Customs house STORIES FROM 'THE CHRONICLE'


By Lawrence Biemiller

Amherst, Mass.

Emily Dickinson's poems have what Christopher Benfey likes to refer to as "a Gothic sensibility." They are peopled by the fear-struck and the lost, crisscrossed by funeral processions. It's "a time-wrought sensibility" as well, says Mr. Benfey, a Dickinson scholar at Mt. Holyoke College -- a sensibility of forgetfulness, of austerity and days of judgment.


The Evergreens
The Evergreens, March 2004

More to the point, it's a sensibility that Mr. Benfey and others say is almost entirely missing from the big brick house here in which Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886. Built in 1813 by the poet's grandfather, the house had lively wallpaper and boldly contrasting trim in her time, but it has since been altered, modernized, and muted. Even in her own plain room upstairs, doors have been moved, the fireplace has been covered, and the view the poet so enjoyed has been lost as the once-trimmed hemlock hedge has grown into a tall screen of trees. "We say the floorplan is the same," offers Cindy Dickinson, the director of Amherst College's Emily Dickinson Museum, which occupies the house. But Ms. Dickinson, who is not related to the poet, says she knows that "people come here and they want the real thing" -- the certainty that they're seeing the house exactly as Emily Dickinson saw it.

Inside the Homestead, as the brick house is known, providing "the real thing" may never be possible, because many details are forever lost. But in the house next door, built by Emily Dickinson's father in 1856 for her brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, the real thing is everywhere. In the front hall, for instance, the hall sofa from the Homestead has had pride of place for decades; in the nursery are the rocking horse and velocipede once used by Austin and Susan's children. The house, called the Evergreens, is a towered Italianate villa cribbed from one of the architect Andrew Jackson Downing's books of plans. Recently incorporated into the museum after narrowly escaping destruction, the Evergreens has hardly been changed at all since 1883, when Emily Dickinson made what scholars think was her final visit on the night of her nephew Gib's death at the age of eight.

Like the Homestead, the Evergreens is now open to the public. What visitors find is an intact 19th-century household in a state of barely arrested decay. The wallpapers that Susan Dickinson chose in the 1870s and 1880s still cling tenuously to the plaster, though their peacock patterns and colors are faded and damaged in many places. The Dickinson china still fills the pantry, the paintings that Austin purchased still hang where they always have, and the parlor is still crowded with tables and threadbare chairs, some of which entertained Ralph Waldo Emerson and Frederick Law Olmsted on their visits here. The presence of the Dickinson family is palpable. "It almost feels like they just left the room," says Ms. Dickinson.

Yet because of that, the Evergreens is a challenge. Should it be restored to its former glory or preserved as it is now, full of what Mr. Benfey says are "the traces of the lives of the people who lived there"? Says Mr. Benfey: "The challenge is how to preserve a haunted house. Anyone who goes in feels the magic of its decrepitude."

Dickinson scholars are particularly interested in the Evergreens because of the tangled story behind the publication of Emily Dickinson's 1,789 poems, a mere handful of which appeared in print during her lifetime. Although she corresponded widely and with great enthusiasm, often including verses with her letters, she was apparently determined that her work would be published only posthumously. Eventually the poems became bound up with what Mr. Benfey calls the "great and operatic" 13-year affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, the young, vivacious wife of David Todd, Amherst College's astronomy professor.

In time, Susan Dickinson learned of her husband's infidelity and moved out of the bedroom they had shared. Scholars assume that others in the family, including Emily, must have known of the affair: Susan was perhaps Emily's closest friend, and was the recipient of many of her poems. After Emily's death, it was to Susan whom Emily's sister Lavinia turned when she discovered a drawer's worth of poems in Emily's room, as well as a trunkful in the maid's room. But when a year passed and Susan had made no progress toward publishing the verse, Lavinia reclaimed the material and sent it instead to Mabel Todd. It was Mabel Todd who, after some 10 years of deciphering Emily's handwriting and picking among multiple versions of poems, not only brought out the first book of Emily's work but promoted it widely.

