1 June 2011

Emily Dickinson and Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson (1830-86) was born in this house - now the Emily Dickinson Museum - on 280 Main Street, Amherst, MA, to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson. She had a slightly older brother, Austin, and in 1833 her sister Lavinia was born. When she was nine, the family moved to a house on what is now called North Pleasant Street, which was close to the town cemetery. In 1855, Edward bought the old house and the family moved back.

As time went on Emily became he increasingly reclusive, although she retained contact with the outside world by frequent correspondence. Emily wrote about 1800 poems, although only a handful were published in her lifetime. And it was not until 1955 that a scholarly edition of her poetry was published.

In 1856 Austin married Emily's friend Susan Gilbert, and the couple moved into a house next door - The Evergreens - that Edward had had built for them. He also made Austin a partner in his law practice. The Evergreens, where Austin and Susan had three children and remained until their deaths (1895 and 1913 respectively), remains a time capsule that reflects their diverse cultural interests: daughter Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi (herself a writer) preserved the house after her parents' deaths.

Nevertheless, it was not a happy marriage, and Austin carried out - between 1882 and his death fifteen years later - an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, a woman 27 years his junior. Susan, Todd's husband, and the two sisters next door were well aware of the affair. (Later, Todd was  to be in part responsible for the unfortunate editing - the excision of dashes and non-standard capitalization, etc - of Emily's early posthumously published work.)

This plaque was put up as recently as 1954, but the now disparaging term 'poetess' seems to belong to a far distant time.

Emily Dickinson's headstone is partly obscured by the fence around the family plot in West Cemetery.

The very impressive Amherst Community History Mural contains many figures in Amherst's history, and was painted by David Fichter. It faces West Cemetery, and its purpose is to 'increase understanding of this ancient burial ground and build support for its restoration'.

Amherst's most famous figure is its centerpiece, seen above the close-up with her younger sister Lavinia holding a cat.

Robert Frost needs no introduction, except to mention that he occasionally taught at Amherst College, but the man standing up is certainly far less well known. He is Robert Francis (1901-87), a friend of Frost's  whose poetry includes Stand with Me Here (1936) and Like Ghosts of Eagles: Poems 1966-1974 (1974). In 1940 he bought the cabin 'Fort Juniper' near Amherst and lived in seclusion.

Four writers are represented here. In the foreground is Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-85), who went to school with Emily Dickinson and kept in contact with by letter. Hunt was a strong activist for the rights of Native Americans, and considered her A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with some of the Indian Tribes (1882), and her novel Ramona (1884) - which highlights the plight of Native Americans in southern California - as her best work.

Behind her, also writing, is Lilian Garis (1872-54), a journalist in her early career who went on to write many books for children, most notably two series: The Bobbsey Twins (seventy-two books as 'Laura Lee Hope'), and Dorothy Dale (thirteen books as 'Margaret Penrose').

To the left of Garis in the picture, Eugene Field (1850-95) was born in St Louis, Missouri (where his first home is now a museum), but following the death of his mother was brought up by a cousin in Amherst. He is best remembered as a writer of children's poetry, his most famous work being Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (1889).

The writer at the back with the beehive is Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946), who is described as '[a]n early muckraking journalist' in 'A Guide to the Amherst Community History Mural at the West Park Cemetery, Amherst, Massachusetts', published by the Amherst Historical Commission. Baker was a also a writer of fiction and children's stories, and won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography in 1940 for his study of Woodrow Wilson.

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