Amherst, MA — “Just a turn, Maddie, and it’s freedom,” Emily Dickinson used to say to her small niece as they entered her bedroom and she pretended to turn a non-existent lock on the door. For fans of the incredibly private, world-renowned poet — a different kind of turn, up a small driveway off of Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts — grants them a different kind of freedom: a chance to explore the home Dickinson lived in from when she was twenty-five until her death at the age of fifty-five.
The excitement that comes with that voyeuristic freedom is palpable as our class full of Dickinson-lovers enters the Emily Dickinson Museum on a sunny December morning. The tour has been arranged specially for our class, an English seminar called Victorian Literature and Visual Culture, courtesy of an alumna who works at the Museum. The alumna, Lucy, greets us with a warm smile tinged with her four years at Mount Holyoke: a recognition of our simultaneous excitement about the visit and the exhaustion she knows we must feel in the middle of finals week. We drop our bags and jackets underneath the staircase in the imposing, colonial-style home. Having spent the last seven years of my life reading Dickinson’s poems and passing by the massive yellow home, situated not far from the center of Amherst, for the past four years, being inside feels somewhat surreal. Lucy summons us into the parlor: “Let’s get started.”
The parlor of the Dickinson home is, disappointingly, quite average and modern. In describing the history of the home, which was built by Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, Lucy reviews its various stages of ownership and renovation, including a brief stint as Amherst College faculty housing. The Museum has done its best to restore original aspects of the home, she tells us, but many of those projects are still works-in-progress. Lucy gestures to the portraits on the walls and gives a brief explanation of each member of the Dickinson family: her father, Edward, her mother, Emily, and her brother and sister: Austin and Lavinia. Winter sunlight streams in through one of the large windows and Lucy notes that during Dickinson’s lifetime, the home would have been far less “light and airy.” She leads us into the adjacent parlor room and continues regaling us with the Dickinson family history. After having invested a large amount of money into the fledgling Amherst College, Emily’s father, Edward, was forced to sell the family home and Emily and her siblings spent the majority of her childhood in a different home before returning to the hilltop colonial. Losing the home was a huge blow to Mr. Dickinson’s ego, Lucy tells us, and I nod along politely, having heard enough about wealthy white men’s bruised egos for a lifetime, tell us more about Emily, I silently implore her. As we move into the library, my secular prayer is answered.
The Dickinson’s library reflects most accurately how the house was decorated during Emily’s lifetime: the walls are covered in dark, forest green wallpaper and the wooden molding is dark. Lucy lifts up a copy of a Charles Dickens novel as she explains that Emily enjoyed reading the popular fiction of her time, including Dickens and the Brontë sisters. Quoting one of Dickinson’s letters, Lucy tells us that Mr. Dickinson often bought his daughter books but “begged her not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind.” It is also in this room that Lucy recounts the details of Dickinson’s correspondence with Thomas Higginson at The Atlantic Monthly, who had written an article directed to young artists who might be interested in having their work published. When Higginson suggested that Dickinson’s poems might need some work before she tries to have them published, Dickinson scoffed: “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish,’” she wrote, “that being foreign to my thought as firmament to fin.” Hearing how Dickinson used her sharp wit outside of her poetry piques my interest and I make eye contact with one of my friends in the group; we must read those letters.
The pièce de résistance of the tour is, of course, Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. When we reach the top of the staircase, Lucy stops us to explain that the room is currently being restored and gestures to the replicated furniture being stored in the hallway. She passes around copies of notes and poems Dickinson had written on envelopes and chocolate wrappers and we move into the room itself. The original floorboards have been exposed and the original ceiling re-installed but the room is still clearly far from being finished. Still, for an avid Dickinson-reader, the barren room retains an almost magical quality. “What surprises you all about this room?” Lucy asks. “There are a lot of windows,” I answer immediately. Though, as Lucy points out, the “Myth of Amherst,” as Emily Dickinson came to be known, was a myth largely created by her later publishers to establish an air of mystery rather than to transmit an entirely accurate history, Dickinson was an intensely private person. Though contained by the three fish-bowl-like windows, she was also able to look out and see who was coming to the front door, allowing her to refuse certain visitors as she was known to do. More than a place to watch family guests walk up the street from the train station though, this room was a space in which Dickinson could write. It was around the age of twenty-five, when the family moved back to their original home, that she began producing her most prolific works of poetry.
Unfortunately, the tour ends on a somewhat low note, at the Evergreens, the house built for Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and his family adjacent to the main home. Part of a bribe put forth by Edward Dickinson to get his son to stay in Amherst rather than move to Chicago, the towering home was apparently modeled after an Italian villa. As we enter into the cramped front hallway, Lucy instructs as to let our eyes adjust to the dark space and gestures to the variety of artwork that populates the walls. From snowy, romantic landscapes to “Oriental-style” artwork chosen by Austin’s wife, Susan, the paintings in the elaborate foyer are meant to show that the family was well-traveled and well-educated. Soon after Austin took over his father’s post as the treasurer of Amherst College, their home became the center of Amherst social life, Lucy explains, and Susan rejoiced in entertaining the College’s distinguished guests. Despite the tales of lively dinner parties, the house in its current condition calls to mind death. More so than the Dickinson home, which changed hands and was renovated many times throughout the years, the Evergreens has been kept as near to its original state as possible and it shows: knobs meant to hold up plaster are hammered into the walls at random intervals and there are cracks in the ceiling; the hallway has a cave-like quality. We end our tour in a room deemed “the death room,” where many of the deaths that made Emily Dickinson’s final years so oppressively sad took place. Lucy hands us all book marks and thanks us for our visit. We reply by thanking her for a lovely tour and I make quickly for the door.
Lucy’s tour was lovely and the Emily Dickinson Museum has made an admirable effort to bring to life the long-dead poet. However, the second half of the tour which focuses on the Evergreens Estate does perhaps too good a job at evoking the intensity and sadness that marked Dickinson’s life, especially her later years. As we open the front door I am thankful for the fresh air. “Just a turn,” I think, “and it’s freedom.”
Higginson, Thomas. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters.” Early Women Masters. EARLY WOMEN MASTERS EAST & WEST, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.