Change had come to the Evergreens, however. Austin died in 1895, and not long afterward the affair became the stuff of newspaper accounts because of a vitriolic court case over a strip of land that Austin had intended to give Mabel and her husband. Such bitterness ensued that Mabel locked away all the Emily Dickinson papers in her possession for three decades. They eventually ended up with her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who published more of the poems before giving them to Amherst College.

Knowing that public interest had blossomed, Susan's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, began publishing other Emily Dickinson poems in 1917. These included poems that had remained at the Homestead until it was sold and others that Susan had received from Emily directly. Martha also set up one room as "Emily's room," displaying the poet's writing table and other effects for any admirers who came to her door. When Martha died, in 1943, she left the Evergreens to her assistant, Alfred Hampson.

In 1950 Alfred Hampson sold the Emily Dickinson materials in the house -- manuscripts, furniture, and so forth -- to a man who in turn gave them to Harvard University. Alfred died in 1955, but his wife, Mary, lived on at the Evergreens until a few years before her death, in 1988. She maintained the house the way Martha had left it -- as a curious kind of museum of the lives of all the Dickinsons. Meanwhile the house next door was purchased by Amherst College, which used it as faculty housing on the condition that the residents open it occasionally to visitors. It became a full-time museum in 1996.

Now a senior lecturer in women's studies at Mt. Holyoke, Martha Ackmann was one of the earliest tour guides at the Homestead while she was a University of Massachusetts undergraduate. She had been an Emily Dickinson fan since the age of 15, she says, when "some of the words just struck me as nothing else ever had -- those metaphors, those arresting first lines, those ragged last lines." One afternoon when she was walking past the Evergreens, she says, Mary Hampson came outside. "She asked me, 'What have you read? What do you know?'" Ms. Ackmann remembers. "She took me inside. There was yesterday's New York Times next to an Atlantic Monthly from 1931."

Some Dickinson fans and scholars were not so fortunate, however. Polly Longsworth, the author of Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and the chairwoman of the museum, was among those who were unwelcome at the Evergreens because Mary Hampson associated them with what she referred to as the "Todd-Bingham conspiracy." Indeed, Mary Hampson refused to cooperate with anyone who so much as mentioned Mabel Todd, or who had anything to do with Amherst College. "The two houses became emblematic of this riven community," says Mr. Benfey. "Dickinson scholars learned to think in stereo." He also says that much remains to be learned about Emily Dickinson and her family, in part because of the decades of animosity. "Dickinson is a live dig," he says, and the Evergreens "has been this incredible gift that none of us ever expected." The house, slated for destruction under the terms of Martha Dickinson Bianchi's will, was saved through the efforts of people like Barton Levi St. Armand, a professor of American civilization at Brown University who had befriended Mary Hampson.

Only now the museum must decide what to do with it. Jane Wald, the Evergreens curator, says the roof has been replaced and the foundations have been repaired. "This winter," she says, "we have tried to put back in place some of the wallpaper that was peeling away from its own weight," to keep it in place until the museum's board approves a plan for the interior. The value of the house is twofold, she says. "It's a completely furnished household and it's associated with the Dickinson family and Emily Dickinson."

Now the two houses offer a striking contrast. Ms. Longsworth, the museum chairwoman, says in an upstairs room at the Homestead: "There's so little of the family left here." The Evergreens, on the other hand, shimmers with stories as rich as its wallpapers. "When Austin died in August of 1895, Mabel was wrought because she hadn't been able to see him for weeks and weeks," Ms. Longsworth says. Unwelcome at the funeral, Mabel secretly arranged with Austin and Susan's son Ned to leave the French doors from the side porch to the library unlocked while the family was having its noon meal in the dining room. "She came and sat with the coffin," says Ms. Longsworth. "And she left something in the coffin. We don't know what." Tales don't get more Gothic than that.

Copyright © 2005 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published April 16, 2004.