Tag Archives: Amherst

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.

Bookending the book

We’d just finished delivering our youngest child to begin his first year at Amherst College. Save the forgotten pillow and the quick trip into the mall in Hadley (to say nothing of the 90+ degree heat) it had been an easy, almost seamless transition. We were feeling great about the journey our son was beginning. We got into the car and started up Main Street in Amherst to get back on Route 202 and start our own journey home. As we passed The Homestead, Emily’s house, the light turned red. I quickly checked email on my phone. And there, amazingly, was a note from the wonderful editorial assistant with whom I’ve worked at Norton: “Hi Julie, Finished copies of AFTER EMILY landed in our offices this morning – they look stunning! Congratulations on this beautiful book.”

The symmetry and symbolism bowled me over. “How is this possible?” I asked my husband. “We are LITERALLY in front of Emily’s house!” He turned from the steering wheel to face The Homestead and shouted, “The book is done!”

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It felt like one of those precious, miraculous moments of convergence. A moment that you just can’t really explain.

I’ve certainly had a few of these moments over the past few years as I worked on this book. I’ve had times I could swear I heard Mabel or Millicent whispering in my ear. I’ve had flashes of insight into these women that have made feel like I was inside their heads, articulating things that perhaps they thought but never dared commit to paper. I’ve walked in houses they walked in and felt echoes of past footsteps on dark wooden stairs. I got up early one morning on Hog Island, saw the light on the bay and smelled the salt on my skin; a centering sense of calm came over me and I knew for certain why it was the Todd family felt that this was one of the most special places on earth.

And now this. It seemed like such an amazing sense of bookending a book. The process which in some ways started right there in Amherst so many years ago, would in one sense be completed in the very same place.

Of course the original title of my book was Outside Emily’s Door. Here I was, outside Emily’s door, maybe 50 yards away from it, and I found out that the completed copies of my book were delivered to W.W. Norton. It will soon come to me, and then, on October 30th, to you.

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