Amherst Magazine

Our House, Emily’s House

By Jean McClure Mudge

After outbidding the A&P grocery, Amherst sought a tenant for Emily Dickinson’s house, and a young family of five moved in. 

At this moment, when Emily Dickinson is in danger of being overwritten, it’s hard to believe that 50 years ago she was virtually anonymous to the general public, including  all but old-timers in Amherst. An overgrown hemlock hedge hid her birthplace and adult citadel—an imposing, Federal-style mansion near the center of town. The hedge seemed to protect her from encroaching fame, as if she were a Sleeping Beauty behind it, still composing “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Only a small sign at the entrance told the public that this was “The Home of Emily Dickinson.” There was no hint that she would one day write from this house at 280 Main St., “Home is the definition of God.”

In 1963 the attention of the college was chiefly on Robert Frost, a favored and frequent visitor to campus, who had died that year. And though some of her work had reached print since her death, Dickinson’s full body of poems and letters in their original version had only been published in the 1950s. By the time our family moved into her house in the summer of 1965, I remember saying to myself, and then to visitors, “Emily Dickinson is one of the youngest poets writing today.”

Our arrival was completely by chance. In 1964 the Harvey Parke family, resident in the Dickinson mansion for decades, put the house up for sale. Suddenly, the A&P grocery company threatened to raze it to build a new store. The Homestead, named a National Historic Landmark in 1962, was nevertheless vulnerable. Fortunately, Archibald MacLeish, poet and former Librarian of Congress, saved the day. Retired in nearby Conway, he convinced Amherst President Calvin Plimpton ’39 to compete with A&P. In short order, for $75,000, The Homestead belonged to the college.

Then the question arose: What to do with it? The college was not in the museum business. All of the Dickinsons’ furnishings had left the house when the Parkes’ predecessors, the Haskell family, had bought it in 1911. There was little debate: It would need to house an alumni or faculty family, and this family would have to be willing to open the house to public visits by appointment on certain days.

Who would want to live such a privacy-challenged life, even if there were compensations? (The rent was minimal, and the college would pay for utilities.) Invitations went out to distinguished alumni, including poet Richard Wilbur ’42. But there were no takers. Finally, Minot Grose, the college’s business manager, suggested that my husband, Lew Mudge, chaplain and professor of philosophy and religion, might be interested. Lew and I often entertained large groups of students. With our three children—Bob (then 7), Bill (5) and Annie (3)—we had been quite happy living at 31 Spring St., near the Lord Jeffery Inn, since 1962. But unknown to the college, I had a background in American studies and a degree in museum curatorship from the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. I was also an avid reader of poetry.

1974 Mudge family photo

Jean and Lew Mudge in 1974 with their three children, Bob, Bill and Annie, and their chocolate- point Siamese, Jojo, who later delivered kittens in Emily Dickinson’s cradle

Naturally, I had hesitations: How might we truly have a space of our own within a place that would be open to visitors? I soon learned that the house had a history of being divided. Dickinson remembered “[p]retty perpendicular times” in the “ancient mansion,” where she lived most of her life. Her father, Edward, had shared the place first with his father, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, and then with the David Mack family. A legal dividing line ran right down the mansion’s center from garret to cellar. On a quick first tour, I could see that long corridors on the first and second floors separated the west, or “public,” side (where the formal parlors and the poet’s bedroom were) from the east side (where the dining room, kitchen, family room and our bedrooms would be).

My youthful enthusiasm at age 30 made the challenge seem manageable, maybe even fun. And so the Mudges signed up for what turned out to be an 11-year stint in Emily Dickinson’s home, and I became its first resident-curator.

 

Almost simultaneously, three projects came to mind. For practical reasons, two took priority. First, I needed to recreate Dickinson’s bedroom/workroom. How could I find furniture and objects belonging to the family? Fortunately, next door in Austin Dickinson’s house, The Evergreens, lived a woman who proudly described herself as the “sole Dickinson heir.” She was Mary Landis Hampson, whose late husband, Alfred Leete Hampson, had been co-editor (with Emily’s niece, Martha) of selected Dickinson poems. Through Martha, Mrs. Hampson had inherited the Dickinson family real estate and literary properties. A number of Dickinson family furnishings from the mansion remained in The Evergreens. Mrs. Hampson generously loaned us first a teacup, saucer and spoon. We displayed these on the broad windowsill of the poet’s bedroom, and for some time, they were the sole items to show to the public.

This first loan, and others to follow, happened only gradually. Our first encounter with Mrs. Hampson had not been auspicious. A few days after we’d moved in, the children and I were playing in the large flat area at the top of The Homestead’s driveway when she emerged from the narrow path between the houses wearing a black cape and a black fedora with the rim turned down all around. (Later, she told me these had been her husband’s.) Beneath the hat I could see her nearly white, Dutch-bobbed hair. So dressed and coiffed, Mrs. Hampson was unmistakably witchlike. Reinforcing this impression was the unkempt yard behind her, dark and dense with untended trees and overgrown bushes hiding The Evergreens beyond.

