This visit was made in anticipation of next year’s challenge, Reading New England. To learn more and sign up, click on the link.
In Amherst, Massachusetts stands the house where Emily Dickinson lived during most her life and wrote much of her incredible poetry. It’s now a museum where you can see some of the original furnishings owned by the family, view a reconstruction of Emily’s bedroom, and hear about her life and work.
Though I had been there more than twenty years ago, I had almost no memory of the visit and I thought it was time to make another pilgrimage. I was so glad I did, as I gained a new appreciation and understanding of the poet’s family and surroundings. Although in comparison to some other author-house-museums I have seen the physical furnishings are spare, our tour guide was able to bring them to life through stories, anecdotes and quotations from the poetry. I found it especially enlightening to stand in Emily’s corner bedroom, with its large windows giving a sweeping view of the hills to the southeast (if we imagine away the trees and power lines that have grown up since her time). Without leaving the house she could make observations such as “I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time” and “A bird came down the walk: He did not know I saw.”
We looked briefly at some facsimiles of the manuscript poems, with their multiple variants of many words and phrases scribbled in the margins, and considered how differently they can read when different editorial choices are made. Seeing Emily’s actual handwriting, even if only as a photocopy, brought us closer to her creative process.
It was also very illuminating to hear about Emily’s family: her father, who bought her all the books she wanted and then begged her not to read them; her mother, from whom she remained somewhat distant until the older woman needed care in old age; her sister, who burned her letters on Emily’s request after her death but thankfully preserved the poems; and her brother, with whom she shared the illicit reading of novels and conspired to hide them in the piano.
This brother, Austin, married one of Emily’s close friends and moved next door. Their house, The Evergreens, was also part of the tour, and is in a fascinating state of decrepitude. The furnishings and wallcoverings are largely original, a marvelous collection of Victoriana, but have suffered much during the years and have not all been restored to glossy museum-style perfection. This was a bit unusual, but somehow made them more poignant and real.
Here we heard more about family feuds and scandals, particularly in connection with arguments over Emily’s poetry after her death. It’s strange and sad that such a legacy of genius became a bone of contention among her heirs, but the fact that she never settled upon a final, “publishable” form for her poetry in some ways invited in this response. She remains an enigmatic, ambiguous figure, leaving us with much to decipher and wrestle with in our understanding of who she was and what she meant to say.
Here are a few more images, which the museum graciously granted me permission to share with you:
In 90 short minutes there was only time to touch briefly on the many mysteries of Emily’s life, and I left wanting to know more. I bought a biography, My Wars are Laid Away in Books, that I hope to read next year for Reading New England, and I’m inspired to revisit the poetry as well. Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem?