Emily Dickinson's Mother, Emily Norcross

How did the prolific author's mother influence her writing talent?

Emily Dickinson as a child with siblings
Emily Dickinson (left) as a child with her siblings, Lavinia and Austin.  Getty Images/​Hulton Archive

Emily Dickinson is one of the most mysterious writers in literary history. Although she was a literary genius, only eight of her poems were published in her life, and she lived a secluded existence. But, this quiet life at home can be compared to the isolated life her mother lived.

About Emily's Mother: Emily Norcross

Emily Norcross was born on July 3, 1804, and she married Edward Dickinson on May 6, 1828. The couple's first child, William Austin Dickinson, was born just 11 months later. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, and her sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (Vinnie) was born several years later on February 28, 1833.

From what we know of Emily Norcross, she seldom left home, only making brief visits to relatives. Later, Dickinson would rarely leave home, spending most of her days in the same house. She isolated herself more and more as she grew older, and she seemed to become more selective in whom she saw from her circle of family and friends.

Of course, one marked difference between Dickinson and her mother is that she never married. There has been a great deal of speculation about why Emily Dickinson never married. In one of her poems, she writes, "I'm wife; I've finished that... " and "She rose to his requirement... / To take the honorable work / Of woman and of wife." Perhaps she had a long-lost lover. Perhaps, she chose to live a different sort of life, without leaving home and without marrying.

Whether it was a choice, or simply a matter of circumstance, her dreams came to fruition in her work. She could imagine herself in and out of love and marriage. And, she was always free to spend her flood of words, with passionate intensity. For whatever reason, Dickinson did not marry. But even her relationship with her mother was troubled.

The Strain of Having an Unsupportive Mother

Dickinson once wrote to her mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "My Mother does not care for thought-—," which was foreign to the way Dickinson lived. Later she wrote to Higginson: "Could you tell me what home is. I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled."

Dickinson's relationship with her mother may have been strained, especially during her earliest years. She could not look to her mother for support in her literary efforts, but none of the members of her family or friends saw her as a literary genius. Her father saw Austin as the genius and never looked beyond. Higginson, while supportive, described her as "partially cracked."

She had friends, but none of them really understood the true extent of her genius. They found her witty, and they enjoyed corresponding with her through letters. In many ways, though, she was completely alone. On June 15, 1875, Emily Norcross Dickinson suffered a paralytic stroke and suffered from a long period of illness thereafter. This period of time may have had more influence on her seclusion from society than any other, but it was also a way for the mother and daughter to become closer than ever before.

For Dickinson, it was also just another small step away into her upper room--into her writing. Vinnie said that one of the "daughters must be constantly at home." She explains her sister's seclusion by saying that "Emily chose this part." Then, Vinnie said that Emily, "finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it..."

A Caretaker Till the End

Dickinson cared for her mother for the final seven years of her life, until her mother died on November 14, 1882. In a letter to Mrs. J.C. Holland, she wrote: "The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown. It never occurred to us that she had not Limbs, she had Wings--and she soared from us unexpectedly as a summoned Bird--"

Dickinson could not understand what it meant: the death of her mother. She had experienced so much death in her life, not only with the deaths of friends and acquaintances, but the death of her father, and now her mother. She had wrestled with the idea of death; she had feared it, and she wrote many poems about it. In "'Tis so appalling," she wrote, "Looking at death is dying." So, her mother's final end was hard for her, especially after such a long illness.

Dickinson wrote to Maria Whitney: "All is faint indeed without our vanished mother, who achieved in sweetness what she lost in strength, though grief of wonder at her fate made the winter short, and each night I reach finds my lungs more breathless, seeking what it means." Emily's mother might not have been the genius that her daughter was, but she influenced Dickinson's life in ways she probably didn't even realize. In total, Dickinson wrote 1,775 poems in her life. Would Emily have written so many, or would she have written any at all, if she had not lived that solitary existence at home? She lived for so many years alone--in the room of her own.


Emily Dickinson Biography

Emily Dickinson Poems

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Lombardi, Esther. "Emily Dickinson's Mother, Emily Norcross." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/emily-dickinsons-mother-735144. Lombardi, Esther. (2021, February 16). Emily Dickinson's Mother, Emily Norcross. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-dickinsons-mother-735144 Lombardi, Esther. "Emily Dickinson's Mother, Emily Norcross." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-dickinsons-mother-735144 (accessed March 30, 2023).