Abby Wood Bliss portrait

Abby Wood Bliss (1830-1915), friend

“Our particular friend”

– Emily Dickinson to Abiah Root, September 25, 1845 (L8)

black and white photograph of a seated woman in 1860s clothing

Abby Wood Bliss

Abby Maria Wood Bliss was Dickinson’s “particular friend” (L8) and schoolmate at Amherst Academy. Together with Abiah Root, Harriet Merrill, and Sarah Tracy, Abby Wood and Emily Dickinson made up the close group of girlhood friends that the poet called “our circle of five” (L11).

Both Emily and Abby were born in 1830, Abby on October 12, in Westminster, Massachusetts. By 1838, after her father Joel’s death left her mother burdened with several small children, Abby was living in Amherst with her Uncle Luke Sweetser, a well-respected member of the community.

Though the two girls had bouts of frail health, they shared a strong interest in music and their studies at Amherst Academy during the 1840s. Penciled notes in their joint 1838 copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil show two girls trying to survive their lessons with humor. Emily, like schoolchildren for generations, complains of the tediousness, writing that “Abby and I are plodding over our books pretty much as ever” (L7). (Emily Dickinson’s copy of Publii Virgilii Maronis Opera or The Works of Virgil is now housed at the Amherst College Library, Amherst, Massachusetts.)

Their friendship reached a turning point in 1850 when Abby joined Amherst’s First Congregational Church, succumbing to a powerful religious revival of that year. Although the two friends had both been uncommitted, Emily early on recognized that Abby “only desires to be good” (L23).  After Abby joined the church, Emily acknowledged that they now “take different views of life” (L39). Dickinson never did join the church.

In 1855 Abby married the newly-ordained minister Daniel Bliss, an 1852 graduate of Amherst. The couple sailed off on a mission to Syria, where they spent the remainder of their lives, and where Reverend Bliss founded the Syrian Protestant College (now The American University of Beirut).  Dickinson’s friendship with Abby had “drooped a little” (L91) in the early 1850s, but when the time came for Abby to depart, Emily presented her with their shared Virgil text.  In it she had written out line 203 of Book I of the Aeneid, which she translated as “Afterwards you may rejoice at the remembrance of these (our school days)” and then inscribed it “When I am far far away then think of me—E. Dickinson.”

While the intimacy of their relationship changed, the two never lost touch. They both retained their interest in botany and horticulture (subjects they had studied at Amherst Academy), and there is strong evidence that Abby sent botanical specimens for Emily’s herbarium, as well as a piece of olivewood, from the Middle East.

When Abby brought her children from Syria for a year’s visit to Amherst in 1873, she found that Emily “had become the village mystery, inaccessible to all but an elect few, who were admitted to the sanctuary with appropriate preliminaries and ceremonies.” Abby, demonstrating her own honest and independent spirit, would have none of it, and claimed her right to be “received on the old basis” (Daniel Bliss, The Reminiscences of Daniel Bliss, New York: Revell, 1920. Cited in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, p. 205).

Inspired by the visit, Emily composed:

I saw that the Flake was on it
But plotted with Time to dispute –
“Unchanged” I urged with a candor
That cost me my honest Heart –

But “you” – she returned with valor
Sagacious of my mistake
“Have altered – Accept the pillage
For the progress’ sake”—

Daniel and Abby Bliss had four children, Mary, Frederick, Howard, and William. All four spent the academic year of 1873-74 in the Amherst school system, and the two older sons later graduated from Amherst College.  Frederick Bliss, a good pianist, often played for Emily Dickinson, while Howard Sweetser Bliss became a good friend of Emily’s nephew Ned Dickinson. Howard succeeded his father as President of Syrian Protestant College in 1902. Together Daniel and Abby dedicated their lives to education through their missionary work in Syria. Abby died on April 12, 1915, the year before her husband. Both are buried in the Anglo-American Cemetery in Beirut.

title page of Ralph Waldo Emerson's book of poems

Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), friend

“My earliest friend wrote me the week before he died “If I live, I will go to Amherst – if I die, I certainly will.” 

– Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, spring 1876 (L457)

the title page of POEMS by Emerson

Poems by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Presented to Emily Dickinson by Benjamin Newton, August 1849.

My earliest friend,” “My dying Tutor” (L265), “my Father’s Law Student” (L750), “The first of my own friends” (L110), “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor” (L153) “an elder brother, loved indeed very much” (L153) – these were all phrases Emily Dickinson employed in speaking of Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young man whose effect upon her development as a poet was early and profound, and to whom she long paid tribute.

Newton, as she called him, came to Amherst in the fall of 1847, a twenty-six-year-old aspiring law student desiring to study for two years in the recently formed partnership office of Dickinson and Bowdoin. Like other such law students of Edward Dickinson’s over the years, Newton became a familiar presence in the Dickinson household, befriending the Dickinson children and often partaking of family meals. Emily Dickinson met him just as she enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, and she became acquainted with his love of books during several weeks the following March that she was home nursing a severe cold. She later wrote: “Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand or beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen” (L153).

The spare facts of Ben Newton’s upbringing indicate he was born into a farm family in Berlin, Massachusetts, near Worcester, on September 30, 1821. Unable to afford college, and perhaps not of sturdy enough health to farm, Newton may have taught school during the decade before he came to Amherst. By that time he was widely read, and able to guide Dickinson to poets and authors he esteemed. She spoke afterwards of admiring “the strength and grace, of an intellect far surpassing my own,” which “taught me many lessons” (L153). Most important, he recognized Dickinson’s exceptional mind and encouraged her talent for writing. “All can write autographs, but few paragraphs, for we are mostly no more than names,” he inscribed in her autograph book when he left Amherst for Worcester in August 1849. (Dickinson’s autograph book is housed at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Newton corresponded with Dickinson–most notably sending her Emerson’s Poems in January 1850–while he studied for the bar, opened his own law practice, and then became the District Attorney of Worcester County. He married in June 1851, and while he continued to write and to guide his young protégé, he evidently gave her few indications that his health was failing. News of his death from tuberculosis on March 24, 1853, shocked Dickinson when she read of it in the newspaper three days later. Loss of her “gentle, yet grave Preceptor” led her to rely principally on her lexicon (her dictionary) as her guide to writing poetry for several years to follow (see L261).

Although it has been suggested that Newton and Dickinson may have been romantically attached, this seems unlikely. The theory scarcely fits the tone of the three letters the poet wrote to Newton’s minister, Rev. Edward Everett Hale, for reassurance he had died peacefully. She did, however, regret for the rest of her life that the importance to her of this “first friend” had “slipped my simple fingers through / While just a Girl at school” (Fr418). She treasured the advice of his letters, and never forgot him.

Further Reading:

Mamunes, George. “So has a Daisy Vanished”: Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008.

Mary Lyon

Mary Lyon (1797-1849), teacher

“Go where no one else will go. Do what no one else will do.”

– Mary Lyon

black and white photograph of a woman wearing a white bonnet

Mary Lyon, ca. 1845

Mary Lyon was a pioneering educator of women. In 1837 she founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Emily Dickinson attended in 1847-48. Lyon was born in Buckland, Massachusetts, on February 28, 1797. She was one of seven children born to Aaron Lyon, a Scottish farmer, and Jemima Shepherd Lyon. Mary Lyon attended Buckland School from the age of four until she was thirteen, often boarding with local families since it was too far to travel home each day.

When Lyon was seventeen, she was invited to teach summer school in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. At that time teachers often entered the workforce with few formal qualifications. For twenty years Lyon continued her teaching career at several schools, including Ipswich Female Seminary, which Lavinia Dickinson later attended. While teaching, Lyon used her income and a small inheritance to further her education by traveling and studying educational reform.

In 1834 Lyon decided to leave teaching in order to raise funds for a female seminary accessible to women of modest means. Lyon conceived of a seminary founded on the principles of public benevolence, as opposed to the customary practice of funding by a wealthy benefactor. She tirelessly traveled the country collecting donations in a green velvet purse. She made a special request of church sewing societies throughout New England to contribute quilts and bedding that would furnish a chamber for each student. To keep tuition low, seminary students would live together as a family in one large building and would do much of the school’s housework (cleaning, cooking, and laundering).

