One of my classes this semester is devoted entirely to the study of Emily Dickinson, who has earned her place in history among the great American poets. After working our way through most of her poems and letters, reading several biographies, and analyzing her life and her work from nearly every angle possible, my class and I headed out on a pilgrimage to her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts.
After a long, bumpy car ride filled with snacks, naps, knitting, and reading, we finally made it to The Black Walnut Inn. This quaint little bed&breakfast is wonderful. If you ever find yourself near Amherst, you have to stay there. The staff are friendly, the rooms are full of character, and the food is amazing. Anyway, after we got settled in and freshened up, we had an appointment at the Jones Library Special Collections.
The Jones is a public library in Amherst and they have a small collection of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts. The poems and letters were donated by descendants of their original recipients, which was our first brush with the deep history of Amherst. The librarian who showed us the collection was very animated and enthusiastic, and she reminded me very much of Melissa McCarthy. Yes, Melissa McCarthy was our librarian for the night and it was great.
The surprise of the night was that the Jones also had a Robert Frost display that included a few of his original manuscripts. Frost spent a lot of time in Amherst, and according to Melissa McCarthy the Librarian, he considered it his second home.
After our appointment was finished we stayed in the library for a little while. I found a copy of Hemingway’s short stories and got lost in his world until it was time to go back to the inn. We were planning on having a poetry slam that night, but instead we all just crashed as soon as we got in bed.
Friday morning was cold and blustery, appropriate weather for visiting the cemetery where Dickinson and her family are buried. Standing over her and Lavinia’s graves was a somber moment. Death, life after death, and grief are the subjects of many of Dickinson’s poems. At her grave it hit me that this was a real person, and that she died. I grieved a little for her, but she is safe.
After the cemetery we walked to The Emily Dickinson Museum, where we toured her home as well as her brother’s home. The Homestead is where Dickinson was born, where she died, and where she spent most of her life; being able to walk around her home was surreal. Being where she lived, seeing how she lived, and walking in her footsteps, I felt
that I truly connected with her for the first time. I had been getting to know Emily through her poems and her letters, but once I was in her house I was able to feel her and understand her in a more wholistic way. I felt the first tinglings of this connection at her grave, and in her home the connection became fully realized. Emily was more than just an amazing poet, she was a real person. She loved to bake, spend time with her family, read, and strengthen her relationships with those closest to her. As we were leaving the museum, we noted that Emily kept to a small, select group of friends, and we wondered if she would have included us in that circle. We don’t know that she would have, but it would have been a privilege.
When we left the museum we had some time to kill before our next appointment, so we walked around town for a little while. Seeking solace from the cold, we English majors were drawn into a bookstore like magnets. This bookstore had a couch in the back corner and three of us sank into its warmth for a couple hours. We had to go back into the frigid Massachusetts air and find our way to the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College. Thank God for Apple Maps.
Once we got there we were shown their Emily Dickinson Special Collection. The young librarian seemed very *ecstatic* to be working on a Friday afternoon during Spring Break. We’re pretty sure she’s not a fan of Emily Dickinson. Regardless, the collection was amazing. My favorite part was being able to compare Emily’s handwriting as her eyesight diminished over the years. Her tight, neat school handwriting is dramatically different from her “abstract art” handwriting of her later years. I learned that an archives librarian might be my dream job. It would be great to spend time with old documents.
When we left the library it had begun to snow, so we huddled together for body heat and migrated toward a coffee shop. I warmed up with a white hot chocolate and then a friend and I decided to go shopping downtown. We found this great
store called All Things Local, which is a market of locally made products. The store had produce, meat, cheese, leather products, soaps and lotions, lip balms, and woven products. I could have easily spent way too much money here, but I restrained myself and only bought a leather journal. Next we wen to an offbeat store called The Mercantile. As soon as we walked in the smell of incense hit us like a wave. We spent a while in there because there were so many eccentric things to look at, and I ended up buying a woven blanket to bring home to my fiance.
After dinner we finally had our poetry party. We grabbed the goodies we had brought from Wegmans (at this point I was seriously going through Wegmans withdrawl; the closest one to Amherst is over an hour away) and gathered in the largest room. We each took turns reading our favorite poem aloud. There was great variety, ranging from Elizabeth Bishop to George Herbert. I read Spenser’s Sonnet #75, a poem that has been a favorite of mine since high school. After our little party I collapsed in my bed, exhausted and overwhelmed by all of the cultural significance I’d witnessed that day.
On Saturday we had our final breakfast at the Inn. One thing about B&B’s is that you can end up eating breakfast with complete strangers, and it’s pretty fascinating. On Friday we had breakfast with a physicist from India who told us all about his work with oil wells. Saturday we ate with a business man from Florida who told us he took a picture of the snow and sent it to his kids. After filling up on French toast and fruit we said goodbye to Amherst and spent the morning wandering around Northampton. While our professor was at a museum, we were more interested in the yarn store and a used bookstore. We found a little pastry shop and got chocolate covered strawberries for everyone before setting off on the long journey home. I curled up with my teddybear and the blanket I bought and somehow managed to sleep the entire six hours in the bumpy van ride home.
Do you know how it feels to stand where a significant historical person once stood? To walk where they walked? If you don’t, then make sure you do before before your time on this earth is complete. It’s hard to describe, but it’s this deeply moving, almost sacred feeling. Visit the home of your historical soulmate, whoever it is. I plan to take more trips like this as often as I can.