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! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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?
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.
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.
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 MagazineI 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.
A question I understandably keep getting as I give talks and do book readings is what, exactly, in my background prepared me to write a biography of Mabel and Millicent? I like to respond that most of the fields in which I’ve gotten degrees (anthropology and sociology, communications and media studies) taught me something about doing research and how to ask good questions. A lot of the coursework I did in women’s studies involved learning about what makes women’s history a vibrant field, and I’ve done a lot of archival research as part of this. My professional journeys in journalism have shown me how to write a good story in what I hope are compelling ways. Even my academic appointment in a department of child study and human development has been useful in learning about some of the complicated psychology and family issues that go into mother/daughter relationships. But today I’d like to focus on how another part of my professional life prepared me to tell Mabel’s story, in particular, and that is my work as a senior fellow at the Tisch College of Civic Life.
If you look at the Tisch College website , you’ll see that it’s a unique institution with a unique mission: to “prepare students for a lifetime of engagement in civic and democratic life, to study civic life and its intersections with public and private institutions, and to promote practices that strengthen civic life in the United States and around the world.” We do this through a blend of offering classes, sponsoring events, working with community partners and student groups across the university – as well as national and international organizations – to assist students in developing a rich variety of ways to be active citizens in their worlds. I’ve had the great privilege of working at Tisch College for a number of years in a variety of capacities. It’s one of the most rewarding things that I do.
When I first started researching the life of Mabel Loomis Todd, I quickly discovered that my work at Tisch College also came in handy. Because Mabel was an incredibly active citizen, engaged in an astonishing array of civic activities in the town of Amherst and beyond. I write about this in After Emily in some detail, and I’ve written a separate article about Mabel’s civic work that was published in the Historical Journal of Massachusetts.
One of the organizations Mabel was involved with getting off the ground was the Amherst Woman’s Club. This organization, which began with a group of women meeting to discuss the need to form a club for women to gather to discuss their interests in “literary, scientific, musical, historical and other topics of vital importance,” along with community service, was incorporated as an organization in 1903. Today it continues to be a vital part of the Amherst and western Massachusetts community.
The volunteer work I’ve done in my own community and the professional work I’ve done through Tisch College truly helped me understand not only Mabel’s impulse to be civically engaged in her world, but also its various manifestations in her personal and professional life. And I’m enormously pleased and excited that the event I’m going to be doing on December 2, sponsored by the Emily Dickinson Museum, in partnership with the Amherst Historical Society, will be held at the Amherst Woman’s Club (https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/Dobrow). It seems a most appropriate venue!
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.
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.
* 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
It’s Halloween, which I’ll be marking by giving a talk in the Sterling Library at Yale this morning. Later today I’ll drive home and put some candy in a wicker pumpkin in case any trick-or-treaters come by. But all day long, I’ll also be thinking of what Mabel, Millicent and Emily might have thought of Halloween.
There’s a debate in the scholarly community about the extent to which Emily Dickinson might have believed in the occult. Many have pointed to all the references to death in her poetry and letters, and biographers have noted the extent to which Emily must have seen images of death all around her (a home overlooking a route to the cemetery, the deaths of friends and relatives including her beloved young nephew, Gib). But others believe that the language Emily used in her poetry referenced death as a part of nature’s cyclical patterns, and the imagery of ghosts and witches was meant to be taken more as metaphor than as belief in the supernatural.
Millicent, I’m pretty sure, would not have thought much of Halloween, other than agreeing that it’s a holiday made up to sell silly costumes and highly caloric sweets. She tenaciously held onto a pragmatic, evidence-based way of looking at the world and didn’t believe in the things she couldn’t see. But that certainly wasn’t true of Mabel.
Some form of Halloween originated eons ago with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain where people believed they could ward off ghosts by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes. In the early days of this nation, European American people still celebrated All Saints Day but attempted to make it more about community get-togethers than about ghosts and witches. And in Victorian America, while there certainly was an emphasis on scientific and technological progress, there was also widespread belief in and fascination with the parnormal, supernatural and the occult.
Mabel was one of those who was more than a little superstitious. Her entire life, she collected and preserved lucky four leafed clovers (somehow she seemed to find them with great regularity!) She believed that rainbows had magical powers if you saw and wished upon them. She visited palm readers, avidly read about spiritualism and seemed obsessed with stories of witchcraft. When Austin became ill, she paid calls on faith healers whom she felt certain could help him – even from across the state.
After Austin died, Mabel’s beliefs in a world beyond the one we know only deepened. She read about theosophy. She corresponded with people who were convinced about reincarnation and she visited spiritualists. And then, she decided to go spend some time in Lily Dale.
