Chapter 23. Emily Dickinson of Amherst

 

Emily Dickinson's poetry is hard to classify in terms of schools of literature. It reflected her personal situation, especially her fear of death, more than the times in which she lived. However, the new spirit of realism also affected her musings. For instance, she loved gardening and diligently studied biology in school. That scientific discipline undoubtedly affected her thinking. In addition, she was unorthodox in her religious thinking, which undoubtedly opened her mind to some of the newer ideas of realism.

Dickinson was not aggressive in pursuing the publication of her poems, publishing only a handful during her lifetime. But this merely adds to the mystique of the mystery woman. In Amherst we visit her home on Main Street.

Emily Dickinson House
280 Main Street, Amherst, MA (Open Wed & Sun 1:30-4:30, May-Oct; Wed & Sat 1:30-4:30, Mar-Apr, Nov-Dec 15; reservations must be made)

Emily was born in 1830 in the family house on Main Street into the most prominent family in town. Her grandfather, Samuel, had helped to found Amherst College and both her father, Edward, and brother, Austin, had been treasurers of the college. Emily also had a sister, named Lavinia.

Her father was very active in politics, serving as a member of Congress from 1853 to 1855. He was also the town's most prominent lawyer. In turn, his son also came to be the town's most prominent lawyer and influential citizen.

The house itself, referred to as the Homestead, is in the Federal style and was built by Emily's grandfather in 1813. Edward moved into it to help his father with a troubled financial situation following investments of a great deal of money in the college. In the hall today are portraits of the Norcrosses (maternal relatives of Emily's). Also here is a portrait of the three Dickinson children. Upstairs are portraits of the Macks (owners of the house for awhile). The house also displays Emily's white dress that fit over her five foot two inch body. She had a writing table overlooking Main Street and a Franklin stove to keep her warm in the winter. In the room is the civil war surplus blanket that she used to lie on. Also here is her original bed.

In 1833 the house was sold to David Mack, Jr., but Edward Dickinson rented half of the house for seven years. Then Edward purchased a house on nearby Pleasant Street and moved his family there. The house no longer stands, but when it did, Emily's bedroom window looked over the cemetery (where she herself now lies buried). It is conjectured that her fear of death stemmed partly from her watching too many of the cemetery's burials. (However, we now know that such phobias have quite prominent inherited components.)

Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847. She looked forward to being a student of the famous educator, Mary Lyon. However, once at the school, she found herself quietly rebelling against the strong emphasis on publicly reconfirming one's Christianity. She stayed at the school for only one year. Mary Lyon had classified her as "one without hope" in contrast to the "hopefuls" and the "good Christians."

Returning home, Dickinson furthered her education through private male tutors. She often became very attached to these men, so much so, that Dickinson scholars have spent countless years trying to determine which man was the "Master" she made reference to in several love letters. In her room are three pictures of possible candidates: Samuel Bowles, Judge Otis Lord, and Reverend Charles Wadsworth.

In 1854 Mr. Mack died and the following year the family moved back into their old Main Street home. Changes were made to the house at this time with the addition of the cupola and several rooms on the northeast side.

Austin Dickinson House (private)
Next door to the Emily Dickinson House, Amherst, MA

Austin had talked about going out west to practice law. Partly as an inducement for him to stay, his father constructed a home, called the Evergreens, next door. The house is not open for tours, but one get a good look at it from the outside while visiting the Emily Dickinson house. There is a moss-covered path connecting the properties on which the two houses sit that is just wide enough for "two who love," according to Emily.

Austin married Susan Gilbert in 1856. Emily was extremely fond of her sister-in-law, but Austin's father is the one who really pushed for the marriage. Austin himself was somewhat hesitant.

In 1858 Emily met Samuel Bowles, owner-editor of the "Springfield Daily Republican," who in 1860 published her first poem. The following year she developed eye problems--problems which would continue to trouble her.

To help her publish more poems, Emily turned to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, essayist and liberal reformer. He advised her not to publish the poems just yet, thinking them a bit eccentric and uneven. She reacted by becoming ill and staying in bed for a month. As a literary agent, Higginson was an unfortunate choice. He soon became deeply involved with the Civil War as a commander of black troops. He was even wounded in action. Obviously, the man had little time to respond to Emily's inquiries.

Unfortunately, the great poet misinterpreted his lack of communication as meaning she did not have enough talent. Dickinson became despondent, her eye troubles returning. When Higginson finally had the time to answer her letters, she no longer cared to pursue the matter, and the two drifted further apart.

Emily spent sixteen months during 1864-1865 with the Norcross sisters in Boston so she could receive eye care from a Boston specialist. After this visit she never again left Amherst. "I do not cross my father's ground to any house or town," was her reply to Higginson that she come to Boston.

The last fifteen years of her life were lived in seclusion on her father's property. She would visit only with her immediate family and intimate friends. She also took to wearing white gowns adding further to her growing air of mystery.

Her father died in 1874. Her mother died eight years later. For most of these last years, the mother was an invalid in the care of her two daughters.

The sisters soon became involved in a family scandal. Professor David Todd with his wife, Mabel, came to Amherst in 1881 to assume a position as professor of astronomy at the college. Austin met the new professor and his wife, and in less than a year Austin and Mabel were in love. Their ensuing affair lasted until Austin's death. The affair apparently had the consent of Mr. Todd, who also engaged in extramarital activities. Indeed, the evidence indicates that he was very fond of Austin. The Dickinson sisters not only knew about the affair, but were accessories to it. In the spring of 1883 Emily remarked that her brother was so often at his father's house that "we almost forget that he ever passed to a wedded home."

The Todds built a Queen Anne cottage (still there) on a road Austin had recently cut through the back of his meadow. When Susan found out about the affair, a bitter relationship developed between her and the two lovers. The bitterness lasted long after her husband's death. The two sisters had grown fond of Mabel, while becoming somewhat fearful of the wrath of their sister-in-law.

Gilbert Dickinson, Emily's favorite nephew, died at the young age of eight. She took to bed in response. When she finally got up she had Bright's disease (which induces kidney failure). She experienced several years of invalidism before dying of the disease in May 1886.

Emily Dickinson Grave Site
West Cemetery, Triangle Street, Amherst, MA

Emily is buried here along with several family members. Emily had carefully stitched groups of the poems together and stored them in different places in the house. After Emily's death her sister discovered and then assembled the poems.

Lavinia urged Mrs. Todd to have the poems published. Between 1888 and 1889 she arranged the poems. Mabel published two volumes of the poems and collected and edited the poet's letters. Unfortunately, Mabel changed the meter and it was not until much later that they were restored to their original cadences. Then it was apparent that they owed much to the hymns she heard in the local church.

Jones Library
43 Amity Street, Amherst, MA

On the third floor the library has an Emily Dickinson Room that contains a few of the poet's personal belongings, including manuscripts, along with a model of her bedroom.

Amherst College
Amherst, MA

Be sure to walk around this lovely college campus and town.

Other Sites

Visit the newly restored mountain house on Mount Holyoke. In Northampton visit sites connected with President Calvin Coolidge.

 

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