Tag Archives: Austin Dickinson

“Brother Pegasus”: The Enigma of Austin Dickinson

4/16/19

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

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

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

Austin’s college portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin’s commemorative boulder in Wildwood Cemetery

Mooning

2/19/19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon upon her fluent Route

Defiant of a Road

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

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

Photo by Jonathan Vale

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)