Emily Dickinson was born at the Homestead on December 10, 1830. Her quiet life here was infused with a creative energy that produced almost 1800 poems and a profusion of vibrant letters. Her increasing withdrawal from public life limited her audience during her lifetime to family and friends, and her work remained virtually unpublished until after her death on May 15, 1886.
Although the poet’s reclusiveness kept her close to home, her intellectual curiosity and emotional intensity tied her deeply to the world around her. Among her most significant lifelong relationships were those with her brother Austin and sister-in-law Susan, who lived just next door in a fashionable Italianate house that they named The Evergreens. Through their varied intellectual and aesthetic interests and their involvement in community affairs, the couple made their home into a center of social and cultural life, hosting both local residents and prestigious visitors. The couple’s three children, Ned, Martha, and Gilbert, were an added source of energy and joy to both the Homestead and The Evergreens.
After Emily Dickinson’s death her poems and life story were brought to the attention of the wider world through the competing efforts of family members and intimates. Her sister, Lavinia, and neighbor Mabel Loomis Todd saw to the initial publication of her poems. In the early twentieth century, the poet’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, edited additional collections and memoirs and preserved The Evergreens as a memorial to her aunt and family. Largely because of these efforts, Dickinson’s unique voice on the literary landscape has captured diverse audiences throughout the world.
The Homestead, probably the first brick house in Amherst, was built around 1813 for Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, Emily's grandparents. Fowler Dickinson, a lawyer, was one of the principal founders of Amherst College. In 1830, his eldest son Edward, also a lawyer, and Edward's wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson, together with their young son Austin, moved into the western half of the Homestead. Later that year, on December 10, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born. In 1833, a second daughter, Lavinia, was born.
In 1833 the Homestead was sold to David Mack, owner of a general store in Amherst, and Fowler Dickinson resettled in Ohio, where he died in 1838. The Edward Dickinson family continued to live at the Homestead with the Mack family for seven more years, until 1840, when Edward purchased a clapboard house (no longer standing) on Pleasant Street. In 1855, following the death of David Mack, Edward Dickinson re-purchased his father's Homestead and moved his family there.
The Dickinsons built a brick addition on the back of the house for the kitchen and laundry, embellished the roof with a stylish cupola, erected a veranda on the western side of the house, and built a conservatory (no longer extant) for the poet's exotic plants.
During her adult years at the Homestead, Emily Dickinson began to write poetry in earnest. During her most productive period, 1858 to 1865, she compiled her poems into small packets now termed “fascicles.” Only ten of her poems are known to have been published in her lifetime, all anonymously and presumably without her permission.
The two Dickinson daughters, who never married, remained at the Homestead for the rest of their lives. After Emily's death in 1886, Lavinia lived on at the Homestead until she died in 1899. At that time, the Homestead was inherited by Austin’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and leased to tenants until 1916, when it was sold to the Parke family. In 1963, in response to the growing popularity of Emily Dickinson, the house was designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1965, the Parke family sold the house to the Trustees of Amherst College.
In recent years the Emily Dickinson Museum has completed several projects to interpret the Homestead more accurately as Emily Dickinson knew it. In 2004 the Homestead was painted in its late-nineteenth-century colors (click here to learn more), and in 2009, a fence and a hemlock hedge were restored to the property boundaries.
Located just west of the Homestead, The Evergreens preserves an integral part of Emily Dickinson's private world. An impressive “time capsule” of a prosperous nineteenth-century household in a small New England town, the house remains as it was when the poet’s brother and his family lived there.
The Evergreens was built for Austin Dickinson, Emily’s brother, and his wife, Susan, at the time of their marriage in 1856. Designed by well-known Northampton architect William Fenno Pratt, the house is one of the earliest and best-preserved examples of Italianate domestic architecture in Amherst. Under Susan Dickinson’s direction, The Evergreens quickly became a center of the town’s social and cultural life and reflected the wide-ranging aesthetic and intellectual interests of the entire family.
The lives of the Dickinson families at the Homestead and The Evergreens were closely linked, both in their daily conduct and in the private dramas that unfolded in the houses. These connections had profound impact on the posthumous publication of Emily Dickinson's verse.
Austin and Susan Dickinson lived at The Evergreens until their respective deaths in 1895 and 1913. Their only surviving child, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, continued to live in the house, and preserved it, without change, until her own death in 1943. Her heirs – co-editor Alfred Leete Hampson, and later his widow, Mary Landis Hampson – recognized the tremendous historical and literary significance of a site left completely intact. The Hampsons sought ways to ensure the preservation of The Evergreens as a cultural resource. The house is still completely furnished with Dickinson family furniture, household accoutrements, and decor selected and displayed by the family during the nineteenth century.
Emily Dickinson loved and admired the natural world. At the Homestead, where she lived for all but fifteen years of her life, the poet was engrossed by “the far theatricals of day” that she observed throughout her father’s fourteen acres. These observations were a rich source for her verse. While a student at Amherst Academy, Dickinson studied botany and compiled an herbarium, a “scrapbook” of plant specimens. As an adult, she cared for exotic plants in a conservatory (no longer extant) that was added to the Homestead in 1855.
Emily Dickinson came from a family of nature lovers. Her mother, Emily Norcross, was an avid gardener who passed on her skills to her daughters, Emily and Lavinia. The poet’s brother Austin shared her extensive knowledge of and delight in the natural world. While a student at Amherst College, Austin’s life-long interest in landscape design was sparked by the lectures of Edward Hitchcock about the careful landscaping of European cities and towns. As Treasurer of Amherst College (1873-1895), Austin Dickinson took particular pleasure in landscaping of the College grounds, cultivating at the same time a close relationship with prominent landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. He later led the effort to drain and beautify the town common, and spearheaded the drive to form a new style of park-like cemetery in Amherst after the fashion of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge.
The Dickinson family’s grounds on Main Street consisted of eleven acres of meadow south of the thoroughfare and three acres north of the road on which the Homestead and The Evergreens were situated. The large garden tended by Emily, Lavinia, and their mother flowed down the slope to the east of the Homestead. A large barn stood directly behind the house to shelter the family’s horses, cow, and chickens and provide rooms for the groundskeeper.
A path described by Emily Dickinson as “just wide enough for two who love” linked the two Dickinson houses, crossing the lawn from the back door of the Homestead to the east piazza of The Evergreens. In the 1860s, Edward and Austin Dickinson planted a low hemlock hedge that spanned the street frontage of both houses. (In 2009 the hedge was replanted and a fence installed to help bring back the Dickinson homes and grounds to their appearance during the period the poet lived and wrote.)
Situated on two high terraces, The Evergreens was surrounded by cultivated planting beds and looked out to the west over a neighbor’s orchard. His wife, Susan, tended flower gardens that were held in high regard by townspeople. The lawn between the Homestead and The Evergreens was carefully arranged with an informal distribution of trees and shrubs meant to suggest natural growth, a mix of local and exotic specimens, and open areas where family members played lawn tennis and badminton.