All posts by Julie Dobrow

“Brother Pegasus”: The Enigma of Austin Dickinson

4/16/19

Today is Austin Dickinson’s birthday. For years after his death, Mabel would mark this day with a combination of reverence and sadness. I’d like to mark this day by spending a little time pondering this enigma of a man who was so central to the story of After Emily, and yet about whom there are still so many unanswered questions.

We know that Austin was widely heralded as having a keen intelligence and as being industrious and dedicated. Though a graduate of both Amherst College and Harvard Law School, he “…never attained prominence as a practitioner before the courts,” noted his obituary in the Springfield Republican. “In fact he avoided the trial of cases, but he was a singularly valuable, clear-headed and conscientious, and his advice and assistance were much sought in the community….” As Richard Sewall pointed out, Austin paid $500 to a man to take his place in the army during the Civil War. And though you’d think that Austin’s prominence in Amherst through his family name and his many acts of civic engagement would have made him a logical candidate for political office, he “…never held a political office, and no town office of importance, except that of moderator, which for nearly 20 years he had held almost continuously.”

But was Austin’s reluctance to practice law outside of his father’s firm and his reticence to run for political office a direct function of the conflicted relationship he seemed to have with his father? Austin acceded to Edward’s requests (demands?) that he stay in Amherst, that he join the family law firm, that he move into the house built for him next door to his family’s home, but he clearly didn’t follow in his father’s legal or political footsteps. Was Austin’s avoidance of military duty an act of bravery or a deed of civil disobedience he didn’t dare to state publicly? Though it’s not clear that 19th century politics was any more devoid of scandal than politics today, was Austin Dickinson’s life so riddled with “issues” that it would have precluded a successful political run – or would he have been as unscathed by it all as he seemed to be in his personal life?

Austin’s college portrait

Austin was, in so many ways, “the most influential citizen of Amherst,” as his obituary noted. Polly Longsworth has catalogued his many civic bequests to the town, including his work with banks, with helping to bring gas and electricity to Amherst, his role in the First Church and his efforts to create Wildwood Cemetery. “No man in Amherst has done more to beautify the town,” stated the writer of his obituary; indeed, as president of the village improvement association, Austin helped to bring Frederick Law Olmsted to Amherst to design the town common, a place which remains a vibrant part of the town to this day. Austin served as treasurer of Amherst College for many years and was so involved in helping to improve its buildings, grounds and financial affairs that these activities merited an entire paragraph in almost any published description of him. “His love for Amherst was so strong he did not care to spend a vacation elsewhere and he always expressed the satisfaction he had on returning to the town from a trip of even a few days duration,” stated the writer of his obituary (no doubt with at least a prompt from Austin’s surviving family members, who also, no doubt, were at very least conflicted in their relationships with him following all the years of the Mab-stin pairing).

But was Austin’s unwillingness to leave Amherst so very different from his sister’s eventual unwillingness to leave the confines of her family home? While there’s no doubt his dedication to his town and to his college were true and sincere, were they actually also another indication of his enormous reluctance to leave? And was this desire to stay put also suggestive of his averseness to change, a sign Mabel should have read as a not-so-subtle warning that Austin would never do what he would have needed to do for the two of them to be together as they so often wrote they needed to be?

We know that Austin and Emily shared a special bond. Quite apart from Mabel’s reporting of this relationship (which might well have been tinted by the power of her relationship with Austin and her own self-interested interpretation of the Dickinson filial bond) we have the record of Austin and Emily’s correspondence, letters that document their clever repartee, their shared fascination with the natural world and their somewhat skeptical interpretations of their parents.

But what was the nature of Emily’s relationship with Susan Huntington Gilbert and what happened when she became the object of Austin’s desire? In what ways might have Austin’s relationship with Emily changed then? And when Austin turned his ardor to Mabel, how did the dynamic shift between Emily and Austin?

Finally, we’ve heard from both Mabel and from Emily that despite Austin’s austere exterior and intense practicality,  he was, in fact, a thoughtful, romantic – and even poetic soul. In her introduction to the second edition of Emily Dickinson’s letters Mabel wrote that Austin “was a poet too, only the poetry of his temperament did not flower in verse or rhyme, but in an intense and cultivated knowledge of nature, in a passionate joy in the landscapes seen from Amherst hill- tops.” After Austin sent some actual verse he’d composed in 1853 to his sister, Emily wrote him, “Austin is a Poet, Austin writes a psalm. Out of the way, Pegasus, Olympus enough ‘to him,’ and just say to those ‘nine muses’ that we have done with them! Raised a living muse, ourselves, worth the whole nine of them.”

