Tag Archives: Emily 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

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.

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

Grace notes

Mabel always took her music seriously. As I’ve written in After Emily, not only was Mabel a gifted pianist and singer, she was also someone who took on the study of music as part of her life’s work. She practiced more religiously than she attended church, often noting in her personal writings how many hours a day she spent working on new music, keeping lists of pieces she felt she’d mastered. In 1890, the same year as the first edition of Emily’s Poems was published, Mabel took singing lessons from the famed Italian opera singer, Augusto Rotoli.

Augusto Rotoli

Even as a child, Mabel seemed to be intellectually fascinated by the structure of music. Her early diaries note her discoveries of different scale types, and her ability, even without formal instruction, to transpose. Her two years at the prestigious New England Conservatory as a young woman included classes on music theory. And as an adult she continued her intellectual pursuit of music through taking a correspondence course in harmony in 1883.

Fascinated by music of all types, her travels around the world also offered Mabel the opportunity to investigate non-Western forms of harmony, different tonalities and new kinds of instruments. Her diaries contain examples of ways in which she attempted to capture her exposure to these unfamiliar forms of music: snatches of tunes she tried to capture on a staff, sketches of unusual-looking stringed instruments, even an exotic birdsong from a jungle in Asia whose music she tried to write out in notes.

 

Mabel was also an avid consumer of music. She went to a lot of concerts and recitals, and, of course, retained programs from seemingly all of them. She wrote about performances in her diaries and journals.

I, too, am someone who has had a lifelong love of music. Like Mabel, I studied music as a performer and was fascinated by its structure, taking courses in theory and harmony. I, too, have loved to hear the music of different cultures. I went to college thinking I was going to major in music but ended up with a double major in anthropology and sociology (go figure!)  And while my own avocation of music has most recently been relegated to listening to it (I do hope to get back to playing chamber music, someday), I’ve never lost that passion. So I feel that one of the things I most understand about Mabel Loomis Todd is how she felt about music, throughout her life.

One of the best examples of this came from a journal entry she wrote in 1879. She and David had attended a concert in Washington D.C. She recorded that of the program, the piece that affected her

“most powerfully was a violincello solo by R. Volkmann op. 69 no. 3…I knew the other harmonies would find it, through all this longing and yearning for its peace. Lo, I waited, and as the tears fell fast and my heart throbbed with longing, I saw myself – blindly but with passionate truth seeking for peace and right and surety through the one struggle of my life. All winter I had tried for it; sometimes it had seemed within my grasp, but it always eluded me, and I felt my soul in sorry, trembling chords which tried so hard to find this one little solitary threat, the note of joy and peace and content.”

When I read this journal entry I had never heard of Robert Volkmann. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I quickly learned that this relatively obscure romantic composer was a contemporary of Liszt and Brahms. And through the marvels of YouTube, I rapidly found a performance of this same composition. As I listened to the music, I got it. I understood viscerally why this woman who wrote so ecstatically of nature, of art, of music, who would later compose soaring odes to her love for Austin, would have felt such resonance with the passionate minor chord progressions of this particular piece of music.

After listening to this Serenade for cello and strings, I felt like my understanding of Mabel deepened. Listen to it and you will, too.

Mabel, Millicent & Emily FAQs

January 14, 2019

Back from a winter hiatus with new postings on Mabel, Millicent and Emily!

Now that I’ve done quite a number of talks in libraries, colleges, historical societies and bookstores, I have a pretty good sense of the kinds of questions people are likely to ask. I thought I’d post a few of them here, along with my answers, for those of you who probably have the same inquiries (though I do encourage you to come to one of my events, a complete list of which is also found here on my website). So here are the five most asked questions, a lá David Letterman:

5th most often asked question:

Why are we still so fascinated by Emily Dickinson today?

Answer: The mystery. For all that we do know about her, there is more that we don’t. Plus, her poetry is still remarkable and only becomes more so, the more you read it.

4th most often asked question:

Why would Millicent have given up her own career to take on her mother’s?

