Emily Dickinson house provides a glimpse into the life of one of America’s great poets

By Brendan Deady

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian
Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Across from Bruno’s Pizza on Main Street in Amherst rests a building overlooking a world foreign from its own. What used to be the home of the great American poet Emily Dickinson is now a museum honoring her life and poetry.

Dickinson’s poetry, according to museum tour guide Melba Jensen, could “explain interior life succinctly, that could take a moment or experience and crystallize it so that we can hold it before us and find infinite perspectives.”

The main portion of the museum, referred to as The Homestead, was built by Samuel Fowler Dickinson in 1813. Fowler Dickinson moved his family into the manor and established himself as a lawyer, and one of the main founders of Amherst College. His eldest son, Edward Dickinson, moved into the manor, where his wife would give birth to their first daughter, Emily, in 1830.

After some financial trouble, the Dickinsons sold a portion of The Homestead to a local store owner and moved to a home on Pleasant Street overlooking the cemetery where Emily would be buried. Jensen explained that the view impacted the young poet and would play a role in her future work focused on mortality.

In 1855, Edward Dickinson, a future Congressman, was in strong financial standing and purchased full ownership of his family home. His eccentric daughter would spend the remainder of her life on its grounds.

An Amherst family, identified by Jensen as the Parke family, later purchased The Homestead in 1916 and lived there until Amherst College bought the property in 1965.

By chance, or perhaps through the guidance of certain creative energies that linger around the museum, a man who spent years of his childhood at 280 Main St. was there for the 3 p.m. tour on Sep. 12.

Leslie Fairfield, a retired doctorate professor of church history at Trinity College, lived in the Dickinson’s home as a child during WWII and into the 1950s. Fairfield recalled people knocking at his door looking to tour the home of the poet.

“My grandmother referred to them as ‘Emilyites’. Every now and then we’d get a group of four or five people knocking at our door. Sure enough, (my grandmother) would lead them throughout the house,” Fairfield said.

Fairfield, a graduate of Harvard University and Princeton University, said he had vivid memories of his years at the Homestead. He shared Dickinson’s old bedroom with his brother.

“The dark heavy furniture and the Victorian era style – it used to give me nightmares as a boy,” he said.

The Dickinson family occupied the other family home on the property, The Evergreens, until the 1990s. A private trust purchased the building and then transferred ownership to Amherst College. The museum opened in 2003 and has hosted daily tours ever since.

The laundry room and kitchen have been converted into a greeting center where the tour begins. The original floorboards are covered in a dust as old as the house that is present throughout the museum. Excerpts of Emily Dickinson’s poetry peg the walls around the original brick chimney and copper pot.

Jensen began the tour in the living area and opened with a brief history of Emily’s childhood. The same piano in which Emily hid novels from her father sits in the corner, with Italian marble fireplaces covered in wallpaper inlaid in the cracked walls. The only thing different in the parlor from its original form are the air conditioners quietly humming in the background.

“Even from a young age Emily expressed in her letters that she felt different from other children. She had different thoughts. She would improvise these wild beautiful pieces on the piano,” Jensen said.

The poet took an intense interest from literature at an early age, which laid the track for a future prolific literary career. At the time of her death she had written nearly 1800 poems, though less than a dozen were published during her life.

The tour continued to the second floor, as Fairfield climbed the creaking steps he recalled another memory from his childhood.

“We used to slide down these bannisters all the time. Over there I put a hole in the wall when I tried to ‘caress’ my cousin with a golf club,” Fairfield said.

At the opening of the second floor landing stood the white dress, which has always been associated with Emily Dickinson, frozen in a glass case. She would later earn the name of the “Recluse in the White Dress,” according to Jensen.

To the right is the poet’s bedroom, complete with all her original furniture except the desk where she did the majority of her writing. Dickinson was the most productive during her most reclusive years, between 1855 and 1865.

Jensen said her poems conveyed intense intimacy and the ability to capture an impressive range of human emotions.

She led the tour group into a converted room honoring her poetry. He explained to the group that Dickinson wrote lines years ahead of her time. Her work often challenged the strict rhyme schemes and structures of the contemporary poets of her time.

Dickinson was a meticulous writer who revised her work constantly. She also had a sporadic imagination according to Jensen, the museum hosts examples of verse scribbled on scraps of envelopes, letters and old candy wrappers.

Throughout the 90-minute tour, Jensen covered years of history in the Dickinson family that marked the growth of one of America’s premier poets. Relatively unknown during her own lifetime, Jensen said Dickinson is regarded as one of the greatest of all time.

“This home offers a unique understanding of her life, constantly under change and construction,” Jensen said.

The majority of the furniture pieces are original. Each artifact is intricately built and personal, absent of the tinge of mass production. The seats are bowed and showed the impression of the family who used to walk the halls.

At the conclusion of the tour Jensen turned and stared at the house.

“Emily lived so much of her life in this house and it is amazing that we are able to see it as it was. Anyone who wants to understand the poet should come here. See where it was all written,” she said.

Brendan Deady can be reached at [email protected]