Emily Norcross Dickinson

Emily Norcross Dickinson (1804-1882), mother

“To have had a Mother—how mighty!” 

– Emily Dickinson to Mrs. James C. Greenough, late October 1885 (L1022)

An oil painted portrait of Emily Norcross Dickinson

Emily Norcross Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard

Emily Norcross Dickinson was born in Monson, Massachusetts, on July 3, 1804, to Betsy Fay and Joel Norcross. The eldest daughter of nine children, Emily Norcross had an extraordinary education for a young woman in the early nineteenth century. From age seven to nineteen, she attended co-educational Monson Academy, which her father had helped to found.  She then went to a New Haven, Connecticut, boarding school for one term.

In 1826 Emily Norcross began a courtship with Edward Dickinson. Unlike her future husband or her daughter the poet, Emily Norcross Dickinson had little interest in writing. Edward sent her seventy letters and she responded with only twenty-four extant replies. When her fiancé inquired about her lack of writing Emily stated, “I am sensible that I have never exercised that freedom [of expression] which I presume you have desired me to” (Pollak, p. 56).

After a two-year courtship the couple married on May 6, 1828. Eleven months later Emily Norcross Dickinson gave birth to their first child, William Austin Dickinson. In the fall of 1830 the Dickinsons moved into the Homestead in Amherst where Emily gave birth to their two daughters: Emily in 1830 and Lavinia (Vinnie) in 1833.

Emily Norcross Dickinson kept an immaculate house and was praised for her cooking. She appears to have had little interest in family conversations on politics, history and literature (though she was capable) but instead focused on housekeeping and gardening. She particularly loved roses of all varieties and was also known for her figs, a difficult fruit to grow in the western Massachusetts climate.  

Although she suffered one severe bout of depression after the family moved back to the Homestead in 1855, Emily Norcross Dickinson was in good physical health and outlived most of her siblings. Almost a year to the day after her husband’s death in 1874, Mrs. Dickinson had a stroke that left her paralyzed. For the next seven years, until her death on November 14, 1882, her daughters took care of their mother. Later the poet wrote of her mother: “When we were Children and she journeyed, she always brought us something. Now, would she bring us but herself, what an only Gift” (L792).

Further Reading:

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

Pollak, Vivian R. A Poet’s Parents: The Courtship Letters of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Edward Dickinson

Edward Dickinson (1803-1874), father

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.” 

– Emily Dickinson to T.W. Higginson, July 1874 (L418)

an oil painted portrait of Edward Dickinson

Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard

Edward Dickinson embraced the conservative Whig political party and embodied its ethics of responsibility, fairness, and personal restraint to a point that contemporaries found his demeanor severe and unyielding. He took his role as head of his family seriously, and within his home his decisions and his word were law. An incident Emily Dickinson described speaks volumes about life within her home: “I never knew how to tell time by the clock till I was 15. My father thought he had taught me but I did not understand & I was afraid to say I did not & afraid to ask anyone else lest he should know” (L342b).

The eldest of nine children of Samuel Fowler and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, Edward was born on January 1, 1803. He grew up in the Dickinson Homestead and, earlier, in the house that preceded it. Educated in the district school and at Amherst Academy, he attended Yale College except for his Junior year, which was spent at Amherst College during its first year of operation. He graduated from Yale in 1823, attended the Northampton Law School for a year, and opened his own practice in Amherst in the fall of 1826. On May 6, 1828 he married shy, pretty Emily Norcross of Monson, Massachusetts, after a two and a half year courtship. Their three children were born in 1829 (Austin), 1830 (Emily) and 1833 (Lavinia).

During the time Edward was establishing his legal practice, his father’s great effort and financial overcommitment in helping found Amherst College led to the collapse of the family’s wealth in land holdings. Within a few years all members of his immediate family, one way or another, left Amherst for the rest of their lives. Edward remained, devoting himself to his legal career and laboring to restore his father’s blighted reputation as well as to regain some of his family’s financial well-being.