But was Brother Pegasus’ poetic soul confined by the roles he felt forced to play in life? As Sewall suggested, the one publication Austin was known to have penned – an address at the 150th anniversary of the First Church in 1889, “was strictly local, written in the line of duty.” Did the muffled poet find voice in his soaring odes of love to Mabel and did that intensify their relationship? What else might have Austin Dickinson have written if he had felt that he could spend his life composing verse instead of financial documents?

So happy birthday, Austin. While so many questions remain about your life, there’s no doubt that your role was central as we ponder answers to the stories of all things Dickinson.

Austin’s commemorative boulder in Wildwood Cemetery

More After Emily FAQs

As I continue to do book events in large venues, public libraries, colleges and universities and small independent bookstores, I continue to meet people who have read After Emily. And they come to these events with some wonderfully thoughtful questions. In this week’s post, let me recount a few more of the questions I’ve received and the answers I’ve given.

Question: How was it that Mabel ended up getting to edit Emily’s poetry?

Answer:   After Emily’s death, Lavinia Dickinson discovered this enormous cache of poetry no one really knew existed. Convinced of her sister’s genius, and likely not feeling constrained by the promise she’d made Emily to destroy her correspondence, Vinnie was determined to share these poems with the world. She reached out first to Susan Dickinson, with whom Emily had shared many poems during her lifetime. But Vinnie was impatient and when Sue didn’t move quickly enough, she also contacted Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, another poetic confidante of Emily’s. But Higginson was not willing to put in the time necessary to decipher and decode Emily’s writing.

At that point, Vinnie turned to Mabel. She knew Mabel was young, energetic and ambitious. She likely believed that because of Mabel’s great love for Austin, she would do anything to further her connection to him. And so it was that Mabel ended up the curator of Emily’s poetry and letters.

Cover of the first edition of Poems by Emily Dickinson, 1890

Question: How long did it take you to do this book?

Answer: I began the research in 2011 and started writing in 2013.

***

Question: Why did Millicent agree to marry Walter Van Dyke Bingham if she didn’t love him?

Answer: Good question! At age 40 and battered down by a series of fairly disastrous relationships, Millicent probably felt that Walter was her last chance for some stability. And it was a time when she needed it: she was completing her Ph.D. but still uncertain of her career directions, her parents were each starting to show more prominent signs of the medical issues that would plague them, and given the wild ride she’d just been on in her tumultuous relationship with Joe Thomas, she was ready for something and someone who would be safe and steady. That someone was Walter. Millicent had met him years earlier and he tried to court her then. She wasn’t interested. He finally showed up at the right place and the right time in Millicent’s life.

Millicent, Walter and Mabel in Florida

Question:  Are you willing to meet with book groups?

Answer:  Absolutely! Send me an email and we’ll set it up!

***

Question: Are the Emily Dickinson poems today the ones with Mabel’s editing?

Answer: For the most part, no. The more contemporary editors of Emily’s poetry have tried to restore it to the form in which she wrote it. This has meant taking out instances where Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson substituted words that scanned better but might not have been among the word options Emily left behind, utilizing Emily’s methods of capitalization and punctuation, and removing titles. Today the poetry is either known by the first line, or by one of two different numbering systems developed by Ralph Franklin or by Thomas Johnson. You can see the original manuscripts on the Harvard Online Emily Dickinson Archive.  Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections is digitizing all of their holdings on Emily Dickinson, including materials they have from Mabel and Millicent regarding their versions of the poems and letters.

***

Question: Who would you want to see play Mabel in a movie version of your book?

Answer: Reese Witherspoon. She’s a talented actress, an avid reader and someone who has been a big proponent of finding stories about complicated women.

David Peck Todd, on his birthday

3/19/19

David Peck Todd was a fascinating, complicated and highly conflicted person. He was a brilliant scientist, an inveterate tinkerer and a gifted organist who might have been a professional musician. But David’s sights were invariably drawn to the stars and planets, above. His mind seemed to be pulled in many directions. And it was this amazing, multi-dimensional mind that deteriorated, and ultimately undid his potential and his life.

When doing the research for After Emily, I was constantly confronted by what Mabel and Millicent said of David. The paper trails they left behind painted a confused and confusing portrait of him.

Mabel’s first impressions of him were breathless. She was bowled over by his intelligence, charmed by his clever repartee, overcome by the passion he kindled in her. But even early on in their relationship, she recorded things that should have been clues: he admitted to multiple sexual exploits, to petty thefts, to moods that shifted violently. Of course Mabel, at just 21, would not have known to recognize possible symptoms of mental illness. She did know that these things about David were unsettling. But clearly not unsettling enough to dissuade her from the relationship.

