All posts by Julie Dobrow

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.

Emily Dickinson at 188, endlessly young and fresh

12/10/18

As I have been giving talks about AFTER EMILY and fielding emails from people who’ve read the book, I find that one of the most asked questions is what might account for the continued fascination we all have with Emily Dickinson. The other related question is why her poems continue to be so compelling to us.

I have to start out this post with a caveat: I’m not an Emily Dickinson scholar, but I am a fan. And I have learned a few things about her life and work in the work I’ve done on Mabel and Millicent’s lives and work.

Why do so many people around the world love Emily’s poetry? I think it has something to do with how fresh it remains, how remarkable her combinations of words are, how her idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization might give us clues about how to read the poems, even, perhaps, where to breathe.

And it has something to do with how nuanced it all is. So many poems take on a small moment in nature – a spider spinning a web, the leaves turning color in the fall – and yet manage to make us think more broadly of how miraculous these small moments are. Her subtle use of metaphor makes us realize the different levels on which she simultaneously wrote.

The unanswered questions about Emily Dickinson’s craft and her life might account for part of our ongoing fascination with her. For all of the hundreds of books and thousands of articles that have been written, there are still so many things we just don’t know. How is it possible that she wrote so many amazing poems during her lifetime and yet so few people had a clue that she did? Which of the many word choices she left behind did she truly intend? How much of her life story can we read into her poetry? Who were the people that inspired her passion? Why did she begin the retreat to her home and her room that characterized the latter years of her life? I think it’s the mystery surrounding so much of Emily’s life and work that partially accounts for why we continue to find her so compelling.

The other thing that has become clear to me in the correspondence I have received is that Emily Dickinson continues to inspire not only intrigue, but also creative expressions born of some kind of connection to her. People have sent me poems that they’ve composed a la Emily. One person sent me a song, and another, a link to music composed meant to go along with “Because I could not stop for death.” At book readings and events I’ve done I have heard from people hard at work on their own Emily Dickinson-related papers, books and projects.

One of my colleagues at Tufts, Madeleine Delpha, sent along some artistic renderings she’d created. She’s kindly allowed me to reproduce them here on my website, so that I can share them with you.

Happy birthday, Emily! You continue to amaze us, mystify us and inspire us, 188 years after you came into this world.

Artwork by Madeleine Delpha

Honoring Millicent

12/1/18

Today marks half a century since the death of Millicent Todd Bingham. Because Millicent, herself, was so attuned to the significance of different dates and anniversaries, I want to mark this occasion with a few thoughts that honor her.

As I’ve written in After Emily, Millicent was a woman of many talents, but someone who cared – and cared deeply – about being as high achieving within each area of her life as possible. For instance, when she was a junior at Vassar College and had the opportunity to take a semester off to travel with her parents on an astronomy expedition to Asia, she fretted about whether doing so would impede her excellent academic record and prevent her from being elected to Phi Beta Kappa (it didn’t). She gave up playing the violin despite being a fine musician because she worried that her other academic pursuits and travel would prevent her from practicing enough to attain professional-level skill. And later in life, she obsessed over whether her Dickinson scholarship would be valued because her doctorate was not in English literature; receiving two honorary doctorates for her work still didn’t seem to convince her.

In a recent profile of Millicent I published in Harvard Magazine I delineated her lifelong concerns about her many talents. Rather than being satisfied with what today we would call interdisciplinary work, Millicent forever worried that she somehow lacked the proper credentials to do her work. Yet she demonstrated aptitude in both the sciences and the humanities, published books in geography and literature. Her scholarship was impeccable and meticulous in both fields.

Millicent’s environmentalism was remarkably prescient. While Mabel believed that it was important to buy land to save great trees from loggers, Millicent somehow knew that land preservation was necessary for ecological reasons. Here’s something she wrote in 1936:

 “The problem of conservation has been brought to public            attention very often of late, in books and articles, over the radio . . . but in spite of all the activity, however, the general public is not yet aware of what it is all about. . . . They are . . . results following causes which we, ourselves, have set in motion—destruction of forests, over- grazing, marsh drainage, and so on.”

Years before anyone uttered the term “climate change,” Millicent somehow recognized what was going on.

Her recognition of the importance of teaching environmental appreciation in an experiential way was equally remarkable, hence her quest in the 1930s to make Hog Island into a place to teach teachers about ecology, and to make her gift to the National Audubon Society permanent. Today the camp at Hog Island thrives and remains vibrant, as generations of campers will attest. (You can read more about the Hog Island Audubon Camp here).

One other thing I’ve highlighted about Millicent Todd Bingham is that, although she was well aware of each of her parents’ flaws and foibles, she still felt deeply connected to them. And to her family roots in a broader sense. Millicent was keenly aware of where she came from. Sometimes she felt this as a burden that weighed her down, but more often, she believed that her sense of familial obligation was part of a proud and important tradition. I found – and continue to find – her devotion to her family, despite her understandably mixed feelings, affirmative.

Millicent’s beliefs in scientific rigor and in great art in a number of forms made her someone who thought of marking big anniversaries as an important thing to do. I’m pretty sure that she wondered if people would mark anniversaries of her life. In noting this anniversary of her death, however,  I want to celebrate her life.

Requiescat in pace.

Happy birthday, Mabel!

11/10/18

Happy birthday, Mabel!

Today is Mabel’s birthday, her 162nd, if my math is correct. When I look back on what she wrote in her diary or journal on her birthday over the years, I mostly find the kind of reflection many of us tend to have: how fast the time has gone, how hard it is to believe that she’s reached a certain age, how depressing it is to start to see those signs of aging.

