Travel

Emily Dickinson, at Home in Her ‘Full-Color Life’


AMHERST, Mass. — “Here is our Wizard of Oz moment,” a guide asked on a recent afternoon, before opening a door and stepping into the front foyer of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

It’s not a comment you expect at the former family home of a poet cemented in the public imagination as the reclusive woman in white. But then Dickinson isn’t who she used to be, either.

Three years ago, the Apple TV+ show “Dickinson” gave her a 21st-century update — a fanciful postmodern mash-up that many scholars embraced as true to the poet’s radical spirit. And now, the museum has reopened after a two-year, $2.5 million renovation that restores the once-austere, sparsely decorated interiors to their richly furnished, almost Technicolor 1850s glory.

The spiffying-up — the latest stage of a long-range plan — includes hand-painted moldings, recreated wallpaper and carpets exploding with quasi-psychedelic flowers. And throughout, there’s a seamless blend of pieces from the Dickinson family and selections from a large trove of antique furnishings and props donated last year, in an unexpected twist, by the Apple show.

“People come here with preconceived notions,” the guide, Melissa Cybulski, said, stepping into the front parlor, where ladybugs were flitting by a window. (“Very Emily,” she said.)

“They know the myth: that she was odd, she was reclusive, she never married, she always wore white, she was obsessed with death — what was wrong with her?” Cybulski continued. “But hers was a full-color life.”

Few writers’ work is as intertwined with a place as Dickinson’s is with the yellow brick house at 280 Main Street, not far from Amherst College. She was born here in 1830, and she died here in 1886. And it was here where she wrote her more than 1,800 enigmatic, radically experimental poems — and where her sister, Lavinia Dickinson, discovered roughly 1,100 of them in a locked chest of drawers after her death, copied out neatly into hand-sewn books known as fascicles.

Even before it became a full-time museum in the 1990s, the house was a pilgrimage site, with visitors regularly knocking on the door (or simply coming in unannounced). And in the 21st century, interest has continued to grow.

Since 2001, visitorship has increased from about 7,000 people a year to about 15,000 before the pandemic, Jane Wald, the museum’s executive director, said in an interview. And even before the reopening in August, she said, their online programs showed a growing younger audience, including from the L.G.B.T.Q. community. (The show presents Dickinson as sexually fluid, involved with both male suitors and her best friend and sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson — an idea supported by some scholars.)

The show, Wald said, “has motivated a new audience and also opened the window of possibility for our traditional core audience.”

But even before that, Wald said, the house’s mission had shifted toward a more expansive approach, as reflected in its current mission statement: “to spark the imagination by amplifying Emily Dickinson’s revolutionary poetic voice from the place she called home.”

The museum actually consists of two houses, joined together in 2003, following one of the more tangled and contentious sagas in American literary history, known in Dickinson circles as “the war between the houses.”

Across the generous lawn from the Homestead (as the main house is known) sits the Evergreens, an Italianate mansion built for her brother, Austin Dickinson, and his wife, Susan. After Emily’s death, Lavinia gave her manuscripts to Susan to organize for publication. But when she took too long, they went to the writer Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, who helped edit the first published collection of Dickinson’s poetry.

“We searched and searched for months to find something that matched that description,” Wald said. Then, in the archives of a mill in Britain, they located a pattern that matched the date. It hadn’t been woven in more than 100 years.



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