Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 10, 2007

Happy 177th Birthday, Emily Dickinson!

On Saturday, the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst, Mass. opened its doors to one and all to celebrate the poet’s birthday – she was born on December 10, 1830. A donor gave 177 roses, which were handed, one apiece, in all colors, to the first visitors, and the old house was fragrant. Poems were read in the parlor, someone played dulcimer in a side room, and upstairs in Susan’s bedroom you could make a bookmark from bits of lace modeled after that in the famous white dress – replica on display. I’ve been to the house on tours, and always enjoy walking by it (there’s a great bakery farther down Main St.) but it was fun to wander at will in the house with bayberry, pine cones, and winterberry on window sills, and pick up gossip with its is-that-really-true? tone. I told my friend, Ann, that I hoped no one was listening to me, as my knowledge is of that “maybe” or “I’m pretty sure” or “if I remember right” quality: not very great. I was trying to explain some relationships – Emily’s brother whose wife was Emily’s best friend, then the woman, wife of an Amherst college professor, who E’s brother had an affair with, and who later championed Emily’s poems. There were pictures and even a kind of flow chart to help you put together the old gossip. A reminder that in nineteenth century Amherst, just about everyone knew of the liaisons but kept them hushed, so was life as prim and proper as we sometimes think?

We ate a sliver of coconut cake made from a recipe on a card on which Emily had jotted a poem on the back. “Where did they get the coconut back then?” I asked, but the server didn’t have an answer, though I’m sure somebody else in the house did: experts were stationed at most doorways. (or we can badger intrepid poet-researcher Kelly ) I overheard a poet going on about a project of clipping hair the same red shade as Emily’s, as in the days before photos small locks were exchanged between friends. The bent, beautifully dressed docent in Emily’s bedroom asked if we’d read any of her letters, and when my friend Ann said no, she said, “That’s all right, dear, really they’re quite opaque and obscure.”

And let’s hear if for that. I’ll leave you with this quote from one of E’s letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson; “Nature is a haunted house – but Art – is a house that tries to be haunted.”



  1. Thanks for a great post!
    (and thanks to Jo for sending me here!)
    I don’t know what I’m doing. So, close to this house and I haven’t been yet!
    I said “yet”.

  2. Oh how I would have loved to have gone to this event! I am a huge Emily fan!!!

  3. Yes, that’s the trouble with being close. The friend who I went with has lived within walking distance for some twenty years and hadn’t been. It does have odd hours as a rule, and this holiday event was nice cause you were free to wander and snoop instead of being under a docent’s eye always. Anyway, you’ve DRAWN Emily, so tribute enough. I think I need a Dickinson mug!
    Hey, I’m adding you to my friend’s list, hope that’s okay!

  4. Lisa, let me know if you ever get to Amherst, I’m always up for going back (doing signings, maybe?)

  5. Thanks! (adding you back! ;-))

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