Musings on a visit to Emily Dickinson’s House
Oh that frail woman in pale white of whom I knew so little about! While visiting a good friend of mine at UMass Amherst I knew I had to find out more about this mysterious creature whose poetry I had read albeit a few times but whose creativity, originality, and unusual work I was inspired by all the same. With the traffic in the area becoming thicker on a Sunday afternoon I had to take the “This was a Poet” tour as opposed to the other almost two-hour tour, yet I was not disappointed in the slightest. For seven dollars I got to hear the truth behind the fair woman, of whom we only know of physically by her only photograph. I learned a tremendous amount and am really grateful for the in-depth look into her life, her family, and her work.
Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in the house that was built by her grandfather; this is where she would live all her life. The only picture that we have of Emily, the infamous black and white, was actually taken when she was sixteen. Emily hated taking pictures and all her closest friends and family members agree that the picture looks nothing like her. Besides that, Emily had crazy vibrant red hair which one cannot see of course in a black and white but most people assume she has brown hair. The red streak may tell us more about her poetry and personality, in my opinion, and also adds to the allure of Dickinson on the whole. Besides being creative with her writing she also used to play piano and would sometimes compose her own pieces, her music was called “weird but beautiful” by guests. It sounds as if she created contemporary pieces on a whim – quite like her poetry.
Emily’s family was well-known and quite famous; her father was a squire who served at Senate and Congress, he was also a landowner, lawyer, politician, and founder of Amherst College. Her mother was a housewife with a secondary education which was still somewhat unusual for the time. Due to her family’s status, Emily was forced to be present at formal affairs at her household, which is one of the reasons she had been taught how to play piano (for guests). Emily would sometimes greet guests in her wrapper (a cotton white wrapper dressing robe akin to ‘work clothes’) which was unheard of in society; Emily didn’t care for social norms and especially tea parties, she is known to have said, “They talk about hollow things and embarrass my dog”. Emily’s animosity toward social gatherings and nonconformist ways would have created a lot of gossip among town, and in fact most definitely did, which is why we have all these myths about Emily Dickinson. The idea that she only wore white and stayed in a room all alone is a complete fallacy, sure she would sometimes greet people in her white wrapper and she tended to stay on her property instead of meeting other people, but she was perfectly content at home being among her family and doing chores!
Her family had a decent amount of land that also consisted of a huge barn with cows, pigs, and hens. Emily had a dog named Carlo (a Newfoundland) named after Bronte’s’ Jane Eyre which she received as a gift when she was a teenager. Emily worked mostly outside and would bale hay along with the Irish workers they had on the farm. She hated cleaning and said, “I would prefer petulance” [to cleaning]. Emily loved Shakespeare, and she also read prominent authors of the day including George Elliot, Browning, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and Bronte; she would also read daily, weekly, and monthly newspapers aloud with her family. Something very progressive about her family was that the possessed a copy of the Koran, considering that she was alive during the Great Awakening this is rather unique for the time especially.
Emily attended Amherst Academy (a co-ed school) and audited lectures at Amherst College (she could not attend classes there since she was female). She appreciated Darwin and faith leading to logic. After Amherst Academy she went to Mount Saint Holy Oak (a female seminary) where she did experiments and used the scientific method and observation since she was majoring in botany. The president of this establishment was Mary Lions, she was a housewife, teacher, and nurse; she wanted to “save” her girls. She would have meetings with them and Emily voluntarily put herself in the “no hope to be saved” group – she claimed books were better than heaven and didn’t want to give up everything for blind faith. She “stood alone in rebellion” at school and when she came home she never went back to school, she left without finishing. While at home she used to hide in the pantry when her family went to church. The reverend had a private discussion with her at her father’s request, and Emily passed some sort of “spiritual test” and no longer had to attend mass. Her father built her a greenhouse for her ‘spirit’.
Emily wrote poems on random papers, single manuscripts, and scraps of paper. The 1860s were her most reclusive time, but she managed to write over a thousand letters which discussed love, life, and loss. She was thirty at this time and the Civil War was occurring; Emily called the war an oblique place, but she still felt the war even though it was not raging outside her house – her house had to be passed in order to get into town and Emily was one of the first people to see soldiers coming home from war dead or alive right outside her window. The war created an outburst of creativity for Emily, she wrote over 800 poems during this time.
Emily’s bedroom was the place where she felt most free. She had a nineteenth century sleigh bed, a gift of a stove from her father for heat, and a southwesterly exposure in which she could view much of her surroundings through four large window. Her plain room opened up to the mountains and she could see the sunset nightly.
Emily was quite creative and would write often in her room, she would also sometimes sketch in the midst of her poetry. Some of her pieces had perfect perspective, so she was quite a fine untrained artist as well as poet! Emily wrote in the margins and had alternative word choices for a lot of her poetry; she was very meticulous about her own work. She wanted all of her letters and works burned after her death, but her sister Lorianne would not hear of that and instead got her poetry published. Without her, we would have never known the wondrous poetry of Emily Dickinson.