The Emily Dickinson Museum


During a father-son road trip in 2009 to visit prospective colleges, we spent time in Amherst (MA, USA). The most important outcome of that visit was time spent with Michael Muller, who two years later would spend time as an intern with us in India during the summer before his final year at Amherst College.

Michael brought a literary quality to the startup of this communication platform where I continue to write. Which is why I thought of him when my attention was drawn to this museum in Amherst. For me it was valuable to take a moment to read about the relationship between this home’s history and the college where Michael was educated:

THE HOMESTEAD, probably the first brick house in Amherst, was built around 1813 for Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, Emily’s grandparents. Fowler Dickinson, a lawyer, was one of the principal founders of Amherst College. In 1830, his eldest son Edward, also a lawyer, and Edward’s wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson, together with their young son Austin, moved into the western half of the Homestead. Later that year, on December 10, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, a second daughter, Lavinia, was born.

In 1833 the Homestead was sold to David Mack, owner of a general store in Amherst, and Fowler Dickinson resettled in Ohio, where he died in 1838. The Edward Dickinson family continued to live at the Homestead with the Mack family for seven more years, until 1840, when Edward purchased a clapboard house (no longer standing) on Pleasant Street. In 1855, following the death of David Mack, Edward Dickinson re-purchased his father’s Homestead and moved his family there.

The Dickinsons built a brick addition on the back of the house for the kitchen and laundry, embellished the roof with a stylish cupola, erected a veranda on the western side of the house, and built a conservatory (no longer extant) for the poet’s exotic plants.

During her adult years at the Homestead, Emily Dickinson began to write poetry in earnest. During her most productive period, 1858 to 1865, she compiled her poems into small packets now termed “fascicles.” Only ten of her poems are known to have been published in her lifetime, all anonymously and presumably without her permission.

The two Dickinson daughters, who never married, remained at the Homestead for the rest of their lives. After Emily’s death in 1886, Lavinia lived on at the Homestead until she died in 1899. At that time, the Homestead was inherited by Austin’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and leased to tenants until 1916, when it was sold to the Parke family. In 1963, in response to the growing popularity of Emily Dickinson, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1965, the Parke family sold the house to the Trustees of Amherst College.

In recent years the Emily Dickinson Museum has completed several projects to interpret the Homestead more accurately as Emily Dickinson knew it.  In 2004 the Homestead was painted in its late-nineteenth-century colors (click here to learn more), and in 2009, a fence and a hemlock hedge were restored to the property boundaries.

My attention was brought to the museum by news from National Public Radio (USA) about efforts to excavate the original gardens, which required removing a tennis court but yielded some heirloom fruits:

The museum is working with archaeologists from the University of Massachusetts to help reconstruct the 14-acre grounds just as they appeared during Dickinson’s lifetime — from the family barn, to Emily’s outdoor flower beds. Last year, the museum recreated the family’s heirloom apple and pear orchard — which had been replaced long ago by a tennis court.

Next, they’ll recreate a glass conservatory — the greenhouse where scholars believe Dickinson composed many of her almost 1,800 poems. It was dismantled in the early 20th century, but pieces remain underground.

University of Massachusetts archaeologist Kerry Lynch leads the team of students and professionals, who kneel with trowels, scraping out several test pits, in a grassy area just outside the dining room window. So far, they’ve unearthed a few layers of foundation that will help determine how big to build the new conservatory.

Heirloom fruits will be more valuable to Amherst College students, and all the other visitors to the museum, than one more tennis court (notwithstanding some of the literary progeny of Amherst tennis courts). And how fortunate for those college students to have this conservation work happening in their midst. It goes without saying that privilege comes with responsibility. And if you read Michael’s posts from 2011 you will get a sense of what that responsibility can sound like in the fertile mind of a young man completing his education.

Although I was an American Literature major as an undergrad, I was not (and am not) drawn to Emily Dickinson, perhaps because poetry in general has not reached me where it is supposed to reach me. But uncovering and displaying creatively the context of where a literary giant lived, that reaches me. So the NPR news about the museum makes me think it is time to revisit Amherst. And give a shout out to Michael Muller.

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