At the turn of the 19th century if you wanted to try to connect with your dearly departed, there was one place to go. The small hamlet of Lily Dale in upstate New York, organized in 1879, had become widely known as the epicenter of the Spiritualist movement. By this time there were perhaps a million professed Spiritualists in America, with more than 70 newspapers and other vehicles for spreading word about the movement. Stemming from this Spiritualist impulse, Lily Dale literally became an occultist cottage industry, with house after house owned by mediums who would guarantee visitors a clear connection to the other side.
After two weeks in Lily Dale during which she attended countless séances that she derided as “tricks” or clear efforts by the medium to pick up on a few cues given by the bereaved to persuade them of their loved ones’ presence, there was one session Mabel simply could not explain. “How, supposing he had desired to cheat me,” she wrote of the medium, “could he have known that it was Austin, and Austin alone I desired? And if by any…chicanery he could have found out his name in the few hours between his arrival in Lily Dale and my coming to him, how could he have known that the middle name was the one I called him by? And how could he have imitated that voice! And said the characteristic things with certain reiterated words just as Austin did!..It was wonderful to stupefaction.”
She described how the medium, someone who’d only just arrived in Lily Dale that morning and had no knowledge of who Mabel was, allowed Austin to speak through him. She recorded in detail what was said: “You kept me nine months on the Earth after my body was dead – your grief and loving kept me. But I have wanted to speak to you for seven long years.” Mabel added, “he went on with things that kept me breathless for nearly an hour.”
This remarkable encounter “…tore my heart strings so that for weeks I walked in a daze. The voice was identical with what I had so longed for years to hear …Some things just could not have been invented. But what does it mean?” And this visit stayed with Mabel for the rest of her life; her journal entries referenced it for many years afterward.
So I am quite certain that while Mabel, like Emily and Millicent, would probably look at the commercial holiday of Halloween askance, she would maintain a quiet and deep faith that there’s actually something to it, beyond the candy corn, costumes and plastic orange pumpkins.
And I will admit to one Halloweenish experience of my own. This past Thursday morning I was in Amherst, having stayed over after giving the first talk on my book tour. As usual, I rose well before dawn. Since I had to get on the road to be back in time to facilitate an event at Tufts in the morning, I decided just to get up and get going. But before heading east, I decided to pay a brief visit to Wildwood Cemetery, to let Mabel know that the book was almost out.
It was very dark, except for the full moon. When I got to Wildwood I had a brief moment of panic, wondering what I was doing – really, wandering around in a cemetery well before it started to get light? Was I nuts?
Fortunately I’ve been there enough that it was still relatively easy to navigate my way to the Todd plot. I had to use the light on my cell phone to fumble around on the ground a little, but I did find a good- sized pebble. And with the spooky light of the moon guiding me, I placed it on top of Mabel’s headstone. Somehow, I knew, this is a gesture she would have appreciated.
Today is the day I’ve long waited for. After Emily is officially published!
Throughout the time I’ve been working on this book, I’ve kept a journal about the process. This has been a kind of meta-experience, writing about the writing. I’m very glad I did this because it’s been a way to think through and process these intertwined and complicated stories. I’ve also learned a lot about writing, and about myself.
This was the very first entry in the journal:
Today I feel like I really started the project for the first time. The microfilms I’d requested from Yale on inter-library loan FINALLY arrived after weeks of waiting, and I spent 7 hours looking at them. I went through 4 years’ of Mabel’s diaries; didn’t even complete a whole reel. This is going to take me a very long time.
It was both about learning more about her day-to-day existence and also about starting to figure out how to do this work. And also about starting to make sense of it. I decided I should start this file to help me process the process.
It did take me a long time to go through the materials, to do the research and to go through the processes of writing, re-writing and editing that were necessary to get this book done. But I’m so glad I did it.
I looked back to see whether I could find anything either Mabel or Millicent had written when their respective books were published. In November of 1890, Mabel had initially written of her excitement when she received the first few pre-publication copies of the first edition of Emily’s poems. And then on publication day, she wrote, “Today Emily’s book of Poems is issued. I had more copies since Sat, but the bookstores got them today. Her gifts are now shared with the world.”
In 1909, Mabel’s mother was very ill, and Mabel wrote in her journal about how her mother was “living to wait to see” Mabel’s most recent book – A Cycle of Sunsets – published. Despite her conflicted relationship with her mother, it seemed important to Mabel that her mother live to see this work. This is interesting because it wasn’t Mabel’s first book (by 1910 she had already published four of her own books as well as three edited volumes of Emily’s poetry and two edited books of her letters).
I’m not entirely sure why she wanted Molly to be able to see this book (she did – she didn’t die until the fall of 1910 and the book was published in the spring). Perhaps it’s because more than any of Mabel’s other books, this one was about nature, and reviewers had commented, among other things, that “Mabel Loomis Todd is a worthy successor to Thoreau.” The link to Henry David Thoreau would be one that Molly greatly appreciated, the Wilder family having been intimate friends with the Thoreaus. Molly always believed – and instilled in both her daughter and her granddaughter – that this link between the Wilder and Thoreau families was important. A book in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau (A Cycle of Sunsets is a series of essays about sunsets over the course of a year) would naturally be a book that Mabel’s mother would endorse. Mabel would have believed that this book would earn her the kind of whole-hearted praise from her mother she’d long sought and seldom received, despite all her many achievements.
