Emily Dickinson was born December 10, 1830; the coming anniversary will mark her 193rd birthday. Few 19th century women have had her staying power. Little known during her life, she is regarded as one of the greatest figures of American letters who wrote 1,800 poems that continue to hold our attention and evoke our admiration.
“Seventy percent of the interior now is original to the 19th century,” says Emily Dickinson Museum Executive Director Jane Wald. “The rest is filled in with pieces from the Apple TV show.”
Emily Dickinson’s poetic style of writing was concise and exacting. Perhaps because she eschewed extraneous words, used short lines, slanted rhyme, ambiguous meanings and eccentric punctuation, her poems are still being interpreted and discussed today. They are brilliant examples of minimalism created long before minimalism existed. Her themes include nature, flowers and gardens, relationships, the divine and mortality. Brought up during America’s Second Great Awakening, a time of enthusiastic religious revivals, she was alone among her family members and friends for refusing to profess a Christian conversion. Yet many of her poems reflect a preoccupation with the teachings of Jesus Christ and, in fact, many are addressed to him. She never married and spend much of her life as a recluse, but her poems display a personal knowledge of romantic and carnal love. Through movies, plays, television shows and books we become ever more fascinated with the woman who wore white; who, after her twenties, almost never left her home or even her room; who was famous as a gifted baker and gardener during her lifetime; whose family did not know the extent of her poetic talent and ambition; who became a myth almost immediately after her death in 1886.
Hers was a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts and, befitting their stature, lived in a grand brick Federal house built in 1813. When Emily’s father bought the house in 1855, he had achieved financial prosperity after a period of persistent money troubles. In 1865, he built an Italianate house, The Evergreens, next door to the Dickinson Homestead as a wedding gift for Emily’s brother, Austin, and his wife Susan. Today the two substantial historic houses comprise the Emily Dickinson Museum. Prominently sited on Main Street a half block from the center of town, they are still a persuasive representation of the role of the Dickinson family in 19thcentury Amherst.
To walk through the high-ceilinged rooms of The Homestead today is to feel and see the world Emily Dickinson inhabited. When the house became a museum open to the public in 2003, occupants had dropped ceilings, installed bathrooms, put up new wallpaper and paint, covered the original flooring with linoleum and other new materials and converted part of the attic to living space. An ambitious project aimed at making the house look as it did during Dickinson’s lifetime has removed a bathroom and new stairs, restored or recreated hardwood flooring and, following careful paint, fabric and wallpaper analysis, put up new wall coverings, paint, floor coverings and window treatments.
“I thought it was important to change the interior to be more like it was during Emily’s lifetime,” says Jane Wald. “It is a subtle reinforcement of how this poet was moving through space. Without the physicality of her place, it is more difficult to know how her poetry is formed.”
In Emily’s room, the wallpapered walls wear sprigs of pink flowers. The floor is covered with rush matting and, in front of a window, stands a small writing desk. A mannequin wears a replica of the single white cotton dress of Emily’s that survives; the original is at the Amherst Historical Society. The room’s simplicity and intimacy evokes the spirit of a woman who, while mostly unpublished and unknown during her lifetime, was acknowledged by her siblings as the family’s intellectual and deep thinker.
“We are making the Emily Dickinson Museum a center for supporting work inspired by her,” says Wald. “We want to amplify her revolutionary poetic voice from her home.”