On November 8, 1837, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary admitted its first eighty students. Mary Lyon had high academic standards for her students. An admirer of the Amherst College curriculum, she developed a rigorous course of study that included the sciences, not a subject commonly emphasized at men’s or women’s schools. She also tirelessly worked to improve the students’ religious lives, holding year-long revivals intended to culminate in each student’s personal confession of faith.

Emily Dickinson entered the seminary in 1847, a decade after its founding. Writing her friend Abiah Root, Dickinson observed that the atmosphere at the seminary was congenial. “One thing is certain,” she wrote, “& that is, that Miss Lyon & all the teachers, seem to consult our comfort & happiness in everything they do & you know that is pleasant” (L18). Like many of the students, she stayed for only one year; unlike most of them, she remained one of those “without hope” where faith was concerned.

Mary Lyon pursued her mission to educate women until her death on April 5, 1849. Educators later viewed Mount Holyoke as a model for women’s education. In 1893, the seminary became Mount Holyoke College. Lyon’s gravesite is on the College grounds. Mary Lyon’s legacy is celebrated at her graveside during the annual Mount Holyoke College commencement ceremony and every year on her birthday.

Further Reading

Green, Elizabeth Alden. Mary Lyon and Mount Holyoke: Opening the Gates. Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1979.

Mount Holyoke College History: Who Was Mary Lyon?

Etching of Concord Massachusetts in the 1840s

Frances (1847-1896) and Louisa (1842-1919) Norcross, cousins

“For you remember, dear, you are one of the ones from whom I do not run away!” 

– Emily Dickinson to Louisa Norcross, about January 4, 1859 (L199)

Frances and Louisa Norcross were Emily Dickinson’s first cousins, the daughters of Emily Norcross Dickinson’s favorite sister, Lavinia Norcross Norcross. They were born on August 4, 1847, and April 17, 1842, respectively. Fanny and Loo, as Emily affectionately called them, are considered to have been some of Dickinson’s closest friends. When the cousins were orphaned in 1863, Dickinson offered her home as a refuge:“What shall I tell these darlings except that my father and mother are half their father and mother, and my home is half theirs, whenever, and for as long as, they will. . .” (L278).

While the cousins never did live with their Dickinson relatives in Amherst—the two settled in Boston, their birthplace—Fanny and Loo were beloved guests of the Homestead and The Evergreens. Frances was described by Martha Dickinson (daughter of Susan and Austin Dickinson) as “a great favorite with both houses,” while “Cousin Lou was more like Aunt Emily than anybody.” Emily Dickinson herself fondly reminisced about visits from her cousins when she recalled a time when “You (Loo) and I in the dining-room decided to be distinguished” (L199).

Etching of Concord Massachusetts in the 1840s

In 1884 the sisters moved to Concord, Massachusetts, where they participated in various intellectual and political activities. Dedicated to the study of literature, they joined the Concord Saturday Club, which included as members Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In addition to studying published literature, the club also heard works-in-progress as well as the works of unknown writers. Fanny was also involved in theater and worked as a librarian at the Harvard Divinity School Library, a role that was uncommon for women at the time. She helped expand the library and implemented a new cataloguing system.

The cousins’ interest in literature may have led Emily Dickinson to include the two in her creative process. She sent them at least twenty-five poems, and the cousins witnessed Dickinson composing “in the pantry …while she skimmed the milk” (Scharnhorst, 485). For the posthumous volumes of Dickinson’s work that Mabel Loomis Todd edited, Fanny provided transcripts of poems and letters that she and her sister had received, but because Fanny insisted on keeping the originals of Dickinson’s work as well as excising letters that she believed were too personal to be published, Todd found the cousin’s involvement trying.

The sisters remained active in the Concord community until their respective deaths: Louisa on April 14, 1919, and Frances on February 20, 1896. The magnitude of Dickinson’s love for her cousins is evident in the simple, last letter the poet wrote before her death: “Little Cousins, / Called Back. / Emily” (L1046).