Throughout their long marriage, Mabel always supported David’s work. She long refrained from writing anything negative about her “dear David,” the man who clearly also championed not only Mabel’s professional ambitions, but also enabled her relationship with Austin Dickinson. However, David’s many sexual liaisons were not easy on Mabel, especially not the ones with women whom she considered to be of a different class. As the manifestations of David’s mental illness became more profound and less deniable, Mabel began to distance herself from him.

Millicent’s relationship with her father was similarly conflicted. She respected him greatly. She thought that he was brilliant, highly misunderstood and vastly under-appreciated. But as Millicent got older she began to understand more about the ways in which her father was a very flawed – and very mentally ill – person. Millicent’s journals and reminiscences are filled with her own angst as she tried to reconcile her feelings about David. Unquestionably, the decision to institutionalize him in 1922 was something Millicent was never able to fully rationalize, despite all the evidence that David needed more care than either she or Mabel could provide.

Millicent attempted on several occasions to find someone who could write the story of her father’s life, after his death in 1939. But the attempt to memorialize her father was difficult. Millicent was all too conscious of the many ways in which her father had been broken. “He did important work as a young man,” she wrote, “and that has been overlooked because of the extravagances of his later years. A matter-of-fact account of his achievements is needed also as a back-drop for the tragedy which not only broke the back of his career, piled on top of a succession of cloudy eclipses, it broke his heart.”

The first person first Millicent contracted with to write the story of David’s life was Helen Wright, an astronomer, historian and biographer of Maria Mitchell (the first American female astronomer). This effort did not pan out.

Millicent then hired Marguerite Munson, an editor at Harpers. When Millicent realized that Munson could not understand or appreciate her father’s scientific contributions, she arranged for Wright to assist. Although Millicent paid several thousand dollars to each woman and provided much documentation, the biography was never published – assessments from prospective publishers found the manuscript to be lacking and Millicent, herself, pulled the plug on the project once she read several chapters.

Millicent must have had some doubts about whether this project was ever going to see the light of day even as Munson was working on it, because at the same time she was also seeking the assistance of Amherst College presidents Charles Cole and Calvin Plimpton to help her in finding an appropriate biographer for David. In 1962 President Plimpton informed Millicent that the faculty member whom he’d thought might write the story of David’s life wasn’t interested in the project, but that he was not giving up hope of finding someone else. He had his eye on a new young professor of history, Hugh Hawkins, and thought that he might be just the man for the job. But in May of 1962 Plimpton wrote Millicent, “I apologize for delaying answering you about Hugh Hawkins. I think this is something better done face to face than in the mail.” But whatever reservations Plimpton conveyed to Millicent, she was undaunted: her periodic queries about whether Professor Hawkins would write David’s biography went on for years. Finally, in the winter of 1968, Plimpton wrote Millicent, “I do not believe Professor Hawkins is available at this time for such a mission. He is deeply involved in a number of other scholarly pursuits. Hence, I don’t think, at this moment he can be regarded as an active contender for the honor.” In fact, in 2015 correspondence with me, Professor Hawkins indicated that the project had been of so little interest to him that he didn’t even recall having been asked, though he did remember hearing stories about some of David’s bizarre behavior at Amherst in years’ past which intrigued him.

Today is David’s birthday. On this day in addition to paying tribute to him, I want people who have become as intrigued by David Peck Todd as I have know that I, along with a number of colleagues whose background and training represent a variety of fields, are working on a proposal for a book that would explore numerous aspects of his life.

David’s 1897 book, A New Astronomy, perhaps best exemplified his remarkable blend of a scientific perspective tempered by a poetic soul. In the introduction to this book he wrote:

“This noble science is to man a possession both old and ancestral, passing with resistless progress from simple shepherds of the Orient watching their flocks by night, to the rulers of ancient empires and the giants of modern thought; until to-day the civilized world is dotted with observatories equipped with a great variety of instruments for weighing and measuring and studying the celestial bodies, each of these observatories vying with the others in pure enthusiasm for new knowledge of the infinite spaces around us.”

On the road again!

I’m hearing Willie Nelson’s refrain in my head. March 3rd marked my own return to the book tour road, with a reading at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, MA. In the next few months I have about two dozen book events scheduled. Some of the events are in little indie bookstores, others in libraries, others in a variety of larger venues.

I’m also going to be the guest of a number of book clubs that are reading After Emily. I’m thrilled to join their discussions; no one means more to a writer than an engaged reader, and to meet with a group of engaged readers is a writer’s dream come true!

There also seems something somehow appropriate about my going out on the lecture circuit to talk about Mabel. A large part of Mabel’s professional career was documented and publicized by the many lectures she gave. At the height of her career, Mabel was giving more than 60 talks a year in venues across the country. She spoke on an astonishing number of topics.

