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The look of lit: author portraits in the N.Y. Public Library's digital collection

April 3, 2009 |  5:36 am


Ever wondered what Louisa May Alcott looked like? That's her at left; it's her portrait in the New York Public Library's digital authors collection. Look how she had to perch sideways on the couch in order to accommodate her bustle. And how upright she sits! Did they ever slump in her day? Did they wear pajamas? My goodness, how could a woman write all corseted up like that?

Of course, we can't learn much from looking at authors' photos, but that doesn't stop me from being curious. There's Edmund Wilson, above right, the esteemed critic whom everyone likes but me. And I think he looks like a terrible bore — the fact that he's the one who donated this picture to the library doesn't recommend him, does it?

Georgeeliot But on the grim scale, nothing quite equals poor George Eliot. Her critical writing is incisive and terrific and her "Middlemarch" widely acclaimed. But she seems so severe in this sketch, right. Maybe she's cheerier facing forward. 

The collection includes 27 pleasant pictures of Charles Dickens, one of Virginia Woolf and two of the fetching Elizabeth Barrett Browning. While most are portraits, the John Steinbeck pictures show him smoking, drinking coffee and flipping through pages.

Although most of the authors are British or American, there are a handful of authors from elsewhere, like the dapper Vachel Lindsay and the serious Emile Zola.  

One of the stars of the collection is its subset of Walt Whitman pictures, including a rare daguerreotype.You can see them all in a  voyeur's tour through literary history. For free.

— Carolyn Kellogg