Amherst Magazine

Office Space: Emily Dickinson

The house at 280 Main Street is a literary jewel in the family of Amherst College's museums. Upstairs, a small room with windows looking back towards the college holds some of the richest poetic history in New England. This is Emily Dickinson's room, nestled upstairs in the Homestead, which, along with The Evergreens next door, makes up the Emily Dickinson Museum. The houses, passed down, modified, restored, repurposed and finally returned to their original character, help tell the story of the poet who called them home. Jane Wald, the museum's executive director, tells the stories of the bedroom that saw the birth of nearly 1,800 poems.

To navigate the 360° image below, click and drag to move around or click the "+" or "-" buttons to zoom in and out. Clicking on any object's number will bring you to the explanations below. You must have QuickTime installed to view this image. If you don't have the plug-in, you may download it for free.

Please note that the image is very large and may take a few moments to load.

image
Object 1: Prints

Emily admired the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (especially Aurora Leigh) and George Eliot (who Emily called "my George Eliot"). When asked what she thought about Eliot's Middlemarch, Emily once replied "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?" She kept prints of both authors in her room, Browning on the left and Eliot on the right.

Return to the top of this page
image
Object 2: Called Back

Called Back, a novel by Hugh Conway, held Emily's attention in the last years of her life. She had some correspondence with her cousins, Louise and Fanny Norcorss,  about the book, and its title became the only text of what is thought to be her final letter. It read "Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily" She died a few days after that letter was written.

Return to the top of this page

image
Object 3: Basket

While this exact basket may have never sat by Emily's bed, it certainly wouldn't have been out of place. The basket is an example of a Native American design produced in central Massachusetts. In a letter, Emily mentions going to her kitchen door to meet "an Indian Woman with gay Baskets and a dazzling Baby." The basket also stands in for one fond in the mind of Emily's neighbor, MacGregor Jenkins, who recalled "...what a perfect playmate she was. ...the window would be in Miss Emily's Room, and soon on the window ledge would appear a basket. It would be slowly lowered. I can see it now, jerking its way down from what seemed to us then an incredible height. We saw two delicate hands playing out a much knotted cord, and framed in the window above a slender figure in white and a pair of laughing eyes."

Return to the top of this page
image
Object 4: Chest of Drawers

As with much of the current room, the bureau is of, as Wald puts it, "other Dickinson provenance" The bureau, alien as it may be, stands to tell a story. After Emily's death, her sister Lavinia discovered a wealth of writing, some of it in the mahogany bureau. As requested, she destroyed the letters, marked by Emily "burn unread," but decided that she couldn't destroy the poem manuscripts. Four years after Emily's death, a collection of some of these poems was published.

Return to the top of this page
image Object 5: Writing Table

While the actual piece may be sequestered somewhere deep within Havard University's Houghton Library, the desk in Emily's room is no intruder. A Dickinson family piece, the cherry desk is a good stand-in for what Emily's niece described as Emily's "only writing desk... a table, 18-inches square, with a drawer deep enough to take in her ink bottle, paper and pen. It was placed in the corner by the window facing west."

Return to the top of this page
image
Object 6: Franklin Stove

Emily often wrote of being comfortable by the heat of a Franklin stove. Stoves were removed from the house for the summer, and replaced when cold weather returned to the valley. The house had stoves in the bedrooms upstairs and the dining room downstairs. Emily's niece Martha, then a teenager, recalled an incident around 1882, when Emily was about 51. She snuck over to see her aunt and wrote "there, I would find her reading or writing, while the slow glow of the open Franklin stove added another deceptive hint of spring warmth...and although I was but 17 then, we talked of serious or imaginative things."

Return to the top of this page

image Object 7: Wallpaper

The wallpaper (which is not original) was installed in the mid-20th century when Amherst College was using the house as both a museum area and a faculty residence. One source placed Emily's bed along this wall, while another more favored source had the bed in its current location. Wald explains "Varied sources keep us working to figure it all out."

Return to the top of this page
image Object 8: Poems


These facsimiles of poems show the variety of Emily's writing practices; a scrap of an envelope or the back of a chocolate wrapper were used to record a few lines. The original pieces reside in the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. During one period in her life, Emily composed poems at a "furious pace," with more than 800 poems in five years. Some of the poems were assembled into these fascicles; Emily would fold a sheet of paper in half, then another, and stack them one atop another and bound with a thick thread. According to Wald, this is how Emily preserved about 800 poems.

Return to the top of this page
image Object 9: Bed

The small sleigh bed, and the shawl on it (known as an Indian Paisley shawl), were both Emily's and are among the few remaining items original to the room.

Return to the top of this page
image Object 10: Washstand

The washstand and toiletry set both belong to the Dickinson family, and, according to Wald, would have been "a very necessary and expected furnishing of a bedroom...these were the days before a combination of lavatory and privy, so those functions were separated." A chamber pot and linens would have been stored inside the stand.

Return to the top of this page