When I went through a folder of her lecture notes at Yale I was amazed to see outlines for talks about not only Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, but also about: various topics on astronomy, “Bermuda, The Summer Islands,” “Carthage, Then and Now,” “Club Life for Women,” “The Cruise of the Coronet,” “Ellis Island, “Famous Women,” “Granada and the Alhambra,” “The House Beautiful,” “Japanese Art,” “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” “Quakers in America,” “Witchcraft in New England” and many, many others.

Mabel kept a little notebook in which she recorded when she spoke, where she spoke and what fee or other compensation she received for her talks. Her talks were given to women’s clubs, literary organizations, university clubs and to increasingly large general audiences. Mabel was a natural and dynamic public speaker, and she knew it. After the first public talk she ever gave, in May 1890, she recorded in her journal in a characteristically self-congratulatory way, “My talk in Boston upon Fuji was very enthusiastically received. It was really the first elaborate one I ever gave, but I knew I could do it more than well. When I am to play anywhere, even without notes, my hand trembles and my heat beats tumultuously for a long time before and even when I am to sing, which is greatly easier, my heart is always quickened, often uncomfortably so. But before that Boston talk I was as quiet and happy as if some one else was to have done it. I had thought out quietly what I wished to say, but I found that dozens of bright things came to me spontaneously which I had not intended and the flow of words and pictures was smooth and inspired. My mother, who is a most severe critic, said it was the best thing she ever listened to, and she was thoroughly enthused by it.”

As she became an even more experienced public speaker, Mabel recorded that she could easily “talk to an audience and make them desperately enthusiastic, rippling with laughter one minute and their eyes filled with tears the next.” On her talk at the Sixth Biennial of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles in May 1902, she reported, “I captured them at about the third sentence. How much I wish I know what I possess that does this! But the quality which takes, and keeps, an audience in the hollow of one’s hand is…what comes to be when I stand before a waiting audience.” It was certainly not only her love of being the epicenter of attention and of performing, but doing something she felt she did quite well and promoting the poetry that became such a focal point of her professional life, that made Mabel an enthusiastic and successful public speaker. The talks she gave on Emily’s life and poetry began to fill the halls and launched Mabel’s career as a public speaker and a rare female public intellectual. She relished both of these roles.

But Mabel wasn’t the only one who felt that she was a gifted public speaker. Newspapers sang her praises. She accumulated many letters from people who’d attended her lectures and found themselves informed, amused and moved by them.

I am quite certain that I could ever approach Mabel’s gift for lecturing (one newspaper clipping referred to her as “unquestionably, the dean of American woman lecturers”). But I do try to conjure my inner Mabel with every book talk and reading I do. If I can channel even a fraction of Mabel in my talks I’d be more than satisfied!

Book reading at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore

Mooning

2/19/19

This morning I woke up to an extraordinary full moon setting over the pond in the back of my house. Slightly orange, very bright, it slowly dipped down across the horizon. According to Space.com, this was a “Super Snow Moon,” one of a trio of “supermoons” for 2019 (which appear about 10% larger than most full moons due to the moon’s position relatively closer to the Earth. The February 19 supermoon is the biggest one of the year.

Seeing any astronomical sight always makes me think of the Todds. David’s eclipse chasing focused more on solar eclipses than on lunar ones, but he certainly spent a lot of time thinking about and making calculations on the moon’s positioning. The Todd crater, which is a moon or a natural satellite of Mars, is named for him.

Mabel’s own writing about the moon trended towards the poetic, even when discussing astronomical phenomena. For instance, while her1894 book Total Eclipses of the Sun is probably the most closely hewed to scientific description, Mabel still utilized figurative language to explain scientific issues. Her discussion of the difficulties for astronomers along the route of an eclipse to communicate with one another in those days is a beautiful example:

Evidently the odds are largely in favor of the electric messenger, as the actual speed is many thousand-fold greater than the lunar velocity. But while the Moon moves steadily onward, telegraphic despatches [sic] are often subject to sundry and irregular detentions; so there may well be doubt as to which may outstrip the other, when both are matched together on the airy highway of space.” (p. 164)

Her 1912 book, Tripoli the Mysterious, abandoned attempts to be “scientific” and simply waxed poetic in her descriptions. She wrote, “The faithful moon had crept on and on toward the great moment when she should glide in between us and the sun, and with her small bulk over the only screen to his brilliancy which has ever been effective in allowing a sight of the corona to mortal eyes” (p. 123).

Not surprisingly, the moon also played more than a bit part in Mabel’s private writings, many of which focused on discussions of times  spent with Austin. There are plenty of descriptions of moonlit sleigh rides, assignations that happened during full moons noted by her usual euphemism of “a call”: “A call about eight. Full moon! Oh! Dear!” or “Full moon, royal evening. A call, quietly” There was this lovely passage from a February 1891 diary entry: “Sat in the moonlight, with the whole world sheathed in a glittering crust of ice on the snow, until the Pelham hills seemed but from silver. Wonderful sights.” Even after Austin died, Mabel continued to equate the romance of seeing the moon and her romance with Austin. In 1905 on the anniversary of his death she wrote from North Africa, “The moonlight was incredibly splendid. And it is the anniversary, the tenth.”

Of course Emily Dickinson, too, wrote about the moon in a number of her poems. Perhaps best known of these is “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold,” first published in the third volume of poems in 1896 (Franklin #735, Johnson #737). But I really love “The Moon upon her fluent Route” (Franklin #1574, Johnson #1528). The first couple of lines speak to both the science and the romance of the moon:

The Moon upon her fluent Route

Defiant of a Road

So on this day of the “Super Snow Moon,” I think of the ways in which both Mabel and Emily captured it so well.

And here’s how my son, Jonathan, captured it, rising above Johnson Chapel at Amherst College:

Photo by Jonathan Vale

Footstepping and “Footprinting”

2/13/19

This past weekend I was incredibly honored to be the 2019 recipient of the Amherst Historical Society’s “Conch Shell Award.” This award, which takes its name from the 18th century practice of using “ye auld kunk” to summon Amherst residents to town meeting and to worship (strange that a town so far from the sea would have used a conch shell…) is given annually for contributions to the Town of Amherst and its history.

Because Mabel was one of the founders of the Amherst Historical Society back in 1899, receiving an award from this organization is especially meaningful to me. As I said in my remarks, Amherst has become a place that has all kinds of personal and professional importance to me.

Part of this is the connection that I, as a biographer, have come to feel for this place. Richard Holmes, the well-known British biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, among other subjects, has coined the term “footstepping” – the effort to go where your subjects have been and do what they have done. To walk where my subjects had walked; to go into buildings that were once their homes and imagine the scenes that happened there, long ago; to see the seasons in Amherst as they might have – at least before the ravages of climate change alter these seasons any more significantly; – to know the images of 19th century Amherst from Lovell photos and close my eyes and see these places before there was a Jones Library or an Amherst Books, has given me an amazing, physical, visceral connection to the world of the Dickinsons and the Todds – and to Amherst, itself.

And of course, the first piece of writing for which Mabel was paid was the story she titled “Footprints.” In 1883 this story, one that she’d worked on and revised, repeatedly, was published in the New York Independent. She received $25 for it. The idea for this story emanated from a sleigh ride and walk she had taken with Austin.  Several years after the story was published, Mabel recalled in her journal that she’d written it “… in one of those soft, dreary snowfalls and I can remember well the delicious joy of creating, as I wrote, and my joy and belief to be unequalled for me by anything else in the world.” The idea of two lovers’ footprints in the snow joining them in nature and in love inspired her. to write a story in which the protagonist recognizes the love of his life by the footprints she leaves on a beach. The story concludes with a description of the two lovers’ footprints in the sand, side by side, together.

Somehow I think that Mabel’s recognition of “footprinting” as a resonant symbol, and my need to do some “footstepping” in Amherst to know and understand her (and Millicent, and Emily) are both symbols of the journey we go on as writers. It’s important for us to write authentically, for readers to feel that characters are real, that scenes are genuine. For writers of fiction, this means being able to know your characters so well you that an image of the set of footprints left in the sand can tell a meaningful story; for writers of non-fiction, it means knowing your subjects well by doing your best to tread where they have trodden so you can describe places well and get inside the heads of those about whom you are writing. Footsteps leave a trail of footprints; writers leave a trail of words.

I’m grateful to the Amherst Historical Society and Museum for believing that the footstepping I’ve done in Amherst has been in some way significant.

Photo by Chloe Simpson on Unsplash

By the way, I’ll be doing more footstepping in Amherst later this spring:  on June 1, I’ll be leading another “Mabel Loomis Todd of Amherst.” You’ll soon be able to sign up for it on the Amherst Historical Society and Museum’s website.

Baby names

February 5, 2019

On this, the 139th anniversary of Millicent’s birth, I find myself thinking about what I imagine she would be thinking about: how will I be remembered? This was something that Millicent thought about quite a bit during her own lifetime. With an intense sense of family lineage, Millicent was forever thinking about her forebears and her connections to them. She reflected throughout her life about how she felt this, how her Puritan ancestors had influenced and guided her every thought and action.

