No American author is more closely identified with a house than Emily Dickinson is with the Dickinson Homestead. Increasingly reclusive during her last fifteen years, Dickinson seldom strayed from the family dwelling on Main Street in Amherst. After 1883, she left it hardly at all.
The Dickinson Homestead
280 Main Street
Amherst, MA 01002
ph.: (413) 542-8161
Web site: www.amherst.edu/%7eedhouse/intro.htm
No American author is associated more closely with a dwelling than Emily Dickinson, who was born in the Dickinson Homestead on December 10, 1830, and who died there on May 15, 1886. Except for the period from 1840 until 1855, when Dickinson’s father, Edward, moved his family to a house on Amherst’s North Pleasant Street, the Dickinsons lived at the Homestead, built around 1813 by Emily Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, an attorney and principal founder of Amherst College.
When Emily Dickinson died at age fifty-five, she had lived all but fifteen of her years at the Homestead, a red brick, neoclassical structure that underwent various renovations during her lifetime. Home, particularly the Homestead, was the anchor in her life. It was also the microcosm that provided details for many of the nearly eighteen hundred poems her sister Lavinia found in a cherry chest in her bedroom following her death.
From her birth on December 10, 1830, until 1840, Emily Dickinson lived in the Homestead with her parents, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, and her brother and sister, Austin and Lavinia. The house was bought by David Mack in 1833, shortly before Samuel resettled in Ohio, where he died in 1838. Edward and his family shared the Homestead with the Macks until 1840, when Edward moved his family to a clapboard house on North Pleasant Street. The Dickinsons remained there until 1855, when Edward, a successful lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College, bought the Homestead and returned his family to its ancestral home.
Emily’s only protracted absence from Amherst occurred between August, 1847, and the summer of 1848. Following seven years at Amherst Academy, she entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts, in August, 1847. Soon, however, she chose to discontinue her studies. She wrote to Austin in 1848: “Home was always dear to me . . . but never did it seem as dear as now.” Cheered by the thought that she would leave Mount Holyoke, she returned to Amherst, though to the North Pleasant Street house, not to the Homestead.
From 1855 until she died, Emily lived in the Homestead with her parents and sister. Lavinia, unmarried, remained in the Homestead until her death in 1899. She followed Emily’s wish that upon her death her letters were to be burned. Although Lavinia burned many of Emily’s letters, about a thousand are extant. Her poems, handwritten and carefully gathered in small books whose left margins Emily stitched to hold them together, fortunately survived. They have established Emily Dickinson as a leading American poet.
The Homestead was originally a typical Federal-style structure. After the Macks sold it back to Edward Dickinson, Emily’s now-prosperous father, who had a civic reputation to uphold as he represented his community in the state legislature and his state for one term in the United States Congress, he went about expanding and improving the dwelling. He engaged a Northampton architect, William Fenno Pratt, to design the Evergreens (the house he had built for Austin) and possibly involved him in the renovation of the Homestead. Pratt had recently achieved local celebrity for his design of the Northampton City Hall across the Connecticut River from Amherst.
In the original house, the stairs to the second floor were directly to the left of the front door. A long central hall was created, giving way to a curved staircase leading to the second floor. Later in her life, when guests came to the Homestead, Emily enjoyed sitting on this staircase to listen, unobserved, to the music and conversation that drifted in her direction.
A white cupola was added to the house, reminiscent of the widow’s walks one frequently sees in New England. Edward also added a conservatory. Its entry was through the library. This room was among Emily’s favorite haunts. She nurtured her exotic plants there, raising such flora as fuchsias, heliotrope, and jasmine.
The Homestead remained in the Dickinson family until 1916, occupied by Emily and Lavinia during their lifetimes. The house was left to Austin Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, when Lavinia died in 1899. Martha rented out the dwelling until 1916, when she sold it to the Parke family. In 1965, two years after it had been designated a National Historic Landmark, Amherst College bought the house.
The Homestead as it now exists has six rooms, several closets, and a bathroom on the main floor. The second floor has five rooms and four bathrooms as well as several closets. The top floor consists of two rooms, a bathroom, and an attic storage area.
The current tour route includes four rooms on the first floor and three on the second. To most current tourists, the most interesting room in the Homestead is Emily’s second-floor corner bedroom. When Martha Bianchi prepared the house for rental to tenants, most of its furniture was removed. The bedroom was refurnished with items from the Dickinson family later, when it was prepared for public access. The house, including Emily’s bedroom, is therefore sparsely furnished.
In the bedroom visitors see Emily’s small bed against one wall, covered by a white bedspread. One of Emily’s paisley shawls is sometimes draped over the end of the bed. A replica of one of her white cotton dresses is displayed in an adjoining room.
