For ages now, my book club has been talking about hitting the road and taking a book-related trip. When we read Leviathan by Paul Auster, for example, Stephanie suggested driving out to Brooklyn to see if we could track Auster down. We shot that idea down, though. It sounded too stalkery.
We thought of the ideal destination after reading our most recent book, The Poet and the Murderer by Simon Worral. Worral’s was the third in a row to somehow deal with Emily Dickinson: first we read The Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, about burning down the Dickinson house; then Afternoons With Emily, a piece of historical fiction told from the perspective of a young girl in Dickinson’s hometown. Once we read Worral’s work, it made perfect sense to jump into the car for a ride over to Amherst and the Emily Dickinson Museum.
The museum is actually made up of two buildings — the Homestead and the Evergreens. The Homestead was Dickinson’s place of birth, as well as the house where she spent most of her life; the latter, next door, was built for Dickinson’s brother Austin and his family. Though the family originally owned several acres of land, now the museum sits on about an acre of the former property, which Dickinson herself used to garden.
In absolute honesty, the museum was a bit bleak. The Homestead, for example, had previously been purchased as a residence and been gutted by the owners; as a result our docent asked us to “imagine” what the rooms must have looked like during Dickinson’s life. The only room which the curators had been able to truly replicate was Dickinson’s bedroom, but that was possibly even more depressing that the downstairs, as the furniture here really are approximations and replicas. Apparently Dickinson’s own belongings are at Harvard’s Houghton Library, who have no interest whatsoever in returning the furniture and other personal effects to Amherst.
Even more interesting than the Homestead, though, is its next-door neighbor. Unlike the Homestead, the Evergreens has been almost entirely preserved — actually, the only reason why I used the word “almost” is because a more modern stove and a functioning bathroom were installed in the second half of the twentieth century, along with a heating and cooling system to better manage the home’s temperature. Everything aside from that is untouched, remaining exactly as the last of the Dickinson’s left it… which is absolutely chilling. Austin Dickinson’s wife Susan had a huge interest in interior design, and frequently redecorated the house; miscellaneous layers of wallpaper are visible in some rooms. One of the creepier aspects of the house is the nursery, which literally has not been altered since the day its last inhabitant died unexpectedly. His toys are strewn across the floor and covered with dust; his child-sized suit stays spread out on the bed. To top it off, the last of the heirs to the Dickinson estate lived in the Evergreens in this state until their deaths in the late 1980s.
After the museum, we made our way to The Lady Killigrew at the nearby Montague Mill. It’s a really interesting little area — the structure is a converted 1842 gristmill that now houses a bookshop, two eateries, an artist’s studio and a little boutique. It’s all located right on the Sawmill River (hence the mill).
It seems like a really popular spot; even though the day was overcast and gray, several people sat at the café’s umbrella-ed tables on the patio overlooking the river. We were so lucky to be able to find place to sit that was spacious enough to accommodate the six of us — for the briefest moment I worried that we would have to split up, which would have made discussing The Poet and the Murderer extremely difficult.
We managed to make do after ordering our dinner, though I will say that deciding what to get was so very tricky indeed. The menu at The Lady Killigrew isn’t that extensive; I think there’s something like fifteen items to choose from. With such a small number, it’s deceptively easy to think that making a decision would be simple. I was, as usual, torn between two items: the peanut-ginger udon noodles ($6.50 for a small bowl, $8.50 for a large), or one of the grilled sandwiches. Melissa came to my rescue when said I could try her noodles, so I opted to go for the first sandwich listed: brie, apricot jam and marinated apples on organic sourdough bread, served with a small house salad on the side ($8.50). It’s funny; the menu has a category entitled “Food That is Intrinsically Delicious,” something I would normally find pretentious. I suppose, however, it’s not pretentious if it’s right. My only suggestion would be to label the entire menu as such, or to at least lump my sandwich in there as well. Sweet, warm and comforting, it was a great treat on a wet day.
One we all had our plates in front of us, we chatted about Worral’s book. The Poet and the Murderer is a nonfiction account of the forgerer Mark Hoffman, who beguiled the world countless times over with counterfeit documents and tender. The story begins in Amherst at the Jones Library, where an administrator was trying to purchase a newly-discovered Emily Dickinson poem written in her own hand. Ultimately, the poem would be discovered to be a complete and utter fake, composed and scrawled by Hoffman across one hundred year old paper. Worral traces Hoffman’s steps, from his youth in a Salt Lake City Morman household to his mission in England to his first attempt at forgery.
We agreed that it’s an exceptionally fascinating book, in spite of the fact that we all thought Worral’s writing was most certainly lacking. It was awkward, we said, to read such a compelling story that was written poorly. Not only that, but The Poet and the Murderer was in desperate need of a copy editor; we found multiple typos and mistakes throughout the text. It was terribly distracting. What does it say, though, if a book’s pages remain truly turnable, in spite of such silly mistakes? Hoffman’s history — and how he ended up literally blowing two people to bits — is most dramatic, almost making up for the careless errors.
A final note: this trip was so much fun, though I know we’re a bit biased in saying so. After all, we felt such a strange little connection to Dickinson, so much so that we ended up naming our book group after her. The docent at the museum had suggested to us that we needed a name, so please allow me to introduce you to the Emmie Dicks.
More on our literary exploits to follow.
Emily Dickinson Museum
280 Main Street
Amherst, Massachusetts 01002
The Lady Killigrew
440 Greenfield Road