Eben Jenks Loomis and Molly Alden Wilder Looms
Grandma Wilder

Millicent also had a keen sense of history, of the passage of time. Perhaps because she was a child raised primarily by her grandparents and even by her great-grandmother, her sensibilities belonged to prior generations. She was exceedingly loyal and deferential to those who taught and mentored her. She wrote books in tribute to her grandfather, Eben Jenks Loomis, and to Mrs. Mary E. Stearns, one of her most influential teachers. “From babyhood I always collected old people – [they were] more my contemporaries” Millicent wrote in the notes for her autobiography, a task she never completed.

Ensconced – or perhaps even trapped – was she in the past. Millicent was keenly aware of this. Reflecting on her life towards the end of it, in 1964 she mused, “it is curious how my life has been dedicated to the cause of the dead – Mrs. Stearns, Grandpa…my mother, even a brief memoir of Walter. But chiefly to carrying out the wishes of mother, to set the record straight about Emily Dickinson…Tributes to the dead, in deference to the truth. Should not the final one be to myself – who have so short a time to wait? It would be in line with my life-order.”

Millicent, at about age 10

One of the most poignant things about Millicent was her acute awareness of the fact that she was the end of the line of Wilder women. This knowledge haunted her. The ghosts of her ancestors were so much more present than any sense that she would be able to pass their sensibilities along to a next generation. Though in her thirties Millicent was convinced that “…my highest usefulness is to be the mother of children,” and at the end of her seventies, wrote,“…although some tangible accomplishments of my nearly 80 years may have helped others, I have failed in the only way by which I could have made a unique contribution, namely, by a child of my own. My storehouse of knowledge will disappear, my skills, also. But what is there that will remain?” By age 81 looking back on her life she twisted the thought: “Did I ever consider [having a child] my duty to my family? The line ends in me. Did I ever yearn for a child of my own? I cannot remember that I ever did.” But she had, most clearly. Memory might fade, might sometimes play tricks on us. In Millicent’s case, the clarity of her thought up until the time of her death suggests that she needed to try to find solace by deferring and deflecting, because she probably did remember. And if she didn’t, she certainly had an enormous amount of documentary material to jog her memory.

I don’t know if Millicent would find any small comfort in knowing that at least in surface ways, what goes around, comes around. In a recent quest for trivia, I found myself looking at the most popular baby names for 2018 and 2019 “Emily,” clocking in at #12, wasn’t really surprising. “Emily” has been on these lists for many years in my recent memory. But lo and behold, there was “Mabel,” a “new entrant” on the Nameberry top 100 list! And even more surprising, “Millie” and “Millicent” both made a couple of lists of trending names!

But in all seriousness, I do think that the thing that actually would make Millicent feel better about “how will I be remembered?” is the correspondence I have had from many people who have read my book. “Thank you for telling Millicent’s story,” wrote one woman. “She is truly the unsung heroine of the Emily Dickinson saga.” “Millicent deserves our deepest thanks for keeping the legacy on track,” said another man. And another reader suggested, “Millicent Todd Bingham should rightfully emerge from the footnotes.”

So happy birthday, Millicent. It’s one of my dearest hopes that the work I’ve done has in some small way helped to ensure that you’re being remembered in ways that I think would have meaningful to you.

Grace notes

Mabel always took her music seriously. As I’ve written in After Emily, not only was Mabel a gifted pianist and singer, she was also someone who took on the study of music as part of her life’s work. She practiced more religiously than she attended church, often noting in her personal writings how many hours a day she spent working on new music, keeping lists of pieces she felt she’d mastered. In 1890, the same year as the first edition of Emily’s Poems was published, Mabel took singing lessons from the famed Italian opera singer, Augusto Rotoli.

Augusto Rotoli

Even as a child, Mabel seemed to be intellectually fascinated by the structure of music. Her early diaries note her discoveries of different scale types, and her ability, even without formal instruction, to transpose. Her two years at the prestigious New England Conservatory as a young woman included classes on music theory. And as an adult she continued her intellectual pursuit of music through taking a correspondence course in harmony in 1883.

Fascinated by music of all types, her travels around the world also offered Mabel the opportunity to investigate non-Western forms of harmony, different tonalities and new kinds of instruments. Her diaries contain examples of ways in which she attempted to capture her exposure to these unfamiliar forms of music: snatches of tunes she tried to capture on a staff, sketches of unusual-looking stringed instruments, even an exotic birdsong from a jungle in Asia whose music she tried to write out in notes.

 

Mabel was also an avid consumer of music. She went to a lot of concerts and recitals, and, of course, retained programs from seemingly all of them. She wrote about performances in her diaries and journals.

