The Evergreens Reopens at the Emily Dickinson Museum

Visitors to the Emily Dickinson Museum (covered last year in Side of Culture) now have even more to explore on the museum’s leafy three-acre campus in Amherst, Massachusetts. In March 2024, The Evergreens—home of the poet’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and his wife, Susan Gilbert Dickinson—reopened for tours after five years. Since its beginning in 2003, the museum has consisted of two family homes, just steps apart: the Homestead (Dickinson’s home, reopened in 2022) and The Evergreens. The Homestead looks pristine after restoration, down to its re-created wallpaper and carpets: you expect the poet to enter and sit at her bedroom desk at any minute. In contrast, the family heirs who owned The Evergreens deliberately preserved all its furnishings intact and untouched, and it retains its original wallpaper, with missing pieces, and creaky floors. Seen together, the houses provide immersive experiences that illuminate the poet’s world more fully. The Evergreens is also a place to learn about the people who brought Dickinson’s poetry to the world after her death.  

The reopening is the latest in a string of accomplishments for the museum, part of a larger plan that included refurbishing the Homestead. At The Evergreens, time had taken a toll on the building’s fabric. The unglamorous but essential work began with lowering energy consumption by repairing and insulating the structure and improving light filtration. A museum-grade HVAC system was added to protect the house’s original objects. The objects and decor, though, remained untouched, a window into the Dickinson family’s closely linked lives. Another major step for the Emily Dickinson Museum was completing the digitization of its 8,000-item collection, the largest associated with the poet and her family, in late 2023. Looking ahead, the museum plans to break ground in 2024 for a reconstruction of the carriage house that stood east of The Evergreens. This project will provide needed space for programs that further the museum’s mission of connecting resources to scholars and the public and supporting today’s poets and artists. Among its ongoing events is the popular free weeklong Tell It Slant Poetry Festival (September 23–29, 2024); check online for updates. 

Visiting The Evergreens

The excellent small-group guided tours include a 45-minute session in the Homestead and a 25-minute tour of The Evergreens. A self-guided option is also available some weekends. In 2023, 15,800 people took tours, so it’s good to reserve ahead. Having the two homes open allows the museum to present more about Dickinson’s life, work, and the people—from family members to domestic workers—who were important to her. The Homestead tour focuses on the poet’s life and verse; The Evergreens tour looks at the poet’s extended family, her relationships with them, and the publication of Dickinson’s almost 1,800 poems, only 10 of which were published during her lifetime.  

Unlike the Homestead, which contains a limited number of original Dickinson belongings, The Evergreens is a time capsule stuffed (in true Victorian fashion) with the original art and furnishings that made Austin and Susan (Sue) Dickinson’s house a center of style and culture in Amherst. Built in 1856 in the latest Italianate style, it was a wedding present from Edward Dickinson to keep his son in Amherst (it worked). Dickinson family heirs lived here until 1988. Everything has been deep cleaned and repaired, but the house looks its age; it is preserved, not restored, for now. 

Tour highlights include the Parlor, packed with a piano, paintings (some from the Hudson River School), books, Asian objects, and plenty of seating for the family’s visitors. The furnishings reflected the couple’s interests and also their economic position. Sue loved to entertain guests—everyone from Emily to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Harriet Beecher Stowe—in the richly furnished Dining Room. The Kitchen was surely state-of-the-art in its day, and even the Water Closet (one of three in the house) was a sign of upward mobility and status. 

The Nursery upstairs is a reminder that Emily Dickinson was a devoted aunt to her nephews and niece, relationships that played a role in preserving the poet’s legacy. Visitors learn about what one writer has called “the Mess,” the complicated story of the publication of Dickinson’s poetry. In brief, after the poet died in 1886, her sister, Lavinia Dickinson, discovered hundreds of poems. She decided they should be published and turned to Sue Dickinson, her sister-in-law and Emily’s beloved friend. Sue was slow in editing, so Lavinia gave some poems to Mabel Loomis Todd, who was engaged in a publicly known love affair with Austin Dickinson. Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson would edit several well-received volumes of poems. Eventually Martha Dickinson Bianchi (1866–1943), Sue and Austin’s daughter and Emily’s niece, inherited various manuscripts and edited and published other Dickinson poems. Martha also published reminiscences about her aunt and left The Evergreens intact, willing it to a couple who would later help turn it into a museum. 

With the reopening of The Evergreens and publications such as the much-praised (see this essay in the Poetry Foundation) 2024 annotated edition of The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Cristanne Miller and Domhnall Mitchell, interest in Emily Dickinson and her poetry continues to grow. It’s a perfect time to visit her Amherst home.

 Side Dish

When you’re in a college town like Amherst, go with the student crowd and head for breakfast or lunch at The Black Sheep, a bustling, well-worn deli, bakery, and café that’s serious about serving quality food. Line up and order a salad or sandwich from the menu or build your own. The house-made breads make a delicious base for the many meaty and vegetarian options, from Jaime’s Vegetarian (hummus and veggies in a wrap) to the Valley Girl (smoked turkey and Brie on a baguette).   

Linda Cabasin is a travel editor and writer who covered the globe at Fodor’s before taking up the freelance life. Her visit to The Evergreens coincided with the 41st annual Emily Dickinson Poetry Walk, which the museum hosts. She’s a contributing editor at Fathom. Follow her on Instagram at @lcabasin.


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