The Dickinsons of Amherst

The Dickinsons of Amherst

by Jerome Liebling

Jerome Liebling, one of our foremost documentary photographers, has created a remarkable photographic record of the domestic environment of Emily Dickinson. As a fellow resident of Amherst, Massachusetts, Liebling was naturally drawn to the Homestead, the house in which Dickinson lived and worked. But more remarkably, Liebling had the opportunity to document the


Jerome Liebling, one of our foremost documentary photographers, has created a remarkable photographic record of the domestic environment of Emily Dickinson. As a fellow resident of Amherst, Massachusetts, Liebling was naturally drawn to the Homestead, the house in which Dickinson lived and worked. But more remarkably, Liebling had the opportunity to document the opening of the Homestead's dark sister, the Evergreens — an Italianate villa built for Emily's brother, Austin, which until recently was still inhabited but which had been preserved almost as a time capsule of the era of Emily and Austin.

Though Dickinson lived as a recluse in the Homestead, she did not live in the utter isolation that has been popularly imagined. Her life was intimately bound up with the affairs of her friends and family, and the domestic situation at the Evergreens inevitably contributed to the environment in which she wrote her poems. Austin Dickinson's troubled marriage and his affair with Mabel Loomis Todd eventually gave rise to the bitter disputes over the disposition of property and the guardianship of Emily's poetic legacy that erupted after his death. In Liebling's evocative photographs, the stark austerity of the Homestead and the decaying opulence of the Evergreens offer new insights into the home life that shaped a poet.

Three of the foremost scholars of Dickinson's life and work have contributed essays that explore the history and legacy of these two dwellings. Polly Longsworth, who wrote the definitive account of Austin's affair with Mabel Loomis Todd and who is at work on a major new biography of the poet, reveals some of the information her researches have brought to light — including a new recognition that Dickinson's anxiety problems were a real and integral condition of her existence, an understanding that demystifies some of the more enigmatic aspects of her life, including her refusal to publish. Barton Levi St. Armand, meanwhile, shares the remarkable and previously untold inside story of Mary Hampson, the last resident of the Evergreens, and of the lives connected with the house over the last century; it was through the efforts of Hampson — the heir of Austin's daughter — that the Evergreens was saved from destruction and is now (like the Homestead) open to the public. Finally, Christopher Benfey offers an insightful appreciation of Liebling's photographs and the light they shed on Dickinson and her work; he teases out surprising but convincing affinities between the poems and the art of photography.

The heart of this book is the one hundred plus photographs through which Jerome Liebling expands our understanding of Emily Dickinson's world and life. "You might say that the three essays are extended captions," says Benfey in his introduction, "taking their prompting and provocation from the images."

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“. . . When she died, she [Emily Dickinson] left a drawer crammed with hundreds of poems that engage the shimmer between the living and dead—as this book does. Unreachable through either words or pictures alone, the effect of this multidimensional book is to break your heart.”—Atlantic Monthly

“Mr. Liebling’s evocative photographs . . . effectively capture the spirit of the two houses. They focus on poignant images like a light-struck glass knob at the Homestead, which casts ghostly reflections on a white door; worn stone steps in Emily’s garden; her plain white dress, preserved in a glass case; a nest of scuffed children’s shoes stored at the Evergreens; and the long march of picket fence along Main Street—now gone—that once united the two homes.”—New York Times, (Weekend Excursion)

“The beautiful photographs and insightful essays in The Dickinsons of Amherst offer fresh retellings of [the Dickinson story] . . . The essays, Liebling’s photographs and older photos from the heyday of the Dickinsons in Amherst interact beautifully . . . [the book] illuminates the poet and her work in incandescent ways.”—Chicago Tribune

“Visitors to either house who peruse the book will marvel at [Liebling’s] artistry, at the way he can home in on a detail and make it stand for something larger, just as Dickinson did in her spare verses.”—Boston Globe, “Life at Home” section

Publishers Weekly
Emily Dickinson's famous reclusivemess essentially meant that family property marked the boundaries of her world. The Dickinsons of Amherst takes as one of its subjects the relationship between the poet's domestic space the Homestead, where she lived, and the Evergreens, which was built for her brother and her interior creative life. Documentary photographer and Amherst resident Jerome Liebling's hauntingly beautiful photographs (138 in color) of gates, bedrooms, family portraits and Dickinson's ghostly white dress are complemented by essays by three prominent Dickinson scholars, including one by Christopher Benfey (Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet) that allies the art of the photographer to the art of the poet. (Nov. 8) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

Product Details

University Press of New England
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
11.00(w) x 11.00(h) x 0.97(d)

What People are saying about this

John Szarkowski
“The lives that Liebling describes here seem not finished, but suspended. The inhabitants of these rooms and gardens have stepped out, have been detained perhaps longer than they expected, but their lives continue here. They continue as an emanation from the place, a place defined by the myriad choices that formed it.

“It is not easy to dismiss (as mere sentiment) the feeling that these lives are better than ours—not easier, but better. Their taste is more sure than ours, their style more confident, their passions more intense and more pure. Even the outgrown shoes of their children are more beautiful than the shoes in our attics. Or, perhaps it is only the simple, eloquent perfection of Liebling’s photographs that makes it seem so.”

Billy Collins
“The Dickinsons of Amherst combines text with archival images to produce a series of panoramic views of the larger familial, social, economic, and cultural environments of Emily Dickinson. Edifying and revealing, this book is a refreshing corrective to the many narrow probings into the secrets of the poet’s psyche, those glimpses as through the keyhole in her upstairs bedroom door.”

Meet the Author

JEROME LIEBLING's photographs have been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, Getty Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and many other museums and galleries in the U.S. as well as England, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Japan. His work is in permanent collections of major museums throughout the world. He is a recipient of two Guggenheim Fellowships and has had many monographs of his work published.

CHRISTOPHER BENFEY teaches in the English Department at Mount Holyoke College. He is author of Emily Dickinson: Lives of a Poet (1986) and Emily Dickinson and the Problem of Others (1984). POLLY LONGSWORTH is author of The World of Emily Dickinson (1990) and Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair & Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd (1984). She is currently at work on a new biography of Dickinson. BARTON LEVI ST. ARMAND teaches in the English Department at Brown University. He is author of Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society (1984).

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