And for Mabel, who wanted more than anything else in life to be known and remembered as a great writer, the idea that she’d written a book in the tradition of Thoreau would also have been tremendously appealing.
I wasn’t able to find much that Millicent had written about the publication of any of her books. This is partially because for Millicent, the publication of her four Dickinson books was so fraught with conflicted feelings and so fraught with the “battles with Harvard” that having them finally published must have seemed more a relief than a triumph. And I think it’s partially because Millicent was actually working on the four Dickinson books at the same time, an overwhelming task in itself. But she apparently also was thinking about whether she could also write some of the stories she most wanted to tell, in addition to fulfilling the promises she made to her mother about getting the Dickinson work done. In 1938, for example, she pondered, “These MSS, lying around, unpublished – warbook, debut book, geographic controls in Peru, Mamma’s edited Emily Dickinson poems – to name a few. The deadlock must somehow be broken.”
For Millicent the deadlock got broken when her sense of filial responsibility won out and she worked on the Dickinson books rather than the others she’d clearly been thinking about.
So today, on the publication date of my own book about Mabel and Millicent, I find myself wondering, as I often do, what they would think about it all…
In a few hours I will be off to New Haven to begin my book tour. It seems so appropriate to me to begin this part of the journey where so much of the journey of this book took place: at Yale, home of the Todd/Bingham Family Papers.
In the run-up to publication of After Emily, many people have been asking me how long it took me to work on this book. When this question comes from people who know a little about Mabel and Millicent, I think it has to do with knowledge that there was a LOT of material to go through (721 boxes of primary source material at Yale, alone!) But the vast majority of people who ask me this question seem to be asking it not because they’re wondering about the research process, but about the writing.
I know that for many people, writing takes a long time. It’s a laborious effort. Some people I know who are excellent writers struggle over each word, every phrase. You’d never know it from the fluid end result.
I’ve been lucky. Writing comes easily to me and always has. Which is not to say that the end product doesn’t take a long time to come to – it does. In writing After Emily I’ve learned more than ever about ways in which the rewriting process can take a lot of time. To make a sentence unspool in a way that readers will want to linger on it as if touching a soft and delicate thread, takes care and thought.
The three women at the center of my book – Emily, Mabel and Millicent – were all excellent writers. We don’t hear very much from Emily about her process. There are some letters, to Sue and to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. We have her “scraps” and the different alternatives she offered in word choice, punctuation and capitalization as suggestions about how she composed. We don’t really know how long she labored on any particular poem, or why she made the decisions she made, or even if some of what ended up getting published were truly her decisions or those of her various editors’.
For Mabel, composition in words came easily. She wrote a lot about writing and her process. In 1886, for instance, she wrote, “Expression in writing is absolutely easy and natural to me, and is always a delight…but I say, unconsciously to myself a good that there is plenty of time, you are ripening and mellowing and strengthening all the time, and you…yet write nobly.” (She was never one to be modest!) The editing process was one she took seriously; it was never easy, but even she often had to admit that her very florid prose was made better by the slow process of going back over it.
Millicent was a methodical but thoughtful writer. In the summer of 1908, when she was 28, she became very ill with diphtheria and a heart condition, and moved back home to Amherst so her parents could help take care of her. She kept a special journal during this time when, for several weeks, she was literally not even allowed to sit up, amusing herself by writing her observations on the little things she saw and heard: birds outside her window, spiders spinning webs, clouds. On June 21 she wrote, “Why must I always write down what I feel to be satisfied? Is it a prediction of a future message, or is it only a habit?” In fact, it turned out to be both: like her mother, Millicent was a lifelong journal and diary keeper, someone who often felt the need to write as a way of processing what she saw or heard or felt.
Anyone who has ever kept a diary or journal knows the indulgence of reading back over it. You marvel at the accomplishments, the moments of insight; you despair over the disappointments, the moments of ignorance. You look back with the gift of hindsight and wonder how you possibly could have thought or felt what you did at the time. You see how you have grown. You notice the themes and patterns of your life, and you are incredulous over the passage of time. In her final years, Millicent spent significant time reading over her own diaries and journals, as well as reading Mabel’s. But for Millicent this wasn’t simply a passing indulgence; it was a painful and time-consuming obsession. While she didn’t find the answers she sought to the questions that plagued her, or the solace she hoped she’d uncover, she unquestionably knew that both for herself and for her mother, the time spent writing had been invaluable.
So when people ask me how long it took me to write After Emily, I have to smile. The actual time I spent researching or writing or rewriting isn’t nearly as important as the journey it’s been to get to know these three remarkable women and figure out how best to convey them to readers.
Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet