Emily Dickinson home
280 Main Street
Emily Dickinson, pre-eminent 19th-century American poet, rarely left her stately yellow clapboard house in the sleepy town of Amherst. Literary history has portrayed her as a recluse, a pathologically shy spinster, when, in fact, she suffered from Graves disease, which caused frequent urination and quite possibly the need to stay close to home. A dedicated artist, she enjoyed a full life writing in her second-floor bedroom, where she composed reams of poems that she sewed together into handmade books. When Dickinson died, her sister discovered the books in a bureau drawer and unwittingly took apart the stitching, so that the poet’s original intent in ordering her manuscripts has been lost.
Dickinson’s home is now owned by Amherst College and is open only by appointment. When I was there, the caretakers of the Dickinson Homestead seemed a tad nervous about the suggestion that the great poet was a lesbian – in affectional orientation, if not in actual sexual practice. During the tour, visitors see the famous photograph of Emily at eighteen (the only one in existence), in which she looks every inch the serious poet. But they also see a retouched photo, in which Emily is burdened with elaborately curled hair and a frilly lace collar – a painstaking attempt on the part of the curators to “femme” her up. This is probably how she looked in later life, the guide contends, not as “plain” as in the early photo.
On the tour I took, there was much discussion about the men in Emily’s life – her alleged “gentlemen callers” – and almost nothing about Sue Gilbert, the sister-in-law with whom she shared an ardent daily correspondence via a clothesline connecting their adjacent homes. “If you were here – and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language. . . .” Beloved “Susie” may also have been the subject of some of Emily’s passionate poetry. One of Emily’s bedroom windows wistfully faces the home Sue shared with Austin Dickinson. Describing Emily’s room, the guide told us, “There were no closets in the 19th century” – ironic, considering how careful the Dickinson caretakers are to “straighten out” Emily!
“Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to? . . . I hope for you so much and I feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you–that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me hot and feverish. . . .”
–Emily Dickinson to her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert Dickinson