Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Spectral Dickinson

I have been reading two biographies about Emily Dickinson. The first, White Heat, is beautifully written. This book, which is a biography about the friendship between Emily and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, has many lovely passages, such as this one which describes the Homestead, Emily's home, now a museum, "The Homestead... is spare of furniture; the rooms are cold, and though the docents are helpful, the poet has fled."  I agree with Ms. Wineapple. The Homestead is indeed not haunted. But the same can not be said about The Evergreens, the house next door.  The Evergreens was built by Emily Dickinson's father for her brother Austin and his bride, Susan Gilbert as a sort of  bribe.  The elder Mr. Dickinson (Edward) was trying to convince Austin to remain in Amherst rather than go west to Chicago.

While The Homestead is decidedly ghost free, The Evergreens is not. The Evergreens ironically became a hub of Amherst society while Emily was steadily withdrawing from that same society.  Next door to Amherst's famous recluse, Emerson and Henry Ward Beecher were received and feted.  Today, the house is in a serious state of dilapidation, yet it retains most of the original contents. While dusty and seriously frayed, the chair Emerson is said to have occupied in the parlor looks as if he could emerge from another room and sit down once again, to engage in conversation about the lecture he completed at Amherst College a mere 142 years ago.  Yet, the house is eerie. When entering the dining room where Susan Dickinson entertained her guests, there is a noticeable drop in temperature (even in the summer).  A chill hangs in the air over the table which looks as though it is set for a spectral dinner party.  

But the downstairs isn't the creepiest part of the house, that honor belongs to the upstairs of The Evergreens. Ascending the creaky back servants stairs, the visitor is most acutely struck by the lingering souls of long dead Dickinson's. The nursery of Gib, Emily's  little nephew who died tragically of typhus at the age of seven, remains exactly as the Dickinson's left it after his death. Apparently, in her grief,  Sue just closed the door and NO ONE every went back in.  The feeling of voyeurism is palpable.

However, The Evergreens present a remarkable opportunity to look in on the past exactly as it was, not as a restoration or a recreation of a historical landmark, but as it actually looked (albeit with some deterioration) the last time the occupants left the rooms.  It sends chills up the spine.  It is just plain spooky.  The day I took the tour for the second time, by the time we reached the nursery, early winter darkness had decended and we gazed in upon the doomed little boys nursery by electric lamplight, the lamp swinging in the docent's hand, sending shafts of weak light into the poignantly charming, yet deathly stillroom. Emily's words echoed in my head, "I am out with lanterns looking for myself..."  The Evergreens  is the saddest museum in America.  If there are such things as ghosts, they surely walk at The Evergreens.



Words to Live By

" desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil - widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."

Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) Middlemarch

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