I, too, am someone who has had a lifelong love of music. Like Mabel, I studied music as a performer and was fascinated by its structure, taking courses in theory and harmony. I, too, have loved to hear the music of different cultures. I went to college thinking I was going to major in music but ended up with a double major in anthropology and sociology (go figure!)  And while my own avocation of music has most recently been relegated to listening to it (I do hope to get back to playing chamber music, someday), I’ve never lost that passion. So I feel that one of the things I most understand about Mabel Loomis Todd is how she felt about music, throughout her life.

One of the best examples of this came from a journal entry she wrote in 1879. She and David had attended a concert in Washington D.C. She recorded that of the program, the piece that affected her

“most powerfully was a violincello solo by R. Volkmann op. 69 no. 3…I knew the other harmonies would find it, through all this longing and yearning for its peace. Lo, I waited, and as the tears fell fast and my heart throbbed with longing, I saw myself – blindly but with passionate truth seeking for peace and right and surety through the one struggle of my life. All winter I had tried for it; sometimes it had seemed within my grasp, but it always eluded me, and I felt my soul in sorry, trembling chords which tried so hard to find this one little solitary threat, the note of joy and peace and content.”

When I read this journal entry I had never heard of Robert Volkmann. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I quickly learned that this relatively obscure romantic composer was a contemporary of Liszt and Brahms. And through the marvels of YouTube, I rapidly found a performance of this same composition. As I listened to the music, I got it. I understood viscerally why this woman who wrote so ecstatically of nature, of art, of music, who would later compose soaring odes to her love for Austin, would have felt such resonance with the passionate minor chord progressions of this particular piece of music.

After listening to this Serenade for cello and strings, I felt like my understanding of Mabel deepened. Listen to it and you will, too.

Mabel, Millicent & Emily FAQs

January 14, 2019

Back from a winter hiatus with new postings on Mabel, Millicent and Emily!

Now that I’ve done quite a number of talks in libraries, colleges, historical societies and bookstores, I have a pretty good sense of the kinds of questions people are likely to ask. I thought I’d post a few of them here, along with my answers, for those of you who probably have the same inquiries (though I do encourage you to come to one of my events, a complete list of which is also found here on my website). So here are the five most asked questions, a lá David Letterman:

5th most often asked question:

Why are we still so fascinated by Emily Dickinson today?

Answer: The mystery. For all that we do know about her, there is more that we don’t. Plus, her poetry is still remarkable and only becomes more so, the more you read it.

4th most often asked question:

Why would Millicent have given up her own career to take on her mother’s?

Answer: Good question! Though Millicent had great misgivings (including but not limited to:   forsaking the scientific training she had received at Harvard; not following up on  her work with Professor Raoul Blanchard,the so-called father of modern geography; fearing that not having had the university training in literary analysis which would accord her credentials to be accepted within the academy as a literary scholar she would always be considered something of an imposter; and worrying that she would never find her life’s true calling), she felt that her duty to her mother was greater than her fears. It was a true “bargain with the devil” for Millicent. But in the end, she felt that it was more important to help the mother about whom she had such vastly conflicted feelings than to continue to advance her own career.

3rd most often asked question:

Was Millicent really David’s child?

Answer: Yes, absolutely. Millicent was conceived and born more than a year before Mabel even moved to Amherst.

2nd most often asked question:

Did Emily Dickinson know what was going on between Mabel and Austin?

Answer: Likely yes. We don’t have direct evidence of this but we do know that Emily was well aware of the many times Austin brought Mabel over to The Homestead. Given Emily and Austin’s closeness in childhood, given that Emily knew that Austin’s marriage to Susan was not a happy one and perhaps given her own closeness to Susan, it seems likely that Emily was not only aware that Mabel and Austin were in love, but probably understood why.

1st most often asked question:

Did David Peck Todd know what was going on between Mabel and Austin?

Answer: Yes! Not only did David know, he helped to enable the relationship by delivering Mabel and Austin’s letters to each other, by inviting Austin to come along when he went to see Mabel in Boston and by whistling loudly a tune from the opera “Martha” when he came home from the observatory late at night to signal that it was time for Austin to depart.

Send me other questions you might have and I will do my best to answer them in subsequent posts! (afteremilythebook@gmail.com)

 

 

“Winter is good”

12/16/18

We’re almost at the winter solstice. Days have shortened, we’ve had snow here in Boston. Holiday ads have been on the air for months already, but they’ve increased in their frequency and annoying intensity. Houses and stores sport colorful decorations. People are driving around with trees on the roof of their cars. ‘Tis the season, for sure.

