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  • Mary Landis Hampson: Guardian of the Dickinson Universe
  • Mary Elizabeth Kromer Bernhard* (bio)

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Figure 1.

Mary L. Hampson with Mary E. K. Bernhard 1983. Photo courtesy of W. Bernhard.


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Figure 2.

The Evergreens Gate. Photo courtesy of W. Bernhard.


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Figure 3.

Doorway of the Evergreens. Photo courtesy of W. Bernhard.

Mary Landis Hampson had become a legend in Amherst, Massachusetts by the time I first met her in 1981. Her status evolved not because she was so well-known but because she was so little [End Page 24] known. As the last resident of The Evergreens, the eye-catching Italianate “suburban villa” of Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin and his wife Susan, Mrs. Hampson had wrapped herself in a privacy about which she was ambivalent. Living next door to the Dickinson Homestead, she was especially vulnerable to the flourishing interest in the poet and her family. A surviving confidante of Emily Dickinson’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Mary Hampson had established a bastion of public exclusion and assumed protective responsibility for all things Dickinsonian.

She phoned me after I sent her a note, asking if I might call on her. For reasons related to a busy schedule and her health, she declined — “not this week, but maybe next.”

When I called Mrs. Hampson several weeks later, our conversation turned to Emily Dickinson. “And what have you read?,” she asked. I mentioned Whicher’s biography. “Forget it!” Next I referred to Richard Sewall’s Life, to which her reaction was, “Don’t bother.” “Johnson” elicited, “That’s just poetry.” Reference to additional books caused her to break in belligerently, “But what have you read?” She made it eminently clear that if I wanted to know anything about Emily Dickinson, I would have to read Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s Life and Letters and Face to Face.

Ultimately, I contacted Mary Hampson on a November morning to tell her I was leaving for Cairo at 5 P.M. that day and that I hoped to see her before I left. She was amazed. “Really?” “Not really,” I answered, “but you told me that you would have to see me at once if I were someone who was en route back to Egypt or just passing through Amherst.” She was sufficiently intrigued by this ruse; she urged me to come that afternoon. By chance, I had discovered her wry sense of humor.

At The Evergreens I opened the gate with the octagonal posts, made [End Page 25] my way up the long granite walk, and found the winter door at the top of the steps invitingly ajar. Stepping into the entry, I rapped. Mrs. Hampson quickly opened the inner door and graciously invited me in. She was then in her late eighties, a fragile figure of moderate height with glasses, a pale face, and unruly gray hair, standing alone in Susan and Austin Dickinson’s distinctive Victorian house. With a dark skirt and lighter blouse, she wore a diaphanous blue scarf.

I was ushered into the room to the right — the library — where heavy transparent plastic curtains covered the windows, diminishing the afternoon light. Except for one massive wooden arm chair, the period furnishings seemed low and worn, as did the oriental rugs. A bulging file cabinet stood at one side, while folders, periodicals, stacks of newspapers, and books cluttered the room. The table before the bay windows was inundated with opened and unopened mail, some of which had cascaded to the floor. Clearly Mrs. Hampson had lost control here.

Later she guided me back into the front hall, past the huge flamboyant Azzo Cavazza painting behind the long wine-colored sofa to the dining room. There she suggested that we sit at the velour-covered table for a glass of sherry and some peanuts. A scent of kerosene from the kitchen stove permeated the room. The oblong black tin box in the corner with the names “Emily E. and Lavinia N. Dickinson” printed carelessly on the top had obviously been a repository for important documents in the past. I soon learned that...

Additional Information

ISSN
1096-858X
Print ISSN
1059-6879
Pages
pp. 24-35
Launched on MUSE
1999-04-01
Open Access
No
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