Posted by: jeannineatkins | September 14, 2015

Emily Dickinson and Friends

It was great to tour the Emily Dickinson Museum with Kerry Madden, a writer friend who was briefly in Massachusetts, with Burleigh Mutén as our guide. She led a small group through the Homestead, where Emily Dickinson was born and died, and the once elegant Evergreens next door, which belonged to Emily’s brother Austin, his wife Susan, and their family. Every reading and every guide brings a new angle to the woman and her poems. I knew from conversations how much Burleigh, who wrote Miss Emily for young readers, loves Emily Dickinson, but to hear her speak in the historic house really brought it home. “Tender” was a word Burleigh used several times describing relationships, bringing up the gifts of words or small things exchanged. She passed around a cup of chestnut burrs that Emily used to describe the color of her hair. When we looked at the replica of the white dress, Burleigh pointed out the pocket where the poet carried pencils.

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She mentioned the chocolate wrappers and backs of envelopes that Emily wrote on, though the family wasn’t poor. She told us that Emily’s father had given his wife Lydia Maria Child’s popular The American Frugal Housewife, which was a book I’ve used for reference, filled as it is with the details of household chores and recipes. It is good to know how your characters might have made plum wine or pickles, and what sorts of soap were used for linen.

Burleigh told us about the small conservatory Emily’s father had made for his daughters, and showed us copies of pressed plants – apparently hundreds – she’d put into books. The gardens are restored in many respects to years past. I took this picture of a fig tree and some button-or-tassel-like plant I hope someone can identify.

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Occasionally Burleigh paused in the talking about Emily to read a poem, without ceremony beyond the words themselves. The poems seemed integrated into the dailiness, but the room brightened. After seeing Emily’s newly restored bedroom, with pink flowered wallpaper, we sat in a room bare of the historic, but with room for folding chairs, to think more about composition. I hadn’t known about the evidence of Emily Dickinson’s revision process left on the pages of the small books she sewed together, found by her sister, Lavinia, in a chest after her death. In a room with a clever board that opened and hid words, Burleigh demonstrated the possible replacements for words within the published poems. Apparently Emily left little markings that don’t appear in the poems as we’ve come to know them. She sometimes put rings of words around a poem, which she considered as replacements, but not always with an indication of which word should be finally used. Each editor chose what those they liked best.

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And now there’s more to read, always, including an article in the current issue of Preview Massachusetts about the long research behind finding wallpaper samples and worn parts of floorboards that suggested floor plans.

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Responses

  1. Love this — and seeing the two of you together. 🙂


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