Etching of Concord Massachusetts in the 1840s

Frances (1847-1919) and Louisa (1842-1896) 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: Frances on April 14, 1919, and Louisa 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. http://www.emilydickinson.org/family/ned/table_of_contents.html.

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. http://www.emilydickinson.org/susan/table_of_contents.html. 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.

Austin Dickinson as a young man

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.

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 6, 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.