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may 20

A New England Must-See

Emily Dickinson's home, in Amherst, Mass., offers beautiful grounds and a peek into the life of one of America's greatest writers.

(Courtesy DClemm/Flickr)

Cathy Bennett Kopf writes for TheOpenSuitcase.com

I swear I could hear my daughter's eyes roll back in her head when I suggested we stop by Emily Dickinson's house after touring UMass Amherst. I explained that I feel personally responsible for supporting these types of museums. If old English majors don't visit Emily's home and other important literary sites such as the House of the Seven Gables and Poe's grave, then, really, who will? She conceded, if I promised a sweatshirt in return. Deal.

I enjoy touring college campuses, at least I did, the first four or five times. After a while they begin to blend, like Caribbean cruise ports. Since precious vacation days must be spent on this important teen/parent bonding activity, I long ago began to package the campus visit with an unrelated sightseeing adventure. The Emily Dickinson museum is the perfect detour if you're spending the day at one of the schools that comprise the Five College Consortium: Amherst, UMass, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith.

The Dickinson houses are operated as one museum offering two different guided tours, a 90-minute one that includes the Homestead and The Evergreens (brother Austin's house) or a shorter, 45-minute one. Our docent was a trim, somber woman who could not believe my daughter's lack of interest in the Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon. Who could possibly pass on the chance to read all of the Belle's 1,789 poems in one sitting?

Emily's house tour includes the parlor, library, and bedroom where she'd sit in the evening at her tiny writing desk and haul out the bits and scribbles that she'd tucked in her pocket throughout the day. You'll learn little fun facts about the poet; for example, she was a prize-winning bread baker. What you won't hear though are any of the salacious stories about the family, like those told in Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns." Apparently, Brother Austin routinely held trysts with his paramour, Mabel Todd, on the Homestead's living room couch. (Our guide mentioned only that the couch had been reupholstered.) The tour concluded with a brief discussion of Emily's poetry, comparing her freestyle verse with the more structured work of contemporaries like Emerson. When asked to read "I'm Nobody" out loud, I know my daughter considered vaulting through the window.

Besides the sweatshirt, I offered compensatory cuisine—lunch at The Lone Wolf, one of Amherst's excellent independent restaurants. She scarfed down chocolate chip pancakes while I enjoyed an Eggs Benedict Florentine. The restaurant is open seven days a week until 2 p.m. and, in addition to traditional breakfast fare, offers a number of Southwest and vegan options.

My favorite line in Dickinson's poetry is "To live is so startling, it leaves very little time for anything else." What's yours?

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