Further Reading:

Ackmann, Martha. “‘I’m glad I finally surfaced’: A Norcross Descendent Remembers Emily Dickinson.” Emily Dickinson Journal. 5.2 (1996): 120-126.

Ackmann, Martha. “The Matrilineage of Emily Dickinson.” University Microfilms International. 1988.

Bernhard, Mary Elizabeth Kromer. “Portrait of a Family: Emily Dickinson’s Norcross Connection.” The New England Quarterly 60.3 (1987): 363-81.

Scharnhorst, Gary. “A Glimpse of Dickinson at Work.” American Literature 57.3 (1985): 483-5.

Image source: modbm_am1130_11_4_p4, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson

Thomas Gilbert (Gib) Dickinson (1875-1883), nephew

Memoirs of Little Boys that live—
“Weren’t you chasing Pussy,” said Vinnie to Gilbert?
“No—she was chasing herself”—
“But wasn’t she running pretty fast”? “Well, some slow and some fast” said the beguiling Villain—Pussy’s Nemesis quailed—
Talk of “hoary Reprobates”!
Your Urchin is more antique in wiles than the Egyptian Sphinx—

– Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, about 1880 (L664)

black and white photograph of a young Gib seated and wearing his "little lord Fauntleroy suit"

Gilbert Dickinson, n.d.

Thomas Gilbert Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s second nephew, was born on August 1, 1875. Susan and Austin Dickinson had been married for almost twenty years when their third child was born; their eldest Ned was already fourteen and daughter Mattie, eight, by then. The whole family doted on “little Gib.” Many of Ned’s letters, for example, describe the antics of his little brother with clear pride and affection: “Gib is all right and as naughty as ever,” he declares in a letter to their mother (Jan 11, 1879). “Gilbert has a most tremendous reputation for brilliant remarks out here,” he boasts in another (Oct 10, 1881). Emily Dickinson’s letters suggest that she, too, took great pleasure in her youngest nephew’s beguiling wiles.

A number of Gib’s own letters remain, confirming this charming precociousness. A letter he wrote to “Santy Clause” and posted with a hand-drawn stamp concludes: “Please bring me whatever you think best. I don’t mean a spanking I mean some common place toys.” In fact the Evergreens contains a far-from-commonplace collection of his toys, including an elaborate rocking horse and a velocipede (tricycle), which Gib rode avidly in town. The furnishings of the Dickinson nursery display the Victorian era celebration of childhood as a special and cherished life stage, the Dickinsons going so far as to allow their children to paste pictures from books and magazines on the doors of the nursery and adjacent hall. When Gib decided to host a circus in The Evergreens’ yard, the family printed up abundant tickets.

In the fall of 1883 Gib contracted typhoid fever, and died on October 5. He was just eight years old. In a rare excursion from the Homestead, Emily Dickinson came to sit by his bedside the night before he died, and her letter of condolence to Sue is seared with her grief. “His life was full of Boon” she wrote. “I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet velocity in everything that flies—His life was like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy an echo—his Requiem ecstasy—” (L868). Her own health deteriorated swiftly thereafter, and some scholars have associated her decline with the wrenching loss of this beloved boy. The family as a whole was deeply shaken by his death. No other children ever lived in The Evergreens and the nursery was largely preserved intact as a kind of family memorial.

Gilbert Dickinson’s manuscripts (unpublished) are part of the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Collection at the John Hay Library, Brown University.

Further Reading:

Kirk, Connie Ann. “‘Open the Door, They Are Waiting for Me’: An Introduction to The Evergreens Nursery.”Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (16:1), May/June 2004. 4-6.

Kirk, Connie Ann. “‘To Stay Behind-With Just the Toys’: Gilbert Dickinson’s Living Treasures in The Evergreens.”Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (15:2), November/December 2003. 12-13, 34-35.

Martha Dickinson

Martha Dickinson (Mattie) Bianchi (1866-1943), niece

“I cannot tell when I first became aware that she [Emily Dickinson] had elected her own way of life. To us she had always been as fixed in her orbit as any other star. We had been born into her life. It never seemed to us that it should have been any other than it was.”

– Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Emily Dickinson Face to Face, p. 48)

Black and white photograph of a young Martha playing with a pet dog

Martha Dickinson Bianchi, n.d.

Martha Gilbert Dickinson Bianchi, or Mattie, was born on November 30, 1866, the only daughter of Austin and Susan Dickinson. After her two brothers’ early deaths and the deaths of her parents, she became the last surviving member of the Dickinson line.

Martha studied at three private schools–Miss Howland’s (1879-1880), Miss Marsh’s (1882-1883), and Miss Porter’s (1884-1885)–and had tutors from Amherst College. Before heading off to school in 1884, Mattie received a note of advice from her aunt Emily: “Be true to yourself, Mattie, and ‘Honor and Immortality’—although the first will do—the last is only inferential” (L942). An excellent pianist, Martha studied at the Smith College School of Music (1885-1889) and took private lessons in New York City.

In 1902 while abroad in Bohemia, Martha married the romantic Alexander Bianchi, a captain in the Russian Imperial Horse Guards. He was later jailed on charges of fraud, and the couple separated in 1908, divorcing in 1920.

In her early thirties, Bianchi began writing poetry. Her work appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly. She also wrote several novels, including The Cuckoo’s Nest (1909), A Cossack Lover (1911) and The Kiss of Apollo (1915).

Bianchi, however, is best known for her work editing her aunt’s poetry. After her mother Susan and her aunt Lavinia died, Bianchi inherited the Dickinson manuscripts that remained in her family (the other significant portion of the manuscripts was held by Mabel Loomis Todd). In 1914 Bianchi published The Single Hound: Poems of Emily Dickinson, which helped revive interest in her aunt’s work. She published several more books of Dickinson’s poetry and letters as well her own reminiscences about her aunt. Bianchi and her secretary, Alfred Leete Hampson, like editors before them, edited Dickinson’s poetry with the intent of making it easier to read by removing dashes and changing line breaks. Some of Bianchi’s collections of Dickinson’s poems may still be found at bookstores today.

Bianchi traveled extensively to European destinations, and eventually divided her time between The Evergreens in the summer and New York City in the winter. She died in New York City in 1943.

After her mother’s death in 1913, Bianchi made few physical alterations to The Evergreens. In her will, she bequeathed the house to Hampson, who later married a mutual friend, Mary Landis. Bianchi’s will stipulated that, should Hampson and his family ever choose not to live in the house, The Evergreens should be torn down rather than sold to another owner. Mary Landis Hampson, the last resident and owner of The Evergreens, made arrangements in her own will to establish the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust to preserve the house for public use. In 2003, the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Trust transferred its assets to the Trustees of Amherst College so that The Evergreens and the Homestead could operate as a single Emily Dickinson Museum.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Cambridge, Mass.: The Riverside Press, 1932.

Ned Dickinson

Edward (Ned) Dickinson (1861-1898), nephew

“A dark cold morning. Children at church. I at home reading Emerson on immortality with the good and silent company of my pipe.”

– Ned Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, August 29, 1882 (St. Armand, 365)

black and white photograph of a young Ned

Ned Dickinson, 1874

Austin and Susan Dickinson’s eldest child was born on June 19, 1861. Named Edward, after his paternal grandfather, he was called “Ned” within the family. Although the poem Emily Dickinson sent to Susan at Ned’s birth admits her “fear of joggling Him!” (L232), she developed a very close and gleeful relationship with her nephew. They shared a pleasure in playing with words. “Ned tells that the Clock purrs and the Kitten ticks. He inherits his Uncle Emily’s ardor for the lie,” Dickinson crowed in a letter to her friend Elizabeth Holland, when Ned was not yet five (L315).

In February 1877, Ned had a seizure that greatly worried the family, and these attacks of epilepsy recurred. In light of these and other health issues, Austin arranged for Ned to take an “abbreviated course” at Amherst College, attending classes but not sitting exams and hence not receiving an official degree.

Ironic, witty, deeply vested in his family, surprisingly tender and domestic, but also iconoclastic, Ned grew up to be very much a Dickinson. His letters to his family are, as he frequently signed himself, “prodigal.” He clearly enjoyed playing the role of the bad, but intelligent, boy preferring his pipe and Emerson to church. But when his mother was away from home, the letters he sent her were full of domestic details, as he oversaw spring cleaning or took it upon himself to hire new servants.

His father’s affair with Mabel Loomis Todd hit Ned hard, in part perhaps because he had been smitten with Mrs. Todd himself, but more because of the enormous pain it caused his mother, and he strongly took her side. He confided to his sister Mattie: “My only ambition in life Dear Mopsy, is to have a quiet, pleasant little house somewhere – with you and Mother in it where things can be pleasant – no fame, no brains, no family, no scholarship, no anything amounts to anything beside that” (Longsworth, 202).

Ned became an assistant librarian at Amherst College, which did indeed permit him some space for brains and scholarship if not for fame. An undated notebook produced by Ned sometime in the late 1880s contains copies of poems by his mother and his aunt, as well as some passages from Tennyson. It is unclear whether this was intended as a personal commonplace book, or whether he understood this transcription work as a first step toward more formal publication. Interestingly, a number of his transcriptions are clearly based on fascicle versions of the poems rather than on the versions Dickinson had sent to the family.

In 1890 Austin’s lover Mabel Loomis Todd published the first edition of Dickinson’s poems, exacerbating Susan and her children’s sense of betrayal. In August 1895 Austin Dickinson died, and less than two years later Ned accompanied his mother and sister on a tour of Europe. Upon his return he became engaged to Alice (Alix) Hill. Yet for Ned this period proved far more stressful than happy as the rancor produced by Austin and Mabel’s relationship entered its most public stage in a law suit between the Dickinson and Todd families. In May 1898, just two weeks after the verdict against Todd, Ned died of angina; he was just thirty-six years old.

Further Reading:

Edward (Ned) Dickinson: Correspondence and Notebook, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. “‘Your Prodigal’: Letters from Ned Dickinson, 1879.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 3 (Sept., 1988). 358-380.


Susan Dickinson

Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson (1830-1913), sister-in-law

“With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise” 

– Emily Dickinson to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, about 1882 (L757)

Black and white photograph of a young Susan Dickinson

Susan Dickinson, n.d.

Susan Huntington Gilbert was born on December 19, 1830, in Deerfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of seven children of Thomas and Harriet Arms Gilbert. After the death of her mother in 1835, she was raised with her sisters in Geneva, New York, by her aunt Sophia van Vranken. As a girl of sixteen she visited Amherst, where her eldest sister resided, and attended Amherst Academy during the summer of 1847. Thereafter she attended Utica Female Academy in New York through 1848, then returned to Amherst for the rest of her life. Susan was a vivacious, intelligent, and cultivated woman, a great reader, a sparkling conversationalist, and a book collector of wide-ranging interests. Late in life she traveled in Europe several times before her death from heart disease on May 12, 1913.

In 1850, Susan and Austin Dickinson, the poet’s brother, began courting. They announced their engagement on Thanksgiving Day in 1853 and were married three years later on July 1, 1856. At their newly-built home, The Evergreens, next door to the Homestead, Susan enjoyed entertaining friends and the numerous literary figures attracted to the town, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the early years of Austin and Susan’s marriage, Emily Dickinson would often visit The Evergreens and enjoy the company she found there. Susan and Austin had three children: Edward (“Ned”), born in 1861; Martha, born in 1866; and Thomas Gilbert (“Gib”), born in 1875.

The Evergreens was the setting for two family tragedies. After a time, Austin and Susan’s marriage gradually deteriorated, and in the fall of 1882 Austin began a thirteen-year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd that caused great rancor and bitterness within the family. Then, in the fall of 1883, eight-year-old Gib, beloved of all the family, died of typhoid fever. The child’s death crippled both houses, leaving Susan desolated and the poet ill for weeks.

