By Kyleigh Magee, Rutgers University Extern
The Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Massachusetts, is not simply the birthplace of poet Emily Dickinson. Rather, it is the place where she lived, died, and created beautiful works of art that would change American poetry forever. Dickinson, her life, and her memory are inextricably linked with this house, which was built in the early 19th century for Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, who was a founder of Amherst College. The building is an American Federal-style home and includes a garden that Dickinson was fond of. She learned about botany during her time in school, and her poems include heavy use of garden and flower motifs.
Emily Dickinson was born and lived the majority of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a child, she was educated at Amherst Academy, where she was praised for her high academic achievements. She left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a short period but returned to Amherst after about a year.
Dickinson was a private person who grew increasingly reclusive as she aged. The Emily Dickinson House was the central place in which she resided and wrote her poetry. After her initial departure from home to attend the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she infrequently left her home. However, she did leave the home in 1855, when she spent several weeks in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Starting in her early 20s, Dickinson communicated with her friends, family, and loved ones via letters. Interestingly, her last wish to her sister Lavinia was to have her epistolary correspondence burned.
By the time Dickinson was in her late 30s, she rarely left the Emily Dickinson House and was seldom seen by those living in Amherst other than her close family and friends. The last several years of Dickinson’s life were plagued by the deaths of many of those closest to her. Many theorize that these deaths, along with her own physical health problems that worsened with age, contributed to her reclusive lifestyle. Furthermore, her mother’s health was declining and Dickinson spent much of her time caring for her mother, which did not allow her to leave her home.
Dickinson’s memory lives on in her poetry. Together with her distinct style of writing, unquestionable talent, unique voice, and transcendence of traditional poetic conventions, she stands out as one of the most iconic poets of the 19th century. Dickinson achieved widespread fame posthumously; despite writing around 1,800 poems, only 10 were published during her lifetime.
Lavinia Dickinson found her sister’s poetry after her death and turned to both their brother Austin’s wife Susan and Austin’s mistress Mabel Loomis Todd to aid in the publication of Emily Dickinson’s work. However, given the poor relationship between the Dickinson and Todd families due to Austin’s affair, many of Emily Dickinson’s poems were not readily published shortly after her death.
The Emily Dickinson House today is a National Historic Landmark. It is the centerpiece of the Dickinson Historic District in Amherst. The Evergreens, the home of Austin and Susan Dickinson, is located next to the Emily Dickinson house. Both properties combine with Dickinson’s home to create the Emily Dickinson Museum. The museum allows guests to see both Federal-style houses’ interiors and specific rooms where Dickinson lived, such as her bedroom and library. The homestead’s interior is furnished with a recreation of 1850s décor to simulate how the home might have looked during Dickinson’s lifetime. Furthermore, the tours of this museum explore how the home shaped Dickinson’s life and, consequently, how it shaped her poetry. In this house, Emily Dickinson changed American literature and created art that forced many to question what it meant to define poetry.