If you’re like me, the whole holiday season and onset of winter brings a very intense set of mixed emotions. I, personally, have a rule of never setting foot in a store between Thanksgiving and New Years because I just can’t stand the hype. And though there are things I love about winter, like many New Englanders (having lived here longer than any other place I’ve lived I guess I can now claim this title, even without having grown up here!), I greet this time of year with some ambivalence.

I think the combination of the almost inevitable holiday let-down  and knowing that the cold weather will be with us for a while can cause some personal incongruities. No matter what you celebrate, when you’re an adult it’s just not with the same joy you had as a child; snow days once greeted with a wild cry of “no school!” and leaps into snowdrifts become logistical pains of having to deal with no school days and consequent rescheduling, shoveling through snow drifts and back aches. Isn’t there a way of retaining that child-like joy when the snow starts to daintily dance from the sky?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

As I thought of this, recently, I decided to look back and see what Mabel, Millicent and Emily seemed to think of this time of year. It turns out that each of them had her own share of holiday/winter ambivalence.

Throughout the years of her relationship with Austin, Mabel always rejoiced in the season but mourned that she and Austin were unable to spend it together. In 1888 she wrote of how Austin had given her an oak writing desk for Christmas; this thoughtful gift pleased her, but also made her realize that it was a piece of furniture that wasn’t going into their home, as she thought it should. Mabel knew that while she would use it to craft and revise her writing upon it, the desk was a poignant reminder that she had not yet found the kind of response to her writing that she most desired. “But if I were to become sufficiently well-known to be asked for articles and stories, that sort of stimulus would be very sweet to me. I do long for a little real, tangible success,” she wrote in her journal.

Of course after Austin died, for years Mabel wrote of feeling his loss greatly at the onset of holidays, at the year’s end, and at the commencement of winter, the season in which the two of them had gone for blissful sleigh rides through fields of unbroken white beauty.

For Millicent, too, the holiday season brought about thoughts of missed opportunities. In an entry from her journal in 1925 she wrote, “The major mistake of my life occurred in the winter of 1912-13. I met Walter. He asked me to the Winter Carnival at Dartmouth. My mother went too, and we stayed at the Wilder’s house a few miles down the river from Hanover. Walter once told me that as we were sitting by the fire, and he was about to ask me to marry him, my mother came in. He could have asked me later, but he did not.” It’s interesting how Millicent’s regrets got wrapped around somehow blaming her mother and blaming Walter –the truth was that at the time, she had little to no interest in him and probably would have turned him down, anyway. But in the receding of time, history had corrected itself in her mind. And interestingly, for years afterward this time of year made her think of what she’d come to believe was the lost opportunity of marrying Walter earlier in life when there might still have been a possibility of having children.

As for Emily, as L. Edwin Folsom pointed out in a 1975 article in American Literature, “Involved in the very essence of seeing ‘New Englandly’ are the ‘flitting’ of the seasons and especially the ‘Snow’s Tableau’ in winter. It would seem logical, on the basis of such a statement, to expect a great deal of winter imagery-cold, snowy Connecticut Valley imagery-in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Yet, except for a very few poems …winter imagery seems strangely absent.” Folsom went on to suggest that Emily “wavered between a hope for an eternity of spring or summer, a new Eden, and a fear of an eternity of winter, a frozen grave.” Her poems about summer give transcendence and hope, the ones about winter, a different sort of reality, one with only “a certain Slant of light.”

“Winter is good” (poem 1316 in Johnson, 1374 in Franklin) exemplifies Emily’s mixed feelings about the season. Linda Sue Grimes posits on the Owlcation.com site, that this poem’s first verse “slyly humbles the cold season but not before distinguishing its multitude of genuine positive attributes.”

Emily seems to suggest that to truly enjoy the winter, we would have need to first drink in the summer. While many people will never embrace winter’s delights, knowing the contrasts of the season might be what allows us to appreciate them both. Even the frost of winter can be thought of as having something in which to rejoice if we can see that its contrast to summer provides a kind of other-worldliness. And the cyclical nature of it all is something Emily celebrates:

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

So wherever you are when reading this and whatever you celebrate this holiday season, I hope for all of you an understanding of why so many of us feel ambivalence, and an ability to overcome it by appreciating all of the differences that this world brings to us. Seasons are to be celebrated – all of them. And may you all find that inner-child this winter so that you can again find joy in its frosty delights.

Photo by Hide Obara on Unsplash

Sources quoted:

“The Souls That Snow”: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson Author(s): L. Edwin Folsom, American Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Nov., 1975), pp. 361-376.

“Emily Dickinson’s ‘Winter is good – his Hoar Delights,’”: Linda Sue Grimes, Owlcation.com, April 14, 2018.