Edward for over forty-five years led a disciplined, civic-minded public life that included several times representing Amherst in the state legislature, serving thirty-seven years as treasurer of Amherst College, and being elected to the Thirty-third Congress from his region. He was a prominent citizen, active in several reform societies, on the board of regional institutions, and involved in major civic improvements, such as leading the effort to bring the railroad to town in the mid 1850s.

Ever respectful of her father’s nature (“the straightest engine” that “never played” [L360]), Dickinson obeyed him as a child, but found ways to rebel or circumvent him as a young woman, and finally, with wit and occasional exasperation, learned to accommodate with his autocratic ways.

Her early resistance slowly shifted to a mutual respect, and finally subsided after his death in pathos, love, and awe. Despite his public involvements, the poet viewed her father as an isolated, solitary figure, “the oldest and the oddest sort of foreigner,” she told a friend (Sewall, The Lyman Letters, p. 70), a man who read “lonely & rigorous books” (L342a), yet who made sure the birds were fed in winter.

Edward Dickinson’s lonely death in a Boston boardinghouse following his collapse while giving a speech in the state legislature the hot morning of June 16, 1874, was unbearable to the whole family. The entire town closed down on the afternoon of his funeral, and his eldest daughter later paid this tribute: “Lay this Laurel on the one\ Too intrinsic for Renown -\ Laurel – vail your deathless Tree -\ Him you chasten – that is he -” (Fr1428).

Further Reading:

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. 44-73.

_____. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965. p. 70.

Illustration of Amherst College buildings known as College Row in the 1800s

Samuel Fowler Dickinson (1775-1838) and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson (1775-1840), grandparents

“one of the most industrious and persevering men that I ever saw”

– Edward Hitchcock, President of Amherst College, on Samuel Fowler Dickinson.

black and white print of Amherst College buildings with horse draw carriage in foreground

College Row, Amherst College, ca. 1830

Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson were Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandparents. Fowler, or “Squire,” his honorary title, was a prominent Amherst lawyer, and a man of rare public spirit. Though his life overlapped with Emily’s for only a short time, Fowler Dickinson built a brick house on Main Street that would become Emily’s home and sanctuary for most of her life.

A deeply religious man, Squire Dickinson became deacon of the church in 1798 at the unusually young age of 23. A farmer and major land-owner in the country, he served the community into which he had been born with legendary determination and energy. He was Town Clerk, served twelve years as a state Representative (1803-1827), and spent one as a Senator (1828). He planted trees. He represented the town in legal matters. Edward Hitchcock, President of Amherst College from 1845 to 1854, recalled Fowler as “one of the most industrious and persevering men that I ever saw” (Reminiscences of Amherst College, Northampton, Mass.: Bridgman & Childs, 1863, p. 5). Lucretia Gunn of Montague, whom Fowler married in 1802, kept their home, raised nine children, and supported her husband’s work.

A driving force behind the creation of Amherst Academy in 1814, Fowler Dickinson was one of the first to subscribe to the charitable fund that served as the foundation for Amherst College (opened in 1821). He expressed his fervent belief in the virtue of education for both sexes, evident in the admission policy of the Academy, in a public address in 1831:

“A good husbandman will also educate well his daughters…daughters should be well instructed in the useful sciences; comprising a good English education: including a thorough knowledge of our own language, geography, history, mathematics and natural philosophy. The female mind, so sensitive, so susceptible of improvement, should not be neglected….God hath designed nothing in vain.” (address given to the Hampshire, Hampden and Franklin Agricultural Society on October 27, 1831, in Northampton, Massachusetts. Cited in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, ed. Jay Leyda, Vol. I, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, pp.17-18)

His support of these educational endeavors came at great personal cost. By 1833, he was bankrupt. Fowler had “sacrificed his property, his time and his professional opportunities” for the College (The History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts, Amherst: Carpenter & Morehouse, 1896, p. 187). Although his son Edward, the poet’s father, tried to mitigate the situation by purchasing half of the family’s Homestead, eventually Fowler Dickinson was forced to leave Amherst with his wife and two youngest daughters and move to Cincinnati, where he became Steward of the Lane Theological Seminary. He later served as Treasurer of Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio. By April 22, 1838 he was dead of “lung fever” at age 62.

