During my trip to Massachusetts over fall break, I spent one afternoon in Amherst, where I visited Amherst Books. But the main reason for my outing was to visit the Emily Dickinson Museum, which consists of the house Emily Dickinson lived in, her brother’s home next door, and the grounds between them.
I don’t remember when I first learned about Emily Dickinson, but I do remember pretty clearly an assignment (possibly an exam) in 11th grade AP American Literature for which we had to compare two poems about spiders, one by Emily Dickinson and one by Walt Whitman. The Dickinson poem was very compact and spare, like most of her poems, but what I remember so clearly is how, by reading the poem over and over and pondering the words, I found that its meaning unfolded, for me. That is, I discovered so many more possibilities for interpretation than I could see before. Now, maybe you’re thinking that’s just how textual analysis works; you have to go over the words again and again. And I would say that Dickinson’s poems, because of their compactness, require this kind of tenacity more than some other texts. But I remember genuinely enjoying this process of cracking the nut, if you will, and feeling like, because English class had made me, I’d gotten to experience this pleasure that I otherwise wouldn’t have because I wasn’t a huge poetry fan and didn’t read poetry for fun. It was like the difference between briefly looking at an old village church on the side of the road and walking on and spending a long time forcing the door and getting in and seeing the stained glass windows from the inside as a reward for your persistence. (I have no idea where that analogy came from.)
Despite that experience, I did not go on to become a diehard Emily Dickinson fan. Over the years, I have been mildly interested in Emily Dickinson the writer, this reclusive New England woman poet who never married. And not long before my trip, I heard about a new film, Wild Nights with Emily, which portrays Dickinson’s romantic relationship with her friend and sister-in-law, Susan. So, finding myself in Western Massachusetts and not knowing when I might ever return, I decided a trip to the museum would be worth it.
I arrived on a sunny afternoon, walking down Main Street past a park and an old stone Congregational church that I later learned all of Emily’s family except her attended. I first passed the Evergreens, the house her father built for her brother Austin so that he wouldn’t head west. That was where Austin, Susan, and their children lived. A little farther on was the Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and lived for most of her life. (During her late childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, her family lived in a different house in Amherst because her grandfather lost the Homestead. The family later bought it back.) I walked up the drive, feeling a bit like I was intruding on someone’s home. There were workmen engaged in repairs of some type on the yellow house. I followed the signs around back and entered through the screened porch, and soon I had secured my spot on the 3:30 tour. (Twice while in Western Mass., once at this museum and once at Guild Art Supply in Northampton, I got discounts for being a teacher! I was always asked if I was eligible, and I didn’t have to furnish any proof.)
In the garden, with the Homestead in the background
I had about forty-five minutes before my tour, so I looked at the books in the gift shop, went out into the garden, and came back inside to explore the exhibit on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson’s poems. It was a complicated affair involving, at different times, her sister Lavinia (a cat lady!), her friend and sister-in-law Susan, her niece Martha, her brother’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, and others.
Typesetting Emily Dickinson’s poems for publication
Our tour guide (whose last name was Shumway, like the composer Nehemiah Shumway in The Sacred Harp) found us in the exhibit; there were only two of us on this tour! One of the first things she asked us was whether we’d read any Emily Dickinson; she was to read us several poems during the tour.
She first led us into the parlors, where there was a piano like the one the Dickinsons had. Our guide told us Emily stopped playing the piano after hearing someone who played better than her! There was also a copy of the famous photo of Dickinson at age 16, looking extremey severe. But on the wall was a reproduction of a portrait of the three Dickinson children, in which Emily has very short (apparently red?) hair. Our guide told us she’d once briefly described her appearance to a correspondent and we can guess her height from the length of her coffin.
We crossed the hall to the library, where our guide told us about Emily’s happy childhood, going to parties and whatnot, and her schooling, including her one year at Mount Holyoke. We saw reproduced pages of an herbarium she’d helped make; the plant names were in her handwriting. Our guide also told us about her many correspondents, when she was an adult. It sounded like she just wrote to people who interested her, and if at first they didn’t reply, she persisted until they did.
We ascended the staircase to the second floor, where we visited Emily Dickinson’s bedroom, restored to look as it might have when she lived (and died!) there. It was cozy and sunshine-filled. There was a very small table set under one of the windows, where she presumably wrote her poems. Apparently the neighbors remarked to her father that there was often a light in her window very late into the night, and his response was, So, what? Though Emily’s life seemed reclusive, the museum and our guide emphasized that she still had lively relationships with her family, neighborhood children, the household servants, and her correspondents.
The Homestead, home of Emily Dickinson
The house Emily Dickinson lived in hasn’t been a museum for that long. At a certain time, it was faculty housing for Amherst College, so young professors could’ve lived there! I’d love to be able to say I lived in a house that had once been home to a great American poet.
We left the Homestead and crunched across the leaf-strewn lawn to the Evergreens. Our guide had told us how Emily had written poems to Susan and how they were childhood friends. You know how sometimes you meet someone and you just click? That was how it was for them. On the way to the Evergreens, she said Emily might have been a little jealous to have to share her best friend with her brother after they married. I’d been wondering whether the exhibit or the tour would touch on a possible romantic relationship between Emily and Susan, but neither did. Back in Emily’s bedroom, our guide had told us about her later-in-life romance with a friend of her parents, who was a judge from Salem. The judge wanted to marry her, and Emily apparently loved him, but she didn’t marry him.
The Evergreens is interesting because it’s still in a state very close to what it was when Austin Dickinson and his family lived there. His daughter Martha hired an assistant who came to live in the house with his wife, and his wife only moved out in the very late 20th century, and she hadn’t changed anything. The décor, furniture, and artwork were all original (and showed their age), and the kitchen hadn’t been modernized, so it looked very old-fashioned.
Our guide closed the tour with a last poem and an entreaty to check out more of Dickinson’s poetry. I’m very glad I visited the museum; it was a kind of literary pilgrimage, like visiting la Maison de Balzac. Shortly after I returned from Massachusetts, I read about this new TV show about Emily Dickinson (but set in the present?), which seems to depict her as a much more interesting and complex figure than the conventional view of her. She was probably much cooler than I am!