin Harris, who took them to New York City to show to scholars— including Charles Anthon, a classicist at Columbia College. Shortly afterward, the text disappeared and no one had seen it since.
Later, in April, 1980, Mark Hofmann came forward with a 1668 edition of the King James Bible, which he claimed to have bought from a Salt Lake City man who had bought it from a granddaughter of Joseph Smith’s sister. He showed it to the curator of special collections and archives at Utah State University, who discovered, concealed inside, a series of mysterious hieroglyphics written on what seemed to be nineteenth-century paper and signed by Joseph Smith. For the Mormon Church, finding the Anthon Transcript was akin to the Vatican’s discovering the original manuscript of Saint Paul’s letters.
Hofmann’s position as a collector and dealer gave him the perfect alibi and, over the next five years, he sold hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of bogus documents, some of which called into question the fundamental tenets of the Mormon faith. His most famous, which became known as the Salamander Letter, was ostensibly written by Smith’s aide, Martin Harris, in 1830. The letter portrayed Smith not as a visionary but as a money-grubbing prospector who found the gold plates while digging for money, and his guide appeared not as an angel but as an aggressive, transforming white salamander. This controversial document was bought for forty thousand dollars by a businessman and Mormon bishop called Steven Christensen, who, after having it authenticated, donated it to the church, where it was placed in sealed archives—but not before it had attracted some damaging publicity.
Literary forgery is not a new art. The Ptolomaic Egyptians forged documents, and fakes of works by both Euripides and Sophocles were created in ancient Greece. In the intervening thousand years there have been numerous cases of literary forgery, like Antique Adams who forged numerous poems by Lord Byron. America has been especially prolific in producing forgers (and the gulls they depend on) but most have been amateurs who would give themselves away by making elementary errors. They would write too carefully, leaving heavy concentrations of ink. They would use the wrong kind of paper. A few, like Joseph Cosey, a deft Irishman who, in the second half of the nineteenth century, produced numerous literary forgeries, including works by Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain, some of which are still in circulation, were brilliant craftsmen. But Mark Hofmann dwarfs them all.