After Emily

The Untold Tale of the Women Who Introduced Emily Dickinson to the World

 

Mabel Loomis Todd.
Mabel Loomis Todd Papers (MS 496C). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library.

By the fall of 1883, it was the dirty little secret that everyone in the small college town of Amherst, Massachusetts seemed to know. Beautiful, young and ambitious Mabel Loomis Todd was in love with Austin Dickinson, scion of a venerable old New England family. Mabel once wrote in her journal of their relationship, “I have read a great many stories, and I have had a good many love letters, and I have heard a good many lovers talk, but I never heard or read or imagined such a wonderful…or so divine a love as he has for me.  No souls were ever so united, no love story approaches it.”

Austin Dickinson
Austin Dickinson

But Mabel and Austin were married – to other people.  Austin, who was almost three decades older than Mabel, was also the brother of the reclusive and brilliant Emily Dickinson. Mabel came to know Emily through her relationship with Austin. And she came to know Emily’s unique poetry. After Emily died it was Mabel who first  brought Emily’s poetry to print, Mabel who conceived an original plan to market the unusual verse and Mabel who launched the image of the secluded poet garbed in white we still know today.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

What we don’t know is the story of the ways in which Mabel’s controversial work editing and promoting Emily’s poetry figured into a complicated web of relationships between members of the Dickinson family and the Todds that lasted for generations.

After Emily is a mother/daughter biography of Mabel and her only child, Millicent Todd Bingham. This book tells the story of Mabel’s thirteen year-long love affair with Austin and how this relationship led her to the Emily Dickinson work that defined her career and her life.  It will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in October, 2018.

 

Their relationship also complicated Mabel’s already complex relationship with Millicent, especially when, years after Austin had died, Mabel turned to Millicent and asked her for help in bringing out a new edition of Emily’s poetry and letters to mark the centenary of her birth. The multifaceted passions in both Mabel and Millicent’s lives ultimately resulted in controversies over the editing and ownership of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, in her papers being split up, and in battles over the right to define the so-called “Belle of Amherst.” This is a story that has never before been fully told.

Advance Reviews of After Emily:

“Tufts University professor Dobrow chronicles the lives of two of Emily Dickinson’s earliest champions and editors, the mother-daughter team of Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham, shining a light on how they shaped “the contours of [Dickinson’s] poetry as we know it today.” Mabel, an author, was also the longtime lover of Dickinson’s brother, Austin, bringing her into conflict with Austin’s wife, Sue, and Emily’s sister, Lavinia. These feuds frequently stalled publication of Dickinson’s work and, as Mabel neared the end of her life, she implored Millicent to continue working on the poet’s as-yet unpublished output. Dobrow authoritatively traces the torturous editorial and publication process that first brought Dickinson’s work to public attention, and sensitively explores her subjects’ interior lives…Impeccably researched using more than 700 boxes of the Todds’ personal documents, Dobrow’s narrative gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of two tireless advocates for Dickinson’s work, demonstrating how poet and editors alike were ‘all women pushing up against the boundaries of their times.'”
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“To write this remarkable biography, Dobrow has turned the Todd-Bingham archives at Yale’s Sterling Library inside out. By doing so, she has succeeded in illuminating more fully than ever before the intricate net of desires, both conscious and unconscious, that led Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham to undertake the editing of Emily Dickinson’s writings that secured their place in literary history while irreversibly altering the trajectory of their own lives. The force of Dobrow’s portrait of Todd, the better known and more mythologized (sometimes demonized) of her two subjects, lies in its embrace of the conflicting aspects of Todd without denying any of them; the power of her depiction of Bingham issues from the probing analysis of Bingham’s profoundly conflicted feelings about her brilliant, transgressing parents and the impact of those sentiments on her connection to Dickinson. Dobrow’s research greatly enlarges our sense of both women’s humanness; in her rendering of Millicent Todd Bingham, last in a long line of Wilder women, biography fuses with American tragedy. After Emily is also a book for and of our time: a meditation on the nature of agency and the role of affect in women’s lives and writing; a story of the archives we create during, and sometimes even in lieu of, our lives; of the archives that represent us after our deaths; and of the abyss at the heart of all archives. Looking back from the far horizon of Dobrow’s meticulously researched and absorbing biography, we should not be surprised that while Todd and Bingham come ever more sharply into focus, Dickinson herself flickers in and out of the light, at last receding to an unfathomable distance.”

– Marta Werner, Professor of English, D’Youville College, Author of The Gorgeous Nothings:  Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems and  Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson’s Fragments and Related Texts, 1870-1886

Todd Family Through the Years Slideshow

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