Susan had become close friends with Emily Dickinson in 1850. Their intimate correspondence, occasionally interrupted by periods of seeming estrangement, nevertheless lasted until the poet’s death in 1886. Susan, a writer herself, was the most familiar of all the family members with Dickinson’s poetry, having received more than 250 poems from her over the years. At least once she offered constructive criticism and advice. Susan wrote the poet’s remarkable obituary, which appeared in the Springfield Republican on May 18, 1886. After the poet’s death, her sister Lavinia asked Susan to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia soon grew impatient with Susan’s slow editorial pace, however, and transferred the poems into the hands of Mabel Loomis Todd, who published three volumes during the 1890s with the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Susan’s friendship helped expand the poet’s horizons, and their sharing of books and ideas was a vital component of her intellectual life. In her later days, Emily Dickinson wrote to Susan, “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living. To say that sincerely is strange praise” (L757).

Further Reading:

Dickinson, Susan H. “Annals of The Evergreens.” Writings by Susan Dickinson, ed. Martha Nell Smith et al. Original manuscript at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dickinson, Susan H. “Obituary of Miss Emily Dickinson.” Springfield Republican, May 18, 1886. Reprinted in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. II, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 472-474.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Mudge, Jean McClure. “Emily Dickinson and ‘Sister Sue.’” Prairie Schooner 52 (1978). 90-108.

Smith, Martha Nell. “Susan and Emily Dickinson: their lives, in letters.” The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 51-73.

Lavinia Dickinson holding a cat

Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833-1899), sister

“[Emily] had to think – she was the only one of us who had that to do. Father believed; and mother loved; and Austin had Amherst; and I had the family to take care of.” 

– Lavinia Dickinson (Emily Dickinson’s Home, pp. 413-414)

black and white photograph of Lavinia Dickinson wearing a checkered shawl and holding a cat

Lavinia Dickinson, ca. 1896

One of the most significant people in Emily Dickinson’s life was her sister Lavinia. Born two years after Emily, on February 28, 1833, the two were raised as if of an age. They began attending Amherst Academy together in the spring of 1841 at ages ten and eight, and shared a room and a bed into their twenties. Each, however, had her own circle of friends and very different personality. As Emily once told a friend, “if we had come up for the first time from two wells where we had hitherto been bred her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say” (Sewall, Lyman Letters, 70).

Vinnie grew to be the practical sister, who did the errands and managed the housekeeping. “I don’t see much of Vinnie – she’s mostly dusting stairs!” (L176) Emily once sighed. Clever and pretty, musical and an accomplished mimic, Vinnie had a sharp tongue and sometimes shaded the truth, nor was she a serious student. After eight years at Amherst Academy and two terms imbibing an “abbreviated course” at Ipswich Academy, she settled into an active social life in Amherst for several years. Her friendly flirtatiousness attracted the Amherst College students, but despite several proposals of marriage, including a long-term “understanding” with the Dickinsons’ friend Joseph Lyman, Vinnie, like her sister, remained unwed.

“Upon her, very early, depended the real solidarity of the family,” her niece Martha later wrote. “It was Lavinia who knew where everything was, from a lost quotation to a last year’s muffler. It was she who remembered to have the fruit picked for canning, or the seeds kept for next year’s planting, or the perfunctory letters written to the aunts” (Bianchi, Life and Letters, p. 13). Vinnie shared her mother and sister’s horticultural talents. Her passion for colorful, overflowing flower beds was exceeded only by an equally abundant love of cats, which followed her in procession about the Homestead.

Different as they were, the sisters were extremely close. While Austin was often exasperated by his youngest sister, the poet called her bond with Lavinia “early, earnest, indissoluble” (L827). Indeed, from young womanhood, Emily depended upon Vinnie’s physical presence when engaged in social activities or even going through the seasonal construction of new clothing, for Vinnie worked with the dressmaker and served as model for both of them. As she neared age thirty, the reclusive poet admitted, “Vinnie has been all, so long, I feel the oddest fright at parting with her for an hour, lest a storm arise, and I go unsheltered” (L200).

