Literary Pilgrimages: Emily Dickinson’s House

2015-09-21 10.19.25
The Dickinson Homestead

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.

2015-09-21 10.15.27
The Evergreens

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:

The wallpaper in Emily's room has just been restored from fragments found during remodeling. Photo courtesy of The Emily Dickinson Museum.
The wallpaper in Emily’s room has just been restored from fragments found during remodeling. Photo courtesy of The Emily Dickinson Museum.


Vintage cooking implements in the kitchen of The Evergreens. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.
Vintage cooking implements in the kitchen of The Evergreens. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.


A poetic fragment shows how the poet worked with many variants for a single word or phrase. Photo courtesy of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

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?

20 thoughts on “Literary Pilgrimages: Emily Dickinson’s House

  1. Wow, this looks like such an interesting trip! I always love these kind of tours of writer’s homes, as it’s just so interesting to see where they took their inspiration (I visited the Bronte Parsonage a while back for example, which was fascinating). Emily Dickinson is such a mysterious literary figure as well, so I imagine it was good to get some kind of insight into her life.


    1. Visiting the Bronte Parsonage was a dream come true for me some years back! I always love being able to step into an author’s home. It helps me experience his or her reality as a person.


  2. Huh. I’ve always driven past this landmark, but never gone in to see what’s there. Maybe I’ll give it a shot next time I visit home! I especially like that poetry fragment – it’s always interesting to see writers’ thought processes as they struggle towards the perfect phrasing.


    1. It’s easy to overlook places we see every day, but I hope you’ll make time for this one. There’s a shorter 45 minute tour that focuses just on the homestead and on the poetry — you might be interested in that one for starters.


  3. Oh wow, “My Wars Are Laid Away in Books” is such a good line. Damn, Emily Dickinson. She’s such an incredible person. I need to put my book of her poetry by my bedside table and read a few of them for the next couple nights. I love her.


  4. Oh wow, this was so lovely to read. I envy that you are able to visit these historic places easily (or somewhat easily?) I am not a big Dickinson fan, but just seeing where she lived and wrote is amazing. I love that glimpse into the lives of these famous authors. Thank you for sharing!


    1. There are a lot of sites within a couple of hours of me. Edith Wharton’s house in the Berkshires, Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, the Robert Frost Farm in NH, and of course in Concord/Boston/Salem there are tons…I’m excited to try to visit as many as possible (it will probably take me more than one year).


  5. Marvelous post.

    I love visiting literary destinations. This looks to have been a great place to go, I love Emily Dickerson’s work. I do not know much about her life. I would like to learn more.


  6. Fascinating post. Recently I made a pilgrimage to the grave side of William Butler Yeats. I as deeply moved. I have also been to the house museums of Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson


  7. Since reading Nuala O’Connor’s book Miss Emily this year, I’ve wanted to know more about her. I would love to visit these houses some day, but in the meantime, your description of it will have to do. Thanks for including the pictures – the look of the Evergreens is even more enticing to me than Emily’s house. Great post! And, looking forward to hearing about the biography you bought!


    1. Miss Emily looks lovely, I will have to read that along with the biography. And yes, The Evergreens in some ways gave more of a look into the past than the Homestead. I recommend visiting both.


  8. Oh, my! I want to visit! I love a literary pilgrimage. I especially like that picture of her kitchen above. Thank you for sharing. 🙂 My favorite literary pilgrimage is The Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. 🙂


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