Emily Enshrined

After a century of wrangling, a great poet’s family home opens its doors.

With its rectangular tower and Italianate design, The Evergreens would have stood out in a 19th-century New England town.

Credit: Cary Wolinsky

Perhaps no great writer in American history is so allied with a single place as is Emily Dickinson. The poet, born in 1830, spent virtually her entire life in Amherst, Mass., and most of it in one house, the Dickinson Homestead, a proud brick Federal built in 1813 on a little knoll of trees and lawn just outside the town center. "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town," she wrote in a letter to her literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, after she had become the reclusive woman in white—the identity by which she is, somewhat unfortunately, now best known.

The Homestead still stands, and a hundred yards off, joined by a woodland path, is the other house on the three-acre grounds, The Evergreens, once home to Dickinson's brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan. Amherst College has owned the Homestead since 1965, but for most of that time it has been open by appointment only. Today both houses welcome visitors. Under the joint ownership of the college, they became in 2003 the Emily Dickinson Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the poet's home as well as making her work more accessible through public programs. This spring the museum hosted the second annual marathon reading, some 19 hours long, of all 1,789 of Dickinson's poems.

The museum has raised more than $700,000 for urgent repairs and improvements to the houses, and its master plan calls for an extensive $13 million renovation. (Save America's Treasures awarded a grant of $197,000 toward the project in 2004.) The work of restoring and presenting the houses has only begun, but already they invite us to think about the role of history and the mundane in the life of a writer who seemed to spurn the world around her. "The Soul selects her own Society / Then - shuts the Door -," begins one famous poem.

As Dickinson's birthplace, the Homestead is the shrine, but it is in The Evergreens that one gets a clearer view back into the Dickinson family past. Built in 1855, The Evergreens was an unusual, even daring house for a provincial New England town in the middle of the 19th century: a flat-roofed Italianate structure, dominated by a rectangular tower. Its owners, Austin and Susan, were a young couple of local eminence and larger ambition. Austin, like his father before him, served as treasurer of Amherst College and prospered as a lawyer and investor. The Evergreens proved to be a social hub for the community, hosting such distinguished visitors as Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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