His Ohio obituary, reprinted in the Hampshire Gazette on June 6, 1838 noted: “…his piety consisted much in a deep laid principle of active, yet meek and unostentatious beneficence. The grand practical maxim of his life seemed to be to ‘esteem others better than himself’—to lead him to neglect his own interests, and attempt to make all others within his sphere comfortable and happy” (Leyda, Vol. I, p. 49).

After her husband’s death, Lucretia returned east. She died in Enfield, Massachusetts, on May 11, 1840. Both Samuel Fowler and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson were reinterred in the family plot in the Amherst burying ground in the 1840s.

Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson’s most lasting legacy for their granddaughter was the home she lived in, the academy she attended as a child, and the college that was her family’s community for decades.

Three smiling volunteers at the Amherst poetry fest, 2009

Amherst Art Walk with Jan Freeman and Ellen Hart

Date: Thursday, August 6, 2018
Time: 5-8 p.m.
Location:
Homestead Parlor

Join us for our monthly Amherst Art Walk program.

This month, poet and Paris Press Executive Director Jan Freeman and Ellen Hart, co-editor (along with Emily Dickinson International Society President Martha Nell Smith) of the Paris Press publication Open Me Carefully, will be the featured readers starting at 7 pm in the Homestead parlor. Freeman and Hart’s presentation will address women’s voices, past and present, in publication. Paris Press, founded in 1995 as a platform for overlooked women’s literature, published Open Me Carefully in 1998, which features Emily Dickinson’s 40-year correspondence with her sister-in-law and neighbor Susan Huntington Dickinson. Freeman and Hart’s readings will explore the arc of a relationship through these letters and through Freeman’s own contemporary poetry.

Tours of The Evergreens will also be offered for $5 from 5pm to 7 pm.

A Christmas tree in the Evergreens

A Dickensian Christmas with the Dickinsons

Date: December 19, 2015
Time: 11AM, 1PM, 2PM
Cost: $20 adults; $10 museum members; $5 for students grades K-12.

On this special family-friendly visit, revel in holiday traditions as we trace the history of Christmas celebrations in the two Dickinson households. A Museum guide will serve as your host for this unique exploration through the Homestead and The Evergreens. Evocative decorations, seasonal music, and new objects on exhibit will delight your holiday senses, and the words of Emily Dickinson and her family will bring their Christmas experiences to life. Each visit concludes with an intimate reading in The Evergreens from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol by award-winning author and Dickens fan Tony Abbott!Read more

Emily Dickinson's famous coconut cake

Emily Dickinson’s Birthday Celebration and Open House

Date: December 12, 2015
Time: 1-4PM
Location: The Emily Dickinson Museum, 280 Main Street, Amherst MA

The 185th birthday of the poet coincides with the completion of the bedroom restoration at the Emily Dickinson Museum. On December 12 join us from 1PM-4PM to celebrate with an open house at the Museum. All are welcome and no admission fee or reservations required.Read more

The Homestead's cupola and the moon

Amherst Art Walk Poetry Night with Tom Daley

Date: February 8, 2019
Time: 5 – 8 p.m.
Location: Homestead Parlor

The Emily Dickinson Museum hosts poet Tom Daley for our monthly Amherst Art Walk poetry night from 5 to 8 pm. Daley will read from his new collection, House You Cannot Reach-Poems in the Voice of My Mother and Other Poems, beginning at 6:45 pm in the Homestead parlor. $5 “Twilight Highlight” tours of the Homestead will also be offered from 5 to 6:30 pm.

