Emily Dickinson and the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, are having a cultural moment. Reopened in August 2022 after a brilliant two-year restoration completed during the pandemic, the Homestead, as Dickinson’s former family home is known, now tells the poet’s story even more effectively. In addition, productions such as the popular, imaginatively modern Dickinson Apple+ television series (2019–2021); movies like Wild Nights with Emily (2018); and Taylor Swift’s 2020 album Evermore, with its intriguing possible influences from Dickinson, have brought fresh attention to Dickinson’s life and work and attracted new audiences to one of America’s most renowned lyric poets.
Founded in 2003, the Emily Dickinson Museum is a two-house, three-acre campus owned by Amherst College. With historic ties to the Dickinsons (Emily’s grandfather was a founder), the college holds the largest collection of materials relating to Emily Dickinson. In 1965, recognizing the poet’s increasing importance, Amherst College purchased the Homestead. Next door to the Homestead is The Evergreens—closed for preservation until 2024—home of Austin and Susan Dickinson, Emily’s brother and sister-in-law. Dickinson family members lived there until 1988. Amherst College eventually acquired the historic property, seeing an opportunity to tell the fuller story of a poet who was so devoted to her family. For its 20th anniversary in 2023, the museum has launched Twice as Bold (the name is from a Dickinson poem), a capital campaign to support the completion of the museum campus, provide increased educational programming, and enhance the virtual and on-site visitor experience.
Besides caring for the places the poet called home and connecting resources to students, scholars, and poetry lovers, the museum’s mission includes inspiring today’s poets and artists through Dickinson’s works. A major annual event, the free weeklong Tell It Slant Poetry Festival (September 25–October 1, 2023; check website for lineup), focuses on contemporary poets, emerging and established, with events at the museum and online. Its name, from Dickinson’s poem beginning “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” acknowledges poetry’s power to reveal new truths. Tell It Slant has attracted a national and international audience with online participants from more than 70 countries. A festival highlight is the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon, a reading of all of Dickinson’s 1,789 poems. Among the museum’s online initiatives are programs viewable on the museum’s YouTube channel and the free monthly Phosphorescence Poetry Reading Series, featuring contemporary poets. Patrick Fecher, the museum’s Communications Manager, noted, “A silver lining of the pandemic is that it challenged us to create a suite of virtual programming which connected us to Dickinson lovers around the globe….What once was a regional New England destination has now become a global institution and the central source for the world of Dickinson.”
Visiting the Museum
From March through December, the museum offers an outstanding 45-minute guided tour of the Homestead, where Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was born and where she lived with her family from 1855 to her death. Tours have a maximum of eight people, so book in advance. On summer weekends there’s a self-guided option. Using the restored house—with its Dickinson artifacts, striking re-created original finishes such as wallpapers and carpets, and even Apple+ donations of antiques and props from the TV series—as a backdrop, tours focus squarely on Dickinson’s adult years, her poetry, and her world.
In the library, visitors learn about the poet’s education—progressive for the time—and the writers who influenced her, from Emerson to the Brontës. Copies of pressed plants from the herbarium she made are a reminder that Dickinson was better known as a gardener than as a poet during her lifetime. She alluded to nature in more than a third of her poems.
The poet’s family, part of the prosperous provincial elite in a town 90 miles from Boston, gathered and entertained guests in the house’s colorful, richly furnished parlors. In her younger years Dickinson participated in social events. The back parlor holds a copy of a portrait of a young Dickinson with her siblings Lavinia and Austin. Like her sister, Lavinia did not marry and stayed at home. Lavinia discovered Dickinson’s mostly unknown and unpublished poems after her sister died. Rather than burning them, as Lavinia had been instructed to do with her sister’s letters, she worked to get the poems published. Austin and his wife, Susan, lived next door at The Evergreens. Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law was intense and important to the poet.
Dickinson’s comfortable bedroom (visitors can pay to sit here), with a replica of her small writing desk and original items including her bed, is especially compelling. The room displays a copy of one of Dickinson’s iconic white dresses, leading to a discussion of the space as the poet’s creative haven—a true room of her own—and her famously reclusive later years. Those years were marked by health issues, sorrow, and loss. In the bedroom next to Dickinson’s, the poet and Lavinia Dickinson nursed their mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, from 1875 to 1882 following a stroke.
Midway through the tour, visitors sit in a room—formerly Lavinia’s bedroom—and discuss aspects of Dickinson’s poetry, such as her use of meter and innovative rhyme. Several boards display copies of manuscripts and printed poems with the poet’s symbols for indicating alternate word choices. It’s a wonderful opportunity to engage with poems that are remarkably intense, experimental, and modern. Dickinson’s themes, such as the self, nature, love, grief, and death, remain universal. The poems can seem especially relevant now, as pandemic isolation produced an appreciation of work written by someone who interacted with the world on her own terms as she focused on her creativity.
Expanding the Community
To introduce and present Dickinson’s poetry to learners of all ages, the museum has educational programs for students, internships for college and graduate students, and teacher workshops and resources. The museum’s excellent website (check the “Learn” tab) has everything from biographical information to tips for reading poetry. Can’t visit in person? Check out virtual visits. A three-year project to document and digitize more than 8,000 objects in the museum’s collections will soon culminate in an online database available to the public, too.
Amherst is a college town, including the sprawling University of Massachusetts Amherst, with restaurants from pizza joints to white-tablecloth dining. The casual Bistro 63 serves American fare, with lunch options like a juicy fried chicken sandwich and a crispy shrimp wrap. Sweet potato fries are delicious. Lili’s, a small, well-regarded spot (takeout is an option), specializes in authentic Xi’an Chinese cuisine. Biang biang noodles with pork or vegetables heads the list of favorites. Visitors interested in exploring the town can also stop by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, covered in Side of Culture.
Linda Cabasin is a travel editor and writer who covered the globe at Fodor’s before taking up the freelance life. Researching this story led her back to Dickinson’s profound poetry. She’s a contributing editor at Fathom. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @lcabasin.
Featured Photo: Completed in 1813 in the Federal style and expanded in 1855 by Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, the Homestead sits on a slight rise on Amherst’s Main Street. Courtesy of Emily Dickinson Museum, photo by Patrick Fecher