All four of us stopped short and stared. Mrs. Hampson lost no time in greetings but at once declared: the children were never to cross the path to her house and grounds! As frozen in place as they, I assured her that would be the last thing I’d let them do. Then, after explaining that we were still unpacking, I invited her into the kitchen for tea. She accepted.

That was the start of a long, off-and-on-again relationship with Mrs. Hampson. A decades-old feud over the division of Dickinson’s manuscripts between Harvard and Amherst was the long shadow she inherited from Martha that prompted her basic suspicion of us. We represented the college. But at the time, I was unaware of this feud and eager to break down whatever had led her to so fiercely protect her property. After several teas, which often stretched into suppers, Mrs. Hampson’s attitude notably softened. In part, that was because I became a sincere convert to her enthusiastic advice about healthy eating. A proud Smith graduate with scientific training, she was a keen analyst of canned and frozen food labels, among other matters, and a fount of nutrition tips.

Within months, Mrs. Hampson invited the whole family to dinner at The Evergreens. Her house was furnished much as Martha Dickinson had left it on her death in 1943, some of its original draperies rotting on their rods. She had set the dining room table with the household’s best china and glassware, showing a level of trust in our children that I had not yet tested.

After dinner she took us into the library. In no time, she was winding up her collection of multicolored French tin birds, fond purchases from her annual trips to Paris. Once she wound up their keys, fastened them to the door post by their suction feet and released them, the little birds robotically hopped up the 90-degree ascent. When the springs ran down and they threatened to topple, she handily caught them. She repeated the performance several times. It was hard to tell who was having more fun, Mrs. Hampson or us and our kids. Soon after, she eagerly participated in recreating Emily Dickinson’s bedroom in the mansion.

1960s view of the poet’s bedroom shows her original Franklin stove and, on the lounge, her blanket.

Jean Mudge worked to bring Dickinson family belongings back to the house. This 1960s view of the poet’s bedroom shows her original Franklin stove and, on the lounge, her blanket.

Finally, enough Dickinson family furnishings came across the space between the houses to call the mansion “done.” At the same time, a Smith College horticulturalist redesigned the Parkes’ formal garden, and we planted period flowers mentioned in Dickinson’s herbarium, poems and letters. Among them were several beds of antique roses, known for their penetrating fragrance. I recall working among them and sometimes sitting down for a moment, like Ferdinand in the children’s book, supremely happy to pause and inhale their deep perfume.

The second priority was organizing a group of volunteer guides. My appeal to friends and acquaintances in town quickly brought willing volunteers. David Porter, an English professor at UMass, and Priscilla Parke, who had grown up in the house, were joined by some 20 other Dickinson enthusiasts to interpret the poet to the public. They led groups of 12 visitors through the west side of the house on prearranged days. Guests were greeted at the front door and ushered into the front parlors. There they heard about the present nature of the house and leafed through an album of archival photos. They then went upstairs to the poet’s bedroom/workroom. Afterward, on their own, they walked down to the garden.

 

A third project was longer-term. Occupying Dickinson’s house, I wondered what living here so constantly and so long meant to her. Almost all of her extant poems and letters had been composed here on Main Street. She might make notes in her upstairs bedroom; or at a second desk downstairs near a conservatory off her father’s study; or at spare moments, in the kitchen and elsewhere in the house. Presumably, she would write final drafts in her bedroom. These she then stored in her bureau. When her mother became a neurasthenic and gave up entertaining, Emily and her sister Lavinia quickly became their father’s hostesses. In part because of these demands, Emily gradually withdrew from town affairs. By her late 30s, she announced with some surety, “I do not cross my father’s grounds to any house or town.” Deeply inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, she had become his solitary scholar-poet at home. How did her work reflect that fact?

Chair and desk facing window in Dickinson's home

That question pursued me while I carried on my normal rounds as mother, curator and newly minted Dickinson scholar. In 1966 it inspired me to develop a paper, “Emily Dickinson and the Image of Home,” for a session of the Tuesday Club, an Amherst women’s literary group begun in the late 19th century. By 1968 I’d expanded the paper into a book-length piece. An editor suggested I develop its critical context. That meant getting a graduate degree. Within months, I’d successfully applied for a Danforth Fellowship to enter the American studies program at Yale. Thus began two years of commuting to New Haven from Amherst, spending one night a week with another graduate student to fulfill a residency requirement. This roommate turned out to be a Black Panther sympathizer who allowed their meetings to take place in the apartment. I once found a stash of their guns in the front hall closet.

This excitement fortunately passed quickly, and by 1973, my thesis was done—the original Dickinson paper enriched and extended—and I had a doctorate in hand. Two years later UMass Press published my book. Research for the book at a trio of archives—Amherst, Harvard and the local Jones Library—yielded some surprises. At Amherst, at the back of a file in Special Collections, I discovered a black wooden panel delicately painted with a cluster of Indian pipe plants. Mabel Loomis Todd had decorated the panel for Emily and used it for the design embossed on the volumes of Dickinson poems that she and Thomas Wentworth Higginson edited in the 1890s. Lew took a colored slide of this panel. The photo was soon on a wall in Emily’s bedroom.

