The upcoming reopening of the newly restored Emily Dickinson Homestead couldn’t be more auspicious. For well over a century, ardent admirers and academics have kept the flame of the remarkable 19th-century poet burning brightly. She is certainly among America’s most celebrated poets, but recently her life and work have experienced an unexpected and extraordinary revival. This is due in large part to new, younger fans who may not have been familiar with her previously. One theory about Dickinson’s newfound popularity is that her solitary existence — she’s been dubbed the “inventor” of social distancing — has served as a perfect example of living a meaningful, creative, and independent life in isolation. After all, one of her best-known poems proclaims that “the Soul selects her own Society — Then — Shuts the door.”
Whatever the reason, Emily Dickinson is currently a phenom, a pop culture star by any measure, on Instagram, podcasts, and the big and small screens. Apple TV+ is airing the third season of its series about young Dickinson starring Hailee Steinfeld (the producers donated hundreds of items from the sets and costume pieces to the Dickinson Museum). Taylor Swift’s 2020 album, “Evermore,” made liberal use of Dickinson’s poetry. Molly Shannon portrayed Dickinson in the historical comedy “Wild Nights with Emily” in 2019 and Cynthia Nixon took a turn as Dickinson in the dramatic film “A Quiet Passion,” in 2016. Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott started her announcement of the organizations she is supporting by quoting arguably Dickinson’s most famous lines: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers — That perches in the soul — And sings the tune without the words — And never stops — at all.”
Best of all, the ambitious restoration at the Emily Dickinson Museum, which comprises Dickinson’s home (the Homestead) and the home next door of her brother and his family (the Evergreens), is nearly completed. The results — meticulously planned, researched, and executed during the pandemic shutdown — are dazzling. Dickinson’s grandfather, a prominent lawyer, built the stately home on Main Street in Amherst in 1813, and Dickinson was born there in 1830. Since she was largely confined to what she referred to as “my father’s house,” especially in the latter part of her life, it’s of particular interest. The museum has been owned by Amherst College since 1965 and overseen by a separate board of governors.
According to Jane Wald, the impressive longtime head of the Emily Dickinson Museum, the homestead previously had an unfortunate 1970s vibe, with muted colors that served to emphasize the personal quirkiness rather than the historical reality of the reclusive and enigmatic poet. The newly restored and more vivid furnishings allow visitors to experience the home in which Dickinson lived and, most importantly, wrote most of her 1,800 poems between 1855 and her death in 1886. Careful attention has been paid to every detail of the furniture, rugs, wallpaper, décor, etc., working in some cases from small fragments still in existence. The task was especially challenging since there is not a single photograph of the interior of the house. A veritable army of workers here and abroad (architects, historians, conservators, engineers, weavers, painters, plumbers, electricians, and upholsterers, to name a few) was enlisted to ensure the accuracy of the restoration. A new environmental regulating system was also installed to protect the collections going forward. But, per Wald, the primary focus has been to bring visitors, including online visitors, deeper into Dickinson’s stunning and unusual poetry. A wonderful interactive display allows visitors the chance to complete several of Dickinson’s unfinished poems, demonstrating firsthand how the use of different words dramatically alters a poem’s meaning.
Dickinson’s bedroom is, of course, the highlight of the house, and it doesn’t disappoint. In addition to rosy new wallpaper, it features a reproduction of one of her legendary white dresses, her writing desk (so tiny!), and a large image on the wall of Otis Phillips Lord, one of Dickinson’s passionate correspondents. Interestingly, Dickinson hung portraits on her wall of three of her literary “idols,” George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, and Thomas Carlyle. The restoration has also enabled visitors to walk through a previously closed-off passageway from Dickinson’s bedroom and visit the room where her mother lived as an invalid for eight years after her husband’s sudden death in 1874.
As with many other cultural institutions, the museum was forced to close to the public in March 2020. In addition to embarking on the physical restoration, made easier without a stream of visitors, the team created virtual programming, including Dickinson’s 191st Birthday Celebration, featuring interviews with the Apple TV+ cast (www.youtube.com/watch?v=ulEI8Nss17s). A happy outcome of the museum’s online programming, including website visits and social media, has been increased engagement with Dickinson and her groundbreaking poetry with people from nearly every state and over 70 countries around the world.
The museum plans to open to the public on Tuesday, Aug. 16. Space is limited and visitors must use the new online ticketing system to guarantee a spot: www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/visit/.
Do yourself a favor and read some of Dickinson’s poetry before you visit. To quote Dickinson: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
Betsy Groban can be reached at email@example.com.