Emily Dickinson’s bedroom was her refuge from the world. She once brought a cousin into it, locked the door behind them, and, holding up the key, announced, “This is freedom!” The room had considerable light in Dickinson’s day, although its four large windows are now obscured by the hemlocks outside them. Emily could see the street from her windows. Her reference to the bee as “the little tippler” in one of her most familiar poems, “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” is thought to have been evoked when, peering from her window one Saturday night, she saw someone who had drunk too much leaning unsteadily against a lamppost.
It is not possible to write about Emily Dickinson and the Homestead without referring also to the Evergreens, the house adjacent to the Homestead that Edward Dickinson built in 1855 for his son Austin to dissuade him from moving to the Midwest. The houses are about three hundred feet apart, their back doors connected by a narrow path. Emily Dickinson described it as “just wide enough for two who love.”
For a decade after Austin’s marriage in 1856, Emily was close to her brother’s wife, Susan Gilbert Dickinson. Some think they had a falling out in 1866 when Susan sent one of Emily’s poems to The Springfield Republican, which published it without Emily’s consent, although this contention has not been substantiated. Emily often trod the path between the two houses, going to the Evergreens to visit her niece and nephews and sometimes to take some of her poems to Susan, who is said to have read over three hundred of them.
Austin’s only daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who lived in the Evergreens until her death in 1943, willed the property to her assistant, Alfred Leete Hampson. He lived there, as did his widow, Mary Landis Hampson, until her death in 1988 at the age of ninety-three. The Hampsons, much immersed in helping to edit Emily Dickinson’s poetry, were extremely protective of the Evergreens, elements of which possibly figured in Dickinson’s poems. The Hampsons, aware of its historic and literary significance, left the property intact during the years they occupied it and maintained an Emily Dickinson room on the first floor.
The Evergreens is important because several Dickinson poems seem to reflect objects Emily saw in the house. This is particularly true of the nursery of her young nephew, Thomas Gilbert “Gib” Dickinson, whose death from typhoid fever in 1883 at the age of eight left Emily so disheartened that her own health failed substantially. She seldom left her bedroom after Gib’s death and died less than three years afterward.
Dickinson scholar Masako Takeda suggests that the rocking horse on which Gib played, still reposing in the nursery, perhaps figured directly in the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” The final lines of that poem–“I first surmised the Horses’ Heads/ Were toward Eternity”–may have been evoked by the lonely image of the boy’s rocking horse in the now-unused nursery.
Other images in Dickinson’s poems have been related to objects in both Austin’s house and the Homestead. One scholar has related a sofa in the Evergreens’s parlor to the lines in “The Night Was Wide” that read: “How pleasanter–said she/ Upon the Sofa opposite–/ The Sleet–than May, no Thee–.” Dickinson uses such objects in subtle ways. She is not writing about a rocking horse or a sofa in the poems cited above but is focusing on broader topics, nature in the latter poem and death in the former. Over one-third of all her poems deal with death. Her imagery, nevertheless, is frequently drawn from the microcosm, including both the Evergreens and the Homestead, out of which she wrote.
Upon Mrs. Hampson’s death, according to Martha Bianchi’s will, the Evergreens was to be razed to its foundations. Finally, however, because of its significance in Emily Dickinson’s life, it was preserved and passed into the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust, which is supported by income from the Bianchi estate and by contributions from individuals. The house has been readied for public viewing, probably following a schedule similar to that of the Homestead.
Berne, Suzanne. “Three Writers’ Homes: The Massachusetts Homes of Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, and Emily Dickinson.” The New York Times, August 30, 1992, travel section, pp. 14-16. Berne demonstrates the role houses have played in the lives and writing of three American authors. Farmer, Gregory. “The Evergreens: The Other Dickinson House.” The Massachusetts Review 34, no. 4 (Winter, 1993/1994): 561-564. This short essay written by the Project Manager of The Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust is an adjunct to Masako Takeda’s longer article immediately preceding it. Farr, Judith, ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996. At least half of the eighteen essays in this collection deal in some way with Dickinson’s affinity to the two houses in which she lived. Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Ferlazzo presents interesting insights into Dickinson’s need for home, relating some of her emotional problems and reclusiveness to this need. Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955. Despite its age, this thorough biography offers valuable information about the Dickinson Homestead. Johnson, Thomas H., and Theodora Ward, eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1970. In her letters, Emily Dickinson often reveals her feeling for her home. Takeda, Masako. “The Evergreens: The Other Dickinson House.” The Massachusetts Review 34, no. 4 (Winter, 1993/1994): 545-560. This eminent Japanese Dickinson scholar relates the Evergreens to Emily Dickinson’s writing and establishes connections between it and the Homestead. Wheeler, David L. “Seeking Emily Dickinson, Poet, Gardener, Recluse, in the Privacy of Her Home.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46, no. 10 (October 29, 1999): B2. Wheeler recounts his visit to the Homestead with Martha Ackmann, a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and her American literature students.