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The matrilineage of Emily Dickinson

Martha Ackmann, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Although much information is known about how Emily Dickinson's paternal family affected her life and poetry, very little is understood concerning the influences of her matrilineal relatives--the Norcrosses. In fact, most of what we do know about the Norcrossses has been blurred by scholarly misinterpretation, maligned by sexist derision, and obscured by a paucity of biographical detail. Yet, by her own profession, Dickinson's Aunt Lavinia Norcross and Cousins Louisa and Frances were among the most significant figures in her life. Along with her Norcross grandparents, Cousin Emily, and Uncle Joel, these formidable individuals helped create a familial environment in which Dickinson felt encouraged to seek self-expression, to act independently, and--above all--to think. This biographical study examines the lives of these central individuals in Dickinson's life in order to consider the ways in which the Norcross family legacy nurtured the poet. By so doing, the research provides a broader cultural context for identifying the social forces which helped shape the world in which Dickinson lived.^ Chapter I focuses on the influence of the poet's grandparents, Joel and Betsey Fay Norcross, and their important role in the founding of Monson Academy and support of women's education. Chapter II examines the life of Cousin Emily Lavinia Norcross, specifically her year with Dickinson at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and the model she later provided as an independent woman devoted to a profession. Chapter III considers the effect of gregarious Joel Warren Norcross. Dickinson's pivotal 1850 letter to him, in many ways, marks the beginning of her adult writing career. Chapter IV studies the lives of Aunt Lavinia and Uncle Loring Norcross, with close attention to the prototypic model of sisterhood Aunt Lavinia and the poet's mother represented. Chapter V investigates the early influence of Loo and Fanny Norcross, especially their significant months with Dickinson in Cambridgeport where she was treated for a mysterious eye ailment. Lastly, Chapter VI discusses the Norcross cousins' involvement in the heady literary life of Concord, Massachusetts and offers a new theory as to the possible fate of Dickinson's long correspondence to them. ^

Subject Area

Biographies|American literature

Recommended Citation

Ackmann, Martha, "The matrilineage of Emily Dickinson" (1988). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI8813197.