Special to the Tribune-Star
AMHERST, MASS. — In an early stillness that belied the busy streets just outside the door, my wife and I stood in the cool back porch of poet Emily Dickinson’s imposing old house. It was a humid June morning, one that had turned warm after an overnight rain, and there were few visitors to the home of the strange woman who once said, “I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
We had wound our way northeast up a combined route of old state highways to this hilly college town in the central part of Massachusetts as a first stop on a summer journey to visit the homes of American poets and painters, and even a president. The grand old house of the odd “woman in white,” the bride who never was, and who just happens to be one of the titans of this country’s literature, was certainly no disappointment.
Dickinson was the daughter of a well-to-do New England businessman and congressman. Well-educated, and raised with strict religious awareness, young Emily, as legend would have it, suffered some traumatic wound of the heart, and eventually, year by year, secluded herself in her imposing brick home, publishing only a handful of anonymous poems, and rarely leaving her upstairs corner bedroom or the books of her dead father’s study.
Somewhere, between the high school textbook biographies and the scholarly studies, the real Dickinson lives. After our visit to her home, we came away with the impression that the poet, who described herself as tiny, “like the wren,” may have been small, but knew deep-down of her own bigness. “Tell me,” she asked in a letter to Atlantic Monthly editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “if my verse is alive.” Silently, perhaps with a wry smile on her face, I believe she already knew it was. She possessed a sense of humor, a slight sarcasm, and a soul, like a trunk filled with secrets that was never unlocked.
We were greeted that morning by our tour guide, a Skidmore College senior named Ellie Hayden, who is aptly pursuing a major in literature. We were Ellie’s only guests at that hour, so she showed no haste as she ushered us through what had probably once been a kitchen and into the family parlor, which had actually been two rooms until the house was made over nearly 160 years ago. It held a piano, two small fireplaces, and the slightly distorted views of the outside world that only archaic rolled glass can provide. The house, both upstairs and down, is remarkably, and naturally, light, despite the huge trees that shade it on three sides.
Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, built the home — called the Homestead — in 1813. Financial reversals forced him to sell it 13 years later, and his son, Edward, and his wife and three children (Emily was the middle child, born in 1830), lived in the house as tenants alongside the new owners until 1840. The Dickinsons then moved a few blocks away to North Pleasant Street, where they lived for 15 more years, ironically, across from the cemetery in which all of them would eventually be buried. Emily’s letters from those early days suggest a happy life filled with friends and good times.
In 1855, Edward Dickinson was able to buy the Homestead for himself, and almost immediately he began a renovation that left it very much like it remains today, anchored forever in the Italiante styling that was the rage at the time. The house’s marble mantels, cupola, porticos, and conservatory bear witness to the “great repairs” that were made to the home.
The Homestead was actually quite rural in Emily’s day. Just three blocks from the town “green,” it sat on 15 acres, most of which were still hay fields located across the street from the front of the house. In time, Edward built another grand home on the property, this one for his son, Austin. A beautiful “Italian villa,” it became known as “The Evergreens,” and has become an integral part of the Dickinson legacy today.
Emily and younger sister, Lavinia, lived on in the Homestead with their parents (her father died in 1874; her mother in 1882), the poet becoming more withdrawn as the years passed. Eventually, she rarely left the house to visit even her brother next door, and she quit going to church altogether. Always a popular topic of Amherst’s gossip, her life became that of a self-imposed observer of the world outside her windows. Yet, Emily’s days were full ones as she worked with Lavinia and the family servants in the garden and kitchen, labored over her poetry, and corresponded through her wonderful letters, some sent only next door to her sister-in-law, Susan.
Although we found the roomy parlor and her father’s imposing and scholarly downstairs study interesting, as well as Ellie’s ability to recite Dickinson’s poetry at will, we wanted to see the room — Emily’s singular bedroom — where she wrote and wiled away much of her life. Educated in the classics, first at Amherst Academy, and immersed in a surprising amount of the sciences at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in her early years, Dickinson, as Ellie explained, developed a streak of spiritual and intellectual independence. That quality served her poetry well, but also left her isolated as a “no hoper” at the seminary — someone who was “not saved.” Exactly when and why she ever began to write her poetry isn’t known, but several incredible bursts of creative energy, the most impressive coming in 1862-1863, produced most of the nearly 1,800 poems for which she’s known.
Dickinson may have once said that she “preferred pestilence to housework,” but her bedroom, spare and tidy, has changed little since she died there in 1886. We felt almost as if we were prying into things as we walked through it, imagining the tiny, red-headed poet working by lamplight at the table, which has been replaced by a replica (the original is at Harvard). Dickinson was known to occasionally send a poem as part of a letter or valentine, but mostly she wrote and re-worked her poetry, often allowing for a variety of interchangeable words, the substitutes altering the meanings of her lines altogether. She also used her time to make “fascicles,” notepaper-sized booklets of poetry, many of which left in her bedroom bureau for the world to discover on its own after her death.
There is a world of discovery in Dickinson’s poetry, but several themes seem to peak through to readers. Writer J.D. McClatchy says, “… her poems remain a mystery, plain as a daisy, and as cryptic as any heart.” One critic said that Dickinson “perceived the relationship between a drop of dew and a flood, between a desert and a grain of sand.” If anything, her poetry reflects a great uncertainty about both life and death. “Parting is all we know of heaven,” she wrote in one brief poem.
An hour or so after we had started our tour, we descended the stairs from Emily’s room to say our goodbyes and make our way out of the house. With miles to go to reach the mountains of southern Vermont for a visit with Robert Frost that evening, we decided to walk and sweat only a little under the canopy of the Homestead’s trees, then visit the poet’s grave a few blocks away. Despite knowing that the lawn was mowed, the hedges clipped, and the flower beds tilled through much more modern technology than possible in Emily’s day, that the staff and schoolchildren and wide-eyed gawkers from the Midwest, such as ourselves, are in and around the home daily, we felt like intruders.
As uncertain as she was about what lay beyond life, Dickinson was positive that the living carry on after the dead are gone. “New feet within my garden go, New fingers stir the soil,” she wrote. Yet, there still seems to be a mystery about her beloved house; it is a persistent feeling that Emily is still there too.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at email@example.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can learn more about his writing and speaking by going to his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released in October. Visit the Emily Dickinson Museum website at www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org.