Tom Daley was last at the Museum for the 2014 Amherst Poetry Festival, where he performed his Dickinson-themed play Every Broom and Bridget. A machinist for over two decades, Daley now leads writing workshops in the Boston area and online. Recipient of the Dana Award in Poetry and the Charles and Fanny Fay Wood Prize from the Academy of American Poets, his poetry has appeared in Harvard Review, Massachusetts Review, Fence, Denver Quarterly, Crazyhorse, Barrow Street, Prairie Schooner, Witness, and Poetry Ireland Review.

The Evergeens house in winter with snow on the ground

Poetry Discussion Group 2015-2016

Third Fridays, noon – 2 p.m.
September through May (No meeting in December)

The Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Discussion group meets on the 3rd Friday of each month from September through May (except for December) for lively conversation about Emily Dickinson’s poetry and letters. Featured facilitators each month offer fresh perspectives on Dickinson’s poetry.

Location: The Poetry Discussion Group meets at the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, on the second floor of Frost Library. Attendees are welcome to bring a bag lunch; beverages and a sweet snack are provided.

Fee: The fee for Museum members is $12/session; the fee for non-members is $15/session. Season subscriptions are $75 for Museum members and $100 for non-members. To become a Friend of the Emily Dickinson Museum and enjoy member discounts, click here.

For more information, contact the Program Department: edmprograms@emilydickinsonmuseum.org or call (413) 542-2034.Read more

The Aspect of the Place Poster

The Aspect of the Place: A Halloween Happening at The Evergreens

Wednesday-Sunday, October 28-November 1, 2015
Shows at 6:30PM and 8:00PM

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
-Emily Dickinson

the past hath its phantoms,
More real than solid earth
-Isabella Banks

Get into the spirit of Halloween with this story-telling celebration of ghosts and all things Gothic at The Evergreens. Co-produced by The Emily Dickinson Museum & TheatreTruck, a roving collaborative, The Aspect of the Place takes the audience through The Evergreens, the home of Austin Dickinson’s family and a ‘time capsule’ of prosperous nineteenth-century life in a small New England town. The house is furnished with Dickinson family furniture, household accoutrements, and decor selected and displayed by the family during the nineteenth century. The piece honors the House, the spooky delights of Victorian ghost stories, and the idea that phantoms walk within. ​

TheatreTruck and the Emily Dickinson Museum partnered this summer to produce a sold-out run of The Emily Dickinson Project, attracting audiences from all over the Pioneer Valley, the nation and even the UK! TheatreTruck is dedicated to crafting mobile and site-specific performance sustainably & playfully, and the museum is delighted to partner with them.

Each performance lasts one hour.

Group Tours

Group Tours

Due to space restrictions, parties of 9 or larger who would like to visit together are asked to book a group tour. The Emily Dickinson Museum welcomes groups of 9-25 people to explore the rich world of Emily Dickinson through pre-planned guided experiences. A Museum staff member will work with you to create a memorable visit tailored to your group’s interests, exploring Emily Dickinson’s poetry, place, and lasting legacy.

Group tour reservations are now available for fall 2022 and beyond. For College and K-12 and College groups, please visit our Education section.


Reservations

  • Advance reservation is required for all groups. Reservation requests should be made at least three weeks in advance. 
    A staff member will confirm your group tour reservation by providing an agreement form and invoice.
    Please review our Accessibility page before making your reservation request.
  • Please complete our group tour request form

Questions? Call 413.542.2034 or e-mail edmreservations@emilydickinsonmuseum.org.

For information for visitors with disabilities, please see Accessibility.


“This Was a Poet”

45-minute guided tour of the Homestead (Emily Dickinson’s house)

  • Introduction to Dickinson’s life and revolutionary poetry, with an emphasis on sharing the her own poems and letters
  • Includes the parlors, library, Dickinson’s bedroom, and Dickinson’s mother’s room

Pricing: $13 per person

Non-refundable deposit due 3 weeks in advance: 50%