Not surprisingly, many of her birthday musings were in direct relation to her relationship with Austin. In 1883, Mabel wrote in her journal, “27! It seems impossible in most things. I feel like a child – in fact it always seems true that I am 18 and I suppose I act so.” Of course this was toward the beginning of her romantic and sexual relationship with Austin, and she was undoubtedly basking and reveling in his attentions. By 1885, things had become tense in Amherst for her, after Susan discovered the full extent of her husband’s attentions to young Mrs. Todd, and on her birthday Mabel wrote, “I am very happy and very unhappy by turns as this finds me this birthday. I will not expatiate upon it now. But I and my soul are becoming very well acquainted of late.”

After Austin died, Mabel threw herself into her work as a way to distract and tire herself. To mark her birthday in 1899 she wrote, “Anyone who lives in this age, in the midst of life, is hurried almost to the point of distraction all the time. I am, particularly, for I am ‘in’ so many lives.” It was still hard to separate herself from Austin. And in subsequent years on her birthday, she often made some comment like “And now the hills lie under the sky with a beauty that stills the heart from beating, the sky, the sun, all are more beautiful than I ever have seen before. But Austin lies in Wildwood – and all the years cannot make me used to it. I miss him so that all the beauty seems empty. I see it all, I appreciate it, I feel it first the same as ever. But it only TELLS me there IS a story – it used to translate the story…I wonder if from the other side of the sunset Austin watches it – and me –and cares still for hills and clouds! I wonder if in the radiance of his new life he remembers and would help and comfort still.”

Over time, she shifted, as we all do, from finding ways to deflect the years to finding ways to deny them. In 1898, for example, she wrote, “My birthday – is it the 42nd? I believe so, but it does not seem possible, and no one can think it.” And just a few years later, in 1901, she wrote, “Another birthday. I cannot count them any longer.” By 1906 her only remark was dour: “Another birthday. They come very fast now.”

But today I hope that Mabel would celebrate her birthday, knowing that once again people are talking about her, and that a version of her life’s story – and one that depicts her other than Emily’s first editor or Austin’s lover – is now in bookstores.

photo by Audrey Fretz on Unsplash

Speaking on books

 

11/4/18

This week marks the first full week during which I will be giving book talks and doing book readings.* As is so often the case, I find myself thinking of Mabel.

Mabel began giving talks in 1891, in a carefully orchestrated effort to garner more publicity for the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. To her surprise and delight, Mabel found that this was an activity she truly enjoyed, and, by everyone’s account, was exceptionally good at doing. She once wrote in her diary, “I put a good deal of nerve force into my talks, which make, I suppose, the quality of ‘brilliant success’ by which everybody describes them…a glowing vitality, if I can so call it, which carries.”

But it wasn’t just Mabel’s sense that she could carry a room: one newspaper account, for example, referred to her as a “personage in the world of letters and a well known lecturer;” another quipped, “while Professor Todd’s lecture was learned and scientific, the opinion of some who heard Mrs. Todd on the same subject was that she presented it in a much more interesting and charming way than her husband, and without the aid of stereopticon” and yet another noted, “She is unquestionably the dean of American women lecturers.”

What began as a PR venture grew. Mabel was leading a very interesting life, and she found that it was personally and professionally rewarding to find ways of sharing this with the world. The range of topics for her talks exapanded from Emily Dickinson, to astronomy, to her observations of the diverse cultures she had occasion to visit on her trips around the world on eclipse expeditions.

Mabel began to garner some significant income from her role as a public speaker, and at least as importantly, it was an activity that fed her seemingly bottomless ego. “I captured them at about the third sentence,” she wrote after one large lecture she gave to a group in Los Angeles in 1902. “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.”

Her talks served multiple purposes. Not only was Mabel able to use them as a platform for publicizing her own (and, to a lesser extent, David’s work), but she was also able to earn a national reputation as a rare female public intellectual in an era when relatively few women were on the lecture circuit. What would she have done today, with TED talks, YouTube and the whole world of social media? One can only imagine!

Mabel’s talks also had the effect of much-needed distraction after Austin died in 1895. “Thank God for work! IT is my salvation,” she wrote. “I have never been so rushed in my life; and if it were not for that very fact I should probably be dead – or crazy.” Indeed, Mabel ramped up her talk schedule and by 1897, she was giving more than 50 talks a year in venues across the country.

So in some ways it feels like this story has come full circle, with me about to begin speaking on my book about Mabel. I hope to be half as good at speaking about her as she was about speaking about herself! But seriously, I hope that I can take a page out of her playbook, as it were, and use my talks to introduce more people to her fascinating life, the fascinating life of Millicent, and the ways in which understanding both of their lives can give us more of a window into the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

*   Upcoming book readings and book talks

  • Today, 11/4 at 3 p.m. at the Concord Bookshop, 65 Main Street, Concord, MA
  • Tomorrow, 11/5 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA
  • 11/13 – Tewksbury Public Library, 7 p.m., 300 Chandler Street, Tewksbury, MA
  • 11/14 – Tisch Library, 3 p.m., Tufts University, Medford, MA
  •  11/17 – Whitelam Books, 3 p.m. , 610 Main Street, Reading, MA
  •  11/29 – MA Historical Society, 5:30 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. talk, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
  •  12/2 – Emily Dickinson Museum, 2 p.m., Amherst Woman’s Club, 35 Triangle Street, Amherst, MA
  •  12/5 – Tisch College, 3 p.m., Lincoln-Filene Hall, Tufts University, Medford, MA
  •  12/9 – Lincoln Historical Society/Lincoln Public Library, 2 p.m., 3 Bedford Road, Lincoln, MA
  •  12/11 – West Hartford Public Library, 7 p.m., 20 South Main St., West Hartford, CT