The Poetry in Emily’s and Austin’s Homes

Time for another field trip.  This time to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts.  It turns out the Herman Melville is not the only American author who achieved public and literary acclaim only long after his death.  So did Emily Dickinson with her poetry, but with a twist: she never sought that acclaim in her lifetime.

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

The only known photo of Emily Dickinson, the original owned now by Amherst College

Emily’s house, now a museum, is actually two houses.  One, next door, belonged to her brother Austin; both help to tell the story of her writing.  What draws people to the home is this story of a private woman, creating, in bursts of prolific energy, a poetry ahead of its time and for the ages, but not publishing any of it.  It is through Austin that the world eventually gets to see and appreciate the poetry.  It is hard to know if mid-18th century American readers were ready for her poetry, which expanded the boundaries of the form.

Still, the renovations and additions, the wallpaper and paintings, the path and hedge of both houses are historic traces, primary sources themselves, revealing the complicated relationships between Austin, his wife, his daughter, his paramour and his sister.  Through the objects, the museum guide is able to craft the story of how Emily’s writing became known to the outside world.  It is a story which speaks to us today, of women’s roles in society, of the unknown loss of similar treasure due to an inability to contribute fully.   There is a strong possibility that her poetry may never have emerged.

The two side-by-side historic houses tell a different story as well, a story of authenticity in their contrasting models of preservation.  They tell a story of authenticity, juxtaposing ways to create an honest portrayal of how we now can appreciate the lives of the siblings, how we now understand the story of her writing.  Emily’s house, The Homestead, is restored, with fresh, clean paint and new wallpaper, sanded floors, with new work underway to “take away the 20th century in Emily’s bedroom,” as Jane Wald, the director of the museum, characterized the project.  Austin’s house, The Evergreens, on the other hand, stands as it was found and transferred to the museum, with nothing changed or restored.  The walls are moldy and crumbling, the wallpaper is peeling, the rugs threadbare and the furniture unfinished.  Dark and smelly.  It is a ruin, akin to one of those old stone walls scattered in the New England woods.

The contrast has much to do with what transpired between the Dickinson occupation/ownership of the houses and their acquisition by Amherst College, and then the museum.  Simply, Austin’s home was kept intact, first by his by his daughter Martha and then by her heir, the young man who helped Martha edit Emily’s poetry for publication.  Next door, no Dickinson lived in Emily’s home after her unmarried sister Lavinia’s death in 1899, 14 years after Emily died.  First tenants, then new owners moved in to The Homestead, and they renovated and changed features of the structure.  Once the house was bought by Amherst College, then work began to restore to as faithful a version as possible the house Emily lived in.

Which is authentic?  Both, but it depends.  It depends on how we approach them.  Authenticity implies honesty.  Austin’s home in its ruinous state, does not honestly reflect how he and his family lived.  The threadbare carpets gave it away; they alone do not allow anyone to say “this is how the house looked when Austin lived here.”  It may have been Austin’s carpet, but it is not how it looked in his tenure.  Emily’s home, preserved, does try to reflect the “present-ness” of how Emily lived.  But, it is only a reflection, and as a re-creation, is a present version, unable to say without caveats, “this is precisely how the house looked when Emily lived here.”  Her plush carpet may look like the one she had, but it is not the same carpet.

From a preservation perspective, it is useful to have the two different approaches side-by-side.  From the insights which the two houses tell us about gender and art, the juxtaposition also offers meaning, by showing both the actual, deteriorating objects in Austin’s home, but re-imagining them to a prior era in Emily’s home.  Side-by-side, these traces complement each other, the real and the imagined, to tell the story of women’s lives and routines and the central role of their homes.

 

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