All posts by Julie Dobrow

Emily at 190!

December 10, 2020

There seems to be an Emily Dickinson poem for everything. So on this occasion marking 190 years since her birth, I thought I’d hunt around a bit for something she wrote that would be appropriate. Not surprisingly, there were a few somethings. It wasn’t an easy choice, but I did select something we don’t often read about.

There’s a line from a letter she wrote to her cousins in 1874 that’s often quoted: “We turn not older with years, but newer every day.” What’s not quoted as often is the passage that followed this:

Of all these things we tried to talk, but the time refused us. Longing, it may be, is the gift no other gift supplies. Do you remember what you said the night you came to me? I secure that sentence. If I should see your face no more it will be your portrait, and if I should, more vivid than your mortal face. We must be careful what we say. No bird resumes its egg.

What a prescient statement on the passage of time, on the marking of years! We can’t go back, only forward. We long for what we cannot have, and one of the things we can never retain is time past. No bird resumes its egg.

And then Emily followed these poetic sentences of prose with a poem:

A word left careless on a page

May consecrate an eye,

When folded in perpetual seam

The wrinkled author lie.

Mabel reproduced this letter and this poem in the second volume of her Letters of Emily Dickinson, published in 1894. Of course the poem was “Mabelized,” with words and punctuation altered. Here’s the version that is believed to be more accurately from Emily, as published by Thomas Johnson as Poem 1261:

A Word dropped careless on a Page
May stimulate an eye
When folded in perpetual seam
The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds
We may inhale Despair
At distances of Centuries
From the Malaria —

Whichever version you select, Emily’s always amazing take on time remains.

Happy 190th!

For Emily, on her birthday

Today is Emily Dickinson’s birthday.

As she wrote in a poem published in the original 1890 volume Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson edited and titled, “Resurgam”:

At last to be identified!
At last, the lamps upon thy side,
The rest of life to see!
Past midnight, past the morning star!
Past sunrise! Ah! What leagues there are
Between our feet and day!

I suspect that Emily would have no idea of just “how identified” she is now the world over, 189 years after her birth. I think the camera shy young girl would be astounded at how iconic that one clear image of her has become; the recalcitrant poet shocked by how many people across the globe quote her verse.  It’s been a remarkable year with regard to new, different (and in the minds of some, rather inaccurate and controversial) portrayals of her in both film and television. Regardless of what you think about these versions of Emily, it’s clear that people continue to be fascinated — and inspired — by both the poet and her poetry.

Over the past year since After Emily was published, I’ve been privileged to speak about my work and about the lives of Emily, Mabel and Millicent in more than 50 venues in eight different states. I’ve done readings in small independent bookstores (and urge everyone to do their part to keep them alive – buy local!); I’ve spoken in lots of libraries (still a vital part of so many communities);  I have spoken on many college and university campuses; I’ve given talks for historical societies in lots of interesting venues where the past meets the present. Through all of this I find that one of the most frequently asked questions is what I think might account for the staying power of Emily Dickinson.

I don’t have a definitive answer. But it seems to me that it has something to do with the sheer beauty of the poetry and the fascinating ways in which Emily connected words, looped seemingly disparate ideas together and opened up worlds to us from her examination of small moments. Who else would wonder “what leagues there are/between our feet and day”?

But it also has something to do with the mystery that surrounds her life. For all that we do know there is more that we don’t. Despite the dozens of books, the hundreds of articles, the thousands of essays, there’s still an awful lot about Emily’s life and about Emily, herself, that remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it always will.

My appreciation for Emily Dickinson only increased over this past summer, when I had the amazing experience of spending several consecutive hours in her bedroom with a producer from “This American Life.” (The radio/podcast piece, focusing on Mabel and Austin’s relationship and the ways in which that might have contributed to the eventual publication of Emily’s poetry, will air sometime early in 2020 – stay tuned!) A piece I wrote about the day was published this week in Lit HubSuffice to say that watching the light change through Emily’s windows, just as she would have seen it, made me realize, anew, how keen her powers of observation were, and how finely tuned into that still small voice inside her she was.

I’m very pleased that my publisher, W.W. Norton, has chosen this day to release the paperback version of After Emily. Although Emily, herself, remains a shadowy figure in my book and never actually makes an appearance until after her death, she is, of course, most central to the story.

So here’s to Emily Dickinson on her birthday! For she is and will always be, that “winged spark that doth soar about!”

What goes around, comes around!

Last night at the Boston Public Library, After Emily was among the books honored by the Boston Authors Club (BAC). To be recognized by your peers – in this case, writers – is an incredibly humbling experience. But for me there was an additional layer of joy to the event, because the Boston Authors Club came into existence in part because of the efforts of Mabel Loomis Todd.

I tried to reflect this in the remarks I made:

Thanks to my colleagues on the BAC, and especially to the reading group for non-fiction, who had the very wonderful and very formidable task of reading through so many worthy books this past year. Congratulations to Alexander Bevilacqua, Eric Dolan and Simon Winchester. I am honored that my book was considered alongside all of yours.

I want to tell you all, briefly, one other reason that I am so pleased to have After Emily honored by the Boston Authors Club.

In the very late years of the 19th century, Mabel Loomis Todd hosted author May Alden Ward and Boston newspaperwoman Helen Winslow at a tea in her home in Amherst. One of the topics of discussion that day were the attempts of a group of literary minded men in Boston to form a new club of authors. The men, including such notables as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, had foundered in their efforts. Mabel, who among her other virtues, was an incessant and successful organizer, suggested to her women friends that perhaps if WOMEN banded together they might get the incipient BAC off the ground. They agreed, and reached out to Julia Ward Howe. Julia reportedly said, “Go ahead. Call some people together here at my house. We will form a club and it will be a good one too.”

And it was. Unlike other similar literary organizations of the era, the Boston Authors Club was started as a club that admitted both women and men.

I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that the BAC rule that any member must live within a radius of 90 miles from Boston is no coincidence, since when you clock the mileage to Amherst, it’s – you guessed it – about 90 miles!

And so, here we are, 120 years later, in part because of one of the subjects of my book.  Mabel, I’m sure, would be thrilled that a book about her is being honored by the BAC. And so am I. Thank you!


When you walk into the Boston Public Library you’re immediately drawn back into the world of another era. The dramatic entry staircase, high painted ceilings, arches and the iconic stone lions that flank it transport you to another century. And that’s what the BAC does, as well:  it links people who write and people who love books across time.

I know that Mabel and Millicent – and probably even Emily – would love that a book about their lives and work was recognized by an organization that spans time by recognizing literature the way the BAC does.


To read more about the BAC and Mabel’s role in forming it, you can look back on one of my previous posts. To learn more about the BAC, read an article I wrote about it in the Boston Globe Magazine.

Saving great trees – a new initiative Mabel would embrace

I was driving someplace recently and heard a story on NPR that made me think about Mabel.

In Coconut Grove, Florida, where Mabel lived part of each year from 1917 until the end of her life, there’s a fascinating initiative going on to map and measure trees. As reported by WLRN, researchers from Florida International University are attempting to map all the trees and categorize them in an effort to help residents and city officials make good and environmentally friendly decisions about maintaining trees and planting new ones.

For example, researchers believe that by categorizing trees they can also include “things like the money saved by a tree’s cooling effects, root systems that combat flooding and sea-level rise, along with potentially negative factors for certain species — messy fruits, root systems that threaten infrastructure, and the fact that some non-native trees can take over native habitats.” Some types of trees are therefore better to retain and to plant than others.

A painting by Howard Hilder, Mabel’s dear friend, of some great Florida trees

This is the kind of smart ecological data that will help home-owners and city officials, especially in this era of climate change. As I write this blog post, newscasters are warning about the potentially devastating effects of oncoming Hurricane Dorian – could there be a more dramatic example of why we need to think carefully and seriously about the impact of humankind on nature and nature on humankind?

This story also made me think of Mabel and Millicent. Mabel, who “loved great trees,” as Millicent once wrote, would have heartily applauded this project. Mabel’s love of trees led her to purchase the land outside of Amherst that later became the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest when Millicent donated it to Amherst College in 1961, and Hog Island, which became the Hog Island Audubon Camp in 1960.

Millicent, who was presciently aware of the effects of humans’ encroaching on the environment and the potentially devastating effects of introducing species to places different than those from which they originated, would also have embraced this project.

The fact that this initiative is occurring in Coconut Grove, where Mabel’s beloved Matsuba resided,

Exterior of Matsuba, Mabel’s home in Coconut Grove

would make it all the more appealing to her. Were she still alive, no doubt she would be a community leader in this project, as she was with so many others!

Traveling in Mabel and Millicent’s Footsteps – Peru Edition

I’ve written previously about what it’s meant to my understanding of Mabel, Millicent and Emily to do some “footstepping” – to walk in their paths, see and experience some of the places they did. It’s helped to envision their worlds, to get inside of their heads. I recently experienced this again when my family and I traveled to Peru.

In 1907, Mabel and David traveled to South America on yet another eclipse expedition. They left aboard the SS Panama, traveling to Cuba, through what would become the Panama Canal into Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile in May of that year. Millicent, teaching at Wellesley College, was not able to leave during the semester and so traveled by herself to join her parents in Peru – a remarkable thing for a young woman of 27 to do at the time, especially given the long journey by boat, rail and carriage it took to get there.

Millicent on board (Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Yale University)

The 1907 expedition was the second one financed by wealthy mill magnate turned astronomer, Percival Lowell. David spent months on his calculations and arranged to ship the new Clark refractor telescope from Amherst College all the way to South America. Mabel and Millicent both took Spanish lessons in preparation for the journey.

For Mabel, the most significant moments of the expedition included seeing both the incredible poverty of Ecuador, more extreme than anything she’d ever viewed, and the spectacular scenery of Peru. She wrote that the landscape “affects me much as I suppose a trip on the moon might do, so unearthly, so foreign to any land or country I ever saw before or imagined. It is like dreams, or strange thoughts at most weird moments. High above where mountains could be imagined, rise sterile and terrifying peaks, range upon range, half hidden in cloud, and emerging here & there with forbidding effect, massive, stern, grand, awful in their deathlike loneliness, blue atmospheric softening, yet showing through it shadows and crevices the fearful caves and magnificent glaciers…

Mabel spent much time on this trip riding on horseback (“it would be of no use to anybody to come to South America who did not ride” she noted along the way), and traveled on a train high in the Andes – the highest railway in the world at that time. She also gave an address before the Geographical Society of Peru, becoming the first woman ever to address that group.

One of the Todds’ photos from the 1907 expedition to South America (Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Yale University)

Millicent recorded her journey in great detail in a journal she later typed up (150 pages’ worth). Most of her comments were not only about the sights she saw, but also about her observations of differences in race and class. Unlike Mabel, who was passionate about trying to paint a picture in words, Millicent waxed far more practical in what she chose to record. It’s not as though she didn’t see the poetry of nature – she just didn’t feel the need or believe she had the ability to capture it. To wit, upon seeing an incredible sunset in Peru, which she suggested was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen, she wrote, “I don’t try to describe these sunsets for several reasons – (1) I shall remember every color to my dying day, (2) they change instant by instant, (3) they are entirely different in different parts of the horizon (4) they are different every night (5) I can’t.

But that doesn’t mean that even practically- minded Millicent couldn’t also be philosophical or poetic, at least on occasion. After describing a trek she had taken with David up 17,000 foot Mt. Meiggs, (described today as “where the Andes glaciers meet the sky”), Millicent was awed.

Peru moved Millicent in ways she didn’t realize at the time. Its rugged and contrasting geography would become the topic of her 1923 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “An Investigation of Geographic Controls in Peru,” and was, as well, the subject of her book Peru, A Land of Contrasts, published in 1917. “Any statement regarding Peru implies a contrary statement equally valid,” she wrote. “Contrast is its characteristic quality, true as to the general aspects of the country and ramifying through remote details. It is the obvious point of view from which to study Peru…To the charm of limitless nature is added the mystery of great peoples destroyed before they were known. The riches of the Incas and of the glittery, vice-regal Spanish days, when continents were found, taken, and explored, contrast with present poverty. Contrasts of nature, of people to country, of antiquity to the present – these diverse elements are insistent wherever one turns.”

Having now been to Peru, I understand why it was that Millicent found the geography there so compelling. It really is a land of contrasts: enormous snow-capped peaks, verdant fields, cacti alongside bromeliads and other tropical plants, ancient terraces cut into the mountainsides, cloud forests, jagged rocky expanses, glacial plateaus. In her travel journal Millicent marveled, “You may go up 17,000 feet to the region of eternal snow. Your mules may drop beneath you with the cold and deadly lack of atmosphere. Still the glaciers crawl down upon you from peaks towering thousands of feet above, where no human foot has ever trod, no living heart ever throbbed. The rocks are jaggeder here and you feel as if the rough places of this earth had been turned up to where they could brush against the sky.

Of course Millicent was a little wrong about that:  human feet had indeed trodden there before. The Todds were in Peru shortly before Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham (no relation to Walter Van Dyke Bingham) “discovered” Machu Picchu. (Bingham’s legacy in Peru is a checkered one, to say the least. Contemporary writers in anthropology, archaeology, history and politics now generally acknowledge that while Westerners might not have known about the amazing ruins, the people who lived there certainly did; Machu Picchu was a part of the Peruvian people’s culture and their lives). The Todds saw and were amazed by many of the other Inca ruins throughout the country. The ruins are unmistakable evidence that well before the Spanish or any other Western culture set foot on this land, Peru was occupied by cultures who found ways of not only taming this remarkable landscape, but of understanding it.

For me, the highlight of our trip was the trek up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Other than childbirth, this was unquestionably the most rigorous physical experience I have ever had. Our guide kept encouraging us along the way, telling us that this was a pilgrimage. When, at the end of 7 hours of arduous hiking, much of it up vertical ascents on ancient stone steps the Incas carved into the mountainside, we saw the “Sun Gate” glowing in the afternoon light and knew that the ruins of Machu Picchu lay just beyond, I felt inspired to go the rest of the way. I knew our guide was right: this WAS a pilgrimage. I’m sorry it’s one that Mabel, David and Millicent didn’t know about, because it would have been as meaningful  an experience for them as it was for me and my family.

The view into Machu Picchu

As we traveled elsewhere in Peru, I found myself thinking of the Todds, a lot. I felt like I was again footstepping. I better understood them in truly visceral ways.

Interestingly, in the middle of Millicent’s South American travel journal she pondered, “I wonder if hearing this journal will ever give a wider horizon to anybody, will show somebody that if they have tried and failed there are chances elsewhere. Or if, perhaps, it might inspire somebody to think of other worlds than those that have become humdrum through too long familiarity?

You know, Millicent, it has.



Hog Island, a “most royal spot”

I’ve just returned from giving a book talk at one of the most magical places on earth. Mabel called it, “a most royal spot.” Millicent referred to it once as “this blessed island.” Bart Cadbury, a former director of the Hog Island Audubon Camp, called it “a place of the heart.” Anyone who’s been there understands why.

Of course this is the island that Mabel saw one summer in the early part of the 20th century and became determined to purchase to save it from being decimated by loggers. This is the island that Millicent set about to save for all times by getting the Audubon Society to take stewardship of it. And this is the island that another visionary and determined woman named Juanita Roushdy decided to help save, once again, when Audubon felt that the financial demands of all the deferred maintenance had become too great and that running the camp would not be sustainable into the future. Juanita revitalized fundraising, wrote a business plan, developed and activated a well of volunteers who’d been touched by their own Hog Island experience. Three times this island has been saved by strong women who intrinsically knew its worth.

Mabel, David and Millicent on Hog Island

The boulder dedicating the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary you can find in the middle of the woods on Hog Island

It’s hard to put into words what makes this place so special. There’s something about the towering pines and spruce, about the spray of salt in the air, about the enormous variety of avian life that swoops by that make it feel pristine. But Hog Island is just off the coast of Bremen, Maine – and I do mean just off the coast:  you could literally swim across, easily, if the water wasn’t so cold. (And I did hear a story last night about how, years ago, the Cadbury children were told that they first had to demonstrate that they could swim the distance before they were allowed to go across in their own dorys, before the age of mandatory life jackets!) To have this wilderness in a contained 330 acres, so close to the mainland but feeling so removed, is part of its allure.

Another thing that makes Hog Island so special is the sense of renewal you get from being there. Millicent probably summed it up best in a talk she gave to Hog Island campers in 1950:

I wanted just to say that I think the thing that was to me, the most inspiring, in all the years I was trying to save this island, was when I had been turned down innumerable times and I saw no way, at all, out, that I went out into the forest and I heard a great horned owl. It was a marvelous night — a midsummer night with a full moon and no mosquitoes, at all — I suddenly said to myself, ‘Why am I trying to save this island? The island is the thing that can do far more for us than we can ever think of doing for it.’ So I turned directly about and with that thought in mind, that this island was something which was a heritage for the future …– which must be preserved for the people who come after.

And the other thing that makes Hog Island so incredibly special is the way people feel about it, universally. This brings them together in unique ways. For example, at a number of the book talks I’ve given in different locations, people have come up to me afterwards and told me about their own Hog Island connections: that they were campers there, or had been there as a child, or had volunteered there. Everyone says the same thing: “It’s an incredibly special place.” Here’s the way Millicent described the reaction of folks who’d been at the Hog Island Audubon Camp in the early days:

But it is this sense of dedication and this complete devotion, which is the thing that is characteristic of this camp. It takes people from the many different places, as you all come from, with as many different interests that makes you into one great family that will go out and spread this gospel, I could almost call it, to every little community from which you have come.

And that’s exactly what people do.

The annual Hog Island work week at which I just spoke drew people from across the country. I met people who’d traveled from California and Colorado, from Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as from across New England. They were all drawn back by this “most royal spot.”

Here’s how I concluded my talk at Hog Island last night:

Let me just end my remarks this evening by saying that there are probably few things that would please Mabel and Millicent more than knowing about the important work that Bart and Ginny Cadbury did in helping to ensure that the Friends of Hog Island existed, and the work Juanita Roushdy and others have done in ensuring that this organization has become such a vital force in maintaining this incredibly special place. The fact that you are all here this week is but one testament to the vision of Hog Island that the Todds had long ago; you are its embodiment.

photo by Jeremy Vale

To find out more about Hog Island, its history and programs, check out the Friends of Hog Island website.

Mabel and Amherst, Amherst and Mabel

Writing after Mabel’s death in 1932, Millicent recounted that a friend of her mother’s once said, “Every outside thing she did came right back to Amherst to be shared here.” Mabel’s many contributions to the town of Amherst – her civic leadership, her land stewardship and her artistic, writing and editing endeavors – had deep roots in her adopted town. She came to love the small college town partly because it was such an integral part of Austin and who he was, but partly because the blend of its natural beauty and cultural connections resonated deeply with the person she was, as well.

Amherst College in the 19th century

Mabel was initially reluctant to come to Amherst. Up until that point, she had only lived in cities: Cambridge MA, Washington D.C. and Boston. An excellent musician, a talented painter and writer and an extremely socially engaged person used to the vibrant arts community and society these urban areas afforded, Mabel was fearful that the small college town would not yield her as many opportunities as she was used to. She did, however, love to be outdoors and relished family trips to the country. Amherst, it turned out, was the perfect blend of urbanity and nature.

Within a few short weeks after moving there in 1881, Mabel was writing in her journal, “Do you know, I think Amherst in many respects quite ideal. I always did like a college town, with its air of quiet cultivation, and by living in such a one it is possible to continue two things which are otherwise generally not found together – I mean the possibility of living in the country, amid the luxuriance of nature, and yet of having refined and educated society at the same time.”

Throughout the thirty-six years she lived in Amherst, Mabel was deeply invested in both the College and the community. As a faculty wife Mabel frequently had teas for David’s colleagues and students, she taught both music and art at a school developed by Mary E. Stearns (wife of former Amherst College president William Augustus Stearns) that operated out of the president’s home,

Mabel teaching art. Photo in the Todd-Bingham picture collection, Yale University

and chaperoned Amherst College dances. These dances weren’t always pro-forma affairs. Millicent once related that in 1892, her mother discovered that “…when two Negro boys invited their guests to Commencement,” the “Southern boys refused to go to the promenade if the Negro couples were permitted to attend. Having heard this, my mother invited them as our houseguests…along with Katherine Garrison, granddaughter of William Lloyd Garrison – and had a reception” for them.

Perhaps less heralded but equally noteworthy were Mabel’s contributions to saving areas of forest around Amherst: in 1913 her efforts led to her election as chairman of the Amherst Forestry Association. In work that preceded the development of the ecology movement in the United States, Mabel began to purchase land for preservation and wrote widely about it. She bought 80 acres of land in nearby Pelham to save the woods from loggers; in 1961 Millicent donated this land to Amherst College where it became known as the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest and was used for years by the biology department as a kind of living ecological laboratory.

I’ve written previously about Mabel’s many other civic legacies in the town of Amherst (see my blog post from 11/21/18). Suffice to say that many of the institutions she started are still going strong in Amherst.

One of these is the Amherst Historical Society and Museum. And on June 1, I will be leading a “Mabel Loomis Todd tour of Amherst” for this institution. We’ll tour sites of importance for the Todds and the Dickinsons, starting at the History Museum and ending up in Wildwood Cemetery. If you’d like to sign up and join us, you can do so here.

“Brother Pegasus”: The Enigma of Austin Dickinson


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


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.”