Exterior view of Emily Dickinson's home

In the years since Jean Mudge raised her children there, The Homestead has evolved from a residence to a museum. The Emily Dickinson Museum (which also includes The Evergreens next door) is open for tours each year from March to December. In September it celebrated The Homestead’s 200th anniversary and the museum’s 10th anniversary. That event included an annual Emily Dickinson poetry marathon, during which visitors met in the parlors to read all of the poet’s 1,789 known poems.

I also found Dickinson family menus and original recipes of Emily’s. Since she was known for her bread and desserts, why not put together a cookbook with photos, old and new, to illustrate it? Together, Lew and I chose what objects to photograph, and I helped him develop prints. We’d converted a bathroom at the head of the back stairs into a darkroom. Two guides, Nancy Grose and Julianna Dupre, volunteered to modernize the recipes, and a third, Wendy Kohler, served as business manager. The booklet’s first press run occurred in 1976, the summer that Lew  and I moved from Amherst to Chicago. Thirty-seven years later, there have been nealy 20 editions.

We left Amherst with another project still underway, a documentary film about Dickinson. My collaborator and director, Bayley Silleck, suggested that, for the film’s host, I invite Julie Harris, at the time heralded as “a national treasure” for her Broadway role as Dickinson in William Luce’s one-woman play The Belle of Amherst. When Julie performed it in Chicago, I went backstage and introduced myself, inviting her to be the film’s presenter and to visit the Dickinson house.

As I approached her, Julie looked at me in a curiously penetrating way. She told me that she had already been to the Dickinson house. Then she added, “When you kicked me out!” It was true. As Julie reminded me (before accepting my invitation), she had entered the house years before, unannounced and without an appointment, and found her way upstairs to Dickinson’s bedroom. From my bedroom down the hall, I’d heard a noise. Thinking that one of our children was breaking a household rule by playing there, I arrived to find a woman standing with her back to me, hands on hips, dressed in a miniskirt with knee-high red leather boots. I gestured toward the stairs, accompanied this stranger down and told her how to make an appointment.

 

Over the years, other visitors of some fame sought out the house. These included the poets Adrienne Rich and Allen Ginsberg. An active feminist, Rich took note when I mentioned that Dickinson thought of herself as “Vesuvius at home.” Later, Rich developed that idea in a well-known essay. Ginsberg was especially reverential, peering into our archival photo collection as if his eyes alone were bringing each scene alive. His signs of awe might have prepared me for his question on leaving: “Don’t you think Mick Jagger looks just like Emily?”

But much more than celebrity meetings, my fondest memories of The Homestead are those filled with a combined sense of privilege and private pleasure. Under its roof and behind its hedge, the hybrid quality of our lives quickly became quite natural: The place was at once Dickinson’s and ours. A one-time prank involving our kids is a good example. The Amherst Historical Society had loaned us the poet’s white dress and a wire dressmaker’s form on wheels. The form displayed the dress in her room. One day Bob, our oldest, with the help of his brother, Bill, decided to scare little sister Annie. Bill led Annie into Emily’s room to face the form slowly moving toward them. Bob, inside it and hidden by the dress, inched it across the floor, whooping ghostly noises. Annie, terrified, ran from the room, down the hall and into a group of visitors coming upstairs. Bob and Bill escaped down the east-west hallway.

The coexistence of Dickinson’s past and our present, of her objects and our family, once intimately involved our cat Jojo, a pregnant chocolate-point Siamese. We’d bred her with a violet-point Siamese, in part to illustrate a Mendelian law to the children. One morning I was awakened by the kids’ cries of surprise. Stumbling out of bed and down the hallway, I encountered all three of them looking into Dickinson’s cradle, kept outside her bedroom. Nestled in the back of its bonnet, curled up and content, was Jojo, licking her three newborn kittens—two chocolate- and one violet-point.

From all these events, large and small, Emily Dickinson’s claim that “Home is the definition of God” became our own, a feeling only renewed in future houses. And at this distance, delight blends with amusement. Mrs. Hampson stands once again at the edge of her property, Emily’s representative as the “sole Dickinson heir,” guarding her turf in the spooky garb of, as it turned out, a crusty but basically friendly witch.

“Forever is composed of Nows— / ’Tis not a different time—,” the poet wrote. Involuntarily, her house of art still haunts me, once again making real the lasting power that, in a different poem, she long anticipated:

The Poets light but Lamps—
Themselves—go out—
The Wicks they stimulate—
If vital Light  

Inhere as do the Suns—
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference—

Jean McClure Mudge is a writer and documentary filmmaker.  She is the editor of a collection of essays about Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mr. Emerson’s Revolution, that will be published next year.