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Cate Mahoney: Visiting Dickinson

January 15, 2013

Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst is missing something.

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Image from Flickr via peppergrasss

By Cate Mahoney

This summer, after graduating from college and having just written my senior thesis on Emily Dickinson, I decided to chase the poet back to Amherst. To the place where she lived, and never left.

Reading Dickinson often feels like a chase. As though she’s just turned the corner up the stairs and it is all the reader can do to catch a flash of auburn hair. Her poetry does not lend itself to perusal or rushing. It becomes a personal challenge to get to know this woman, capable of such certain writing. But Dickinson, like her poetry, often seems just beyond reach.

The work she left behind is more representative of her than the physical body she inhabited while she lived. And purposefully so: She frequently shared her poems with her friends and correspondents, even after she deciding “not [to] cross [her] father’s ground for any house or town.” She would not leave the Dickinson property, but her art would, carried to her friends in the hands of strangers. Having her work and still wanting more, there was only one thing for me to do. I would take my search to her doorstep, and enter the space she held sacred.

While Dickinson’s home is greatly changed from what she knew, the Evergreens, her brother’s house, seems not to have been touched since 1890.

***

The Emily Dickinson Museum, as it calls itself, is a few rooms and a few reproductions. 80 percent original furniture and 20 percent guesswork. Visitors can get past the gift shop only by paying for a guided tour. Much more like a house than a home.

What I saw of the Homestead, as Dickinson called the place, I’ll remember. But I did not see much. The kitchen where she baked her prize-winning Rye and Indian bread no longer exists, or else wasn’t shown. Many of the rooms were closed. One could walk through the double parlor where her family entertained guests and where her father, a political figure, met with anyone of interest who was visiting the town. There was a pianoforte in the corner, to remind us that Dickinson was a social being before becoming a recluse in her late twenties. Our tour guide noted, however, that this was a different model from the instrument Emily had played.

I saw the small library that later served as her funeral parlor. Only one narrow bookcase stands against the wall, shrouded by cheap, wrinkled green curtains. Across from it is a writing desk and a small table adorned with a fake 19th century broadsheet.

Dickinson was petite, but I can’t imagine a coffin fitting comfortably in that room. It made me wonder how many could have stood in prayer. Not that it mattered. She was less interested in her loved ones’ goodbyes than in giving a final thanks to her home. She prearranged a particularly memorable wake: her pallbearers carried the coffin out the back door of the Homestead, across the back yard (circling her flower garden, little of which remains today), and through a meadow to the cemetery.

Her thick sleigh bed is sturdy against the wall of her second-story bedroom, and made up with linen sheets. Her calico shawl is folded on it. But the real magic is in the cherry desk where she wrote. It is conspicuously small; there’s not even room to place one’s elbows. She sat there, straight-backed, looking at the green canopy outside her windows, and wrote. From the windows you can’t see the trunks of the trees, nor their tops, only full branches setting off in all directions. And then we were ushered out of her house for a visit next door.

***

Emily Dickinson died in 1886. Another family moved into the house when the Dickinson line lost the property in 1916, and in 1965 it was finally sold to the Trustees of Amherst College. While Dickinson’s home is greatly changed from what she knew, the Evergreens, her brother’s house, seems not to have been touched since 1890. Austin’s daughter Martha and her descendents kept the house as close as possible to the original. Before we went inside, our guide said we didn’t have to worry—the roof would not, despite appearances to the contrary, cave in.

Photography inside of either house was forbidden. In retrospect I can imagine why: no one is meant to remember this.

The Homestead is light, airy, and, for the most part, unsettlingly new. The Evergreens is dank and cold, with an authentic smell of decay. Silver screws bolt the ceiling together. The sitting room and the library are cluttered with furniture, collections of chairs and tables that do not belong together. The cradle that rocked Emily and her siblings sits quietly in the middle of the parlor, an object of deliverance completely out of place. The upstairs of the Evergreens can be briefly viewed by walking down a narrow hallway for a glance into the maid’s quarters and the children’s bedroom. Otherwise, our guide bashfully noted, there was nothing else he could show us. The other rooms are stuffed to the brim with original furniture, which is not permitted to leave the property—nor, apparently, to be sorted.

Photography inside of either house was also forbidden. In retrospect I can imagine why: no one is meant to remember this. Dickinson is known as a poet of the interior, of the domestic. I cannot think of a writer more shaped by physical space. The feeling is encapsulated in a letter she wrote to her brother:

“Our fire burned so cheerfully I could[n’t] help thinking of how many were here and how many were away, and I wished so many times during that long evening that the door would open and you come walking in. Home is a holy thing—nothing of doubt or distrust can enter it’s [sic] blessed portals, I feel it more and more as the great world goes on and one and another forsake, in whom you place your trust—here seems indeed to be a bit of Eden which not the sin of any can utterly destroy—smaller it is indeed, and it may be less fair, but fairer it is and brighter than all the world beside.”

Yet the place that inspired her is more a showroom than a testament to who she was and what she valued in it. And another house, where Dickinson spent her formative teenage years, was razed in the 1920s. That property is now the site of a Mobile gas station. I realize, logically, I can’t ask for all the rooms of the Homestead be open, or for all evidence of the subsequent remodeling to be removed. But the part of me that responds to the poet, that less logical part, feels bereft. Convinced my visit proved only that Dickinson can’t, after all, be caught.

But the poet didn’t write to me. She didn’t invite me in. She wanted her poems burned. Lavinia Dickinson needed the world to know the genius of her sister. Against Emily’s wishes, I read everything. Still, I wanted to pay my respects, and find a memory of her in the room where she wrote. If this is not allowed, so be it. But then there shouldn’t be a half-hearted memorial. Burn the house—burn both houses!—and let me let her go. I have her poetry.

What stands in Amherst now is a contradiction: part derelict, part shiny display. And because I went to visit it, because I went looking for the person behind the text, I have helped it fail, which I can’t stand. Emily declared that “This World is not Conclusion.” But it is, in Amherst. The better tribute to the greatest American poet can be found in the trees outside her window. They are steady, and alive.

Cate Mahoney was born and raised in Manhattan, and recently graduated summa cum laude from New York University with a BA in literature.

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2 comments for Cate Mahoney: Visiting Dickinson

  1. Comment by Louise Monjo on January 20, 2013 at 12:14 pm

    An impressive and thoughtful comment on the often made, half-hearted attempts to memorialize our great writers. Do it right or why bother?

  2. Comment by Thing with feathers on January 30, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    Strange reaction. I’ve visited a couple times and have always enjoyed it (and never have I felt it was half-hearted; the staff there truly love Dickinson and her work).
    To me, the sense of place is much more important than “stuff”, recreations or original. Further, places like this are always struggling with accessibility and preservation – and, of course, the practical problems of running a museum from a home that never had an office for several staff members nor a gift shop.
    I also have to quibble: Dickinson never said she wanted her poems burned. Her request was to burn her personal letters – a very typical request in the 19th century. The fate of the poems was left open; lucky for us some desired to see them published.
    Visit more historic homes, preferably authors homes and, better yet, ask about the behind scenes stuff, why some rooms are closed off, concerns about accessibility, potential damage, etc. Even basic questions about why no photography is allowed. That might make you a bit more forgiving in the future and, I hope, allow you to appreciate fully such a tremendous opportunity.

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