One of the first things you spot upon entering Emily Dickinson’s Amherst homestead is an ingenious method for doing 19th-century laundry: a copper kettle is built into the kitchen chimney, providing heat for the wash water. It is just one of the comforts the renowned poet enjoyed during her many decades in the stately Federal home.
Built in 1813 for Emily’s grandfather, who was a founder of Amherst College, the brick structure was home to Emily’s parents, Edward and Emily Dickinson, when she was born on Dec. 10, 1830. In those years, Amherst had only 2,500 residents, and fields of hay surrounded the homestead.
Although another owner subsequently claimed it for 20 years, in 1855 Edward bought back the family home, and Emily — who never married and was reclusive in her later years — spent her most creative period within its walls. She was happy in this bucolic setting, describing it in this way: “What is Paradise — Who live there . . . Do they know that this is Amherst.” Yet she was not oblivious to the world beyond, obliquely referring to the raging Civil War from the shelter of her bedroom: “It feels a shame to be Alive — When Men so brave — are dead.”
Now owned by Amherst College and operated as a museum, the homestead is undergoing interpretive changes to restore its 19th-century appearance. In 2004, it was repainted an authentic mustard yellow.
The first room my husband and I enter on our mid-autumn tour is the parlor. It is rather sparse of Dickinson furnishings, as another family owned the house for a half-century after the deaths of Emily (1886) and her sister, Lavinia (1833-99). But several original adornments remain: two white marble fireplaces, delicately sculpted in grape vines; a small sewing table; an Aeolian wind harp that rests by the window awaiting a breeze to tickle its strings; and a portrait of a young Emily, Lavinia, and their brother, Austin, who as an adult lived next door.
Also on display is a copy of the famous Emily Dickinson daguerreotype (the original being housed in the Amherst College Library), revealing a 16-year-old with a direct gaze, a ribbon at her throat, and a book beside her on a table. Although it is the only authenticated image of the poet, we are privy to her own self-description: “I am small, like the wren; and my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass, that the guest leaves.”
The library, with its wood-paneled fireplace and rug woven in soft-colored wools, reflects the family’s love of reading. The museum is undertaking to replenish its shelves with the 3,000 editions of books the Dickinsons owned (most of the originals being at Harvard’s Houghton Library). Among Emily’s favorite volumes — what she called “the strongest friends of the soul” — were Shakespeare, the Bible, the Brownings, and the Brontes.
As we climb the steps to Emily’s bedroom, where from 1858 to 1865 she poured out 800 poems onto small hand-sewn booklets called “fascicles,” we can imagine her making a similar ascent in the white dressing gown she favored, her hand resting on the ornate balustrade. Her small writing table, about 16 inches square, sits at the foot of the bed in the angle of the corner bedroom, enabling her to view through one window the majestic oaks and pines of the abundant acreage, and through another the bustle of passersby on Main Street. On the sill is a basket replica on a rope that Emily utilized to lower ginger cookies to her nieces playing below.
A prominent feature of the tour is that our guide, Edith MacMullen, debunks many of the myths surrounding the elusive poet:
Myth: Emily never left Amherst. In fact, she did travel. Her father was a Whig congressman, and she enjoyed visiting Washington, D.C., as a tourist.
Myth: No one knew Emily wrote poetry. Very few of her verses were published during her lifetime; however, she was an avid correspondent, and frequently shared her poems in letters.
Myth: Emily disliked her mother, who was crippled for years by a stroke. Upon her mother’s death, Emily’s own words disprove this notion: “The dear mother that could not walk, has flown.”
The tour ends with an unexpected bonus: our own poetry slam. MacMullen circulates copies of Emily’s fascicles, and we try our hand at reading her poems aloud. One surprise is that periodically the poet has put an asterisk by a word (such as “denying”) and offered an alternative (such as “disputing”), leaving the choice to the reader.
As we exit, a small room displays Dickinson memorabilia. One case is devoted to claims of a newly discovered daguerreotype in Springfield, picturing a more mature Emily. If authenticated, it will be the second existing photograph of the beloved poet. Whatever the outcome, though, we leave the homestead understanding that it is Dickinson’s words — not her image — that will transcend the ages: “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality.”
Emily Dickinson Museum
The Homestead and the Evergreens (Austin Dickinson’s home), 280 Main St., emilydickinsonmuseum.org, Wed-Sun 11 a.m.-4 p.m., closed January and February, adults $10, children $5, under 6 free, includes 90-minute or 45-minute guided tours.