Vinnie’s pride in her brilliant sister was as strong as her devotion to protecting her. After their father’s death in 1874 and their mother’s stroke the following year, Vinnie and Emily, with the help of their maid Margaret Maher, cared for their invalid mother until her death in 1882. When Emily died in May 1886, Vinnie burned her sister’s correspondence, as requested, but to her amazement discovered hundreds of poems about which Emily had given no instructions. Determined to share these with the world, Vinnie spent the next thirteen years successfully urging and cajoling others – Susan Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the publishers Roberts Brothers – to publish her sister’s poems and letters. Without what Emily called Vinnie’s “inciting voice” (L827), we would know little or nothing of Dickinson’s great lyric poetry.

Lavinia Dickinson died at age 66 of an “enlarged heart” on August 31, 1899. Her health and spirits suffered greatly the last two years from the strain of the lawsuit with Mabel Loomis and David Todd, the death of her nephew Ned, and recriminations that flew between the Homestead and The Evergreens.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Emily Dickinson’s Home. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1955.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. 138-157.

Sewall, Richard B. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965.

William Austin Dickinson

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895), brother

“There was always such a Hurrah wherever you was” 

– Emily Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, April 18, 1842 (L1)

black and white photograph of Austin

Austin Dickinson, early 1850s

The world of the close-knit Dickinson family revolved around Austin. The oldest of the three Dickinson children, William Austin Dickinson was born on April 16, 1829, about a year and half before his sister Emily. Educated at Amherst Academy and at Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, Austin graduated from Amherst College with the class of 1850. After a short-lived career as a teacher, Austin turned his full attention to law, the profession that both grandfather Fowler and father Edward pursued.

Upon graduation from Harvard Law School and in anticipation of a new life with his fiancée, Susan Gilbert, Austin considered a move west, to Chicago. Edward’s offer to make his son a partner in his Amherst law firm and to build a house (The Evergreens) for Austin and Susan changed such plans. Like the other members of his family, Austin remained an Amherst resident until the end of his life.

Austin’s law practice, his home and family (he and Susan had three children), numerous civic obligations, a fascination with landscape architecture, and a “passion” for pictures, particularly landscape paintings, consumed him. He succeeded his father as treasurer of Amherst College in 1873; served as Town Moderator from 1881 until his death in 1895; was president of Amherst’s Village Improvement Society; and was a founder of Wildwood Cemetery, the town’s private cemetery (where he and his family are buried). Through his activities he befriended numerous notables, including the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. A friend once told him: “I suppose nobody in the town could be born or married or buried, or make an investment, or buy a house-lot, or a cemetery-lot, or sell a newspaper, or build a house, or choose a profession, without you close at hand” (Longsworth, p. 117).

Emily Dickinson was especially close to her brother in their youth. Her letters to him when he was away from home reveal their shared interests in intellectual pursuits, nature, and local affairs, as well as Emily’s—indeed the entire household’s—deep affection for him: “Our apples are ripening fast—I am fully convinced that with your approbation they will not only pick themselves, but arrange one another in baskets, and present themselves to be eaten” (L48).

After Austin settled into The Evergreens, his relationship with Emily changed. With his attention pulled in other directions, he had less time for sisterly concerns. Once, when Austin stayed at the Homestead while his wife and children were out of town, Emily noted: “It seemed peculiar—pathetic—and Antediluvian. We missed him while he was with us and missed him when he was gone” (L432). Yet Austin did care for his sisters, especially after their parents’ deaths, and he was by Emily’s side when she died.

Austin’s personal life was complicated. Despite the joy that their children brought to the household, Susan and Austin did not maintain that joy in their own relationship. In 1882 Austin met Mabel Loomis Todd, an accomplished young woman twenty-seven years his junior and the wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor. The two fell in love and were involved in a deeply committed relationship for almost thirteen years, although each remained married and the affair was known to their spouses.

While Austin was not directly involved in the posthumous editing of his sister’s poetry, his affair with Todd, who served as a principal editor of Dickinson’s work, created additional tensions with his wife and surviving sister. Austin died from heart failure on August 16, 1895. He was 66.

Further Reading:

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 91-127.