Answer: Good question! Though Millicent had great misgivings (including but not limited to:   forsaking the scientific training she had received at Harvard; not following up on  her work with Professor Raoul Blanchard,the so-called father of modern geography; fearing that not having had the university training in literary analysis which would accord her credentials to be accepted within the academy as a literary scholar she would always be considered something of an imposter; and worrying that she would never find her life’s true calling), she felt that her duty to her mother was greater than her fears. It was a true “bargain with the devil” for Millicent. But in the end, she felt that it was more important to help the mother about whom she had such vastly conflicted feelings than to continue to advance her own career.

3rd most often asked question:

Was Millicent really David’s child?

Answer: Yes, absolutely. Millicent was conceived and born more than a year before Mabel even moved to Amherst.

2nd most often asked question:

Did Emily Dickinson know what was going on between Mabel and Austin?

Answer: Likely yes. We don’t have direct evidence of this but we do know that Emily was well aware of the many times Austin brought Mabel over to The Homestead. Given Emily and Austin’s closeness in childhood, given that Emily knew that Austin’s marriage to Susan was not a happy one and perhaps given her own closeness to Susan, it seems likely that Emily was not only aware that Mabel and Austin were in love, but probably understood why.

1st most often asked question:

Did David Peck Todd know what was going on between Mabel and Austin?

Answer: Yes! Not only did David know, he helped to enable the relationship by delivering Mabel and Austin’s letters to each other, by inviting Austin to come along when he went to see Mabel in Boston and by whistling loudly a tune from the opera “Martha” when he came home from the observatory late at night to signal that it was time for Austin to depart.

Send me other questions you might have and I will do my best to answer them in subsequent posts! (afteremilythebook@gmail.com)

 

 

“Winter is good”

12/16/18

We’re almost at the winter solstice. Days have shortened, we’ve had snow here in Boston. Holiday ads have been on the air for months already, but they’ve increased in their frequency and annoying intensity. Houses and stores sport colorful decorations. People are driving around with trees on the roof of their cars. ‘Tis the season, for sure.

If you’re like me, the whole holiday season and onset of winter brings a very intense set of mixed emotions. I, personally, have a rule of never setting foot in a store between Thanksgiving and New Years because I just can’t stand the hype. And though there are things I love about winter, like many New Englanders (having lived here longer than any other place I’ve lived I guess I can now claim this title, even without having grown up here!), I greet this time of year with some ambivalence.

I think the combination of the almost inevitable holiday let-down  and knowing that the cold weather will be with us for a while can cause some personal incongruities. No matter what you celebrate, when you’re an adult it’s just not with the same joy you had as a child; snow days once greeted with a wild cry of “no school!” and leaps into snowdrifts become logistical pains of having to deal with no school days and consequent rescheduling, shoveling through snow drifts and back aches. Isn’t there a way of retaining that child-like joy when the snow starts to daintily dance from the sky?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

As I thought of this, recently, I decided to look back and see what Mabel, Millicent and Emily seemed to think of this time of year. It turns out that each of them had her own share of holiday/winter ambivalence.

Throughout the years of her relationship with Austin, Mabel always rejoiced in the season but mourned that she and Austin were unable to spend it together. In 1888 she wrote of how Austin had given her an oak writing desk for Christmas; this thoughtful gift pleased her, but also made her realize that it was a piece of furniture that wasn’t going into their home, as she thought it should. Mabel knew that while she would use it to craft and revise her writing upon it, the desk was a poignant reminder that she had not yet found the kind of response to her writing that she most desired. “But if I were to become sufficiently well-known to be asked for articles and stories, that sort of stimulus would be very sweet to me. I do long for a little real, tangible success,” she wrote in her journal.

Of course after Austin died, for years Mabel wrote of feeling his loss greatly at the onset of holidays, at the year’s end, and at the commencement of winter, the season in which the two of them had gone for blissful sleigh rides through fields of unbroken white beauty.

For Millicent, too, the holiday season brought about thoughts of missed opportunities. In an entry from her journal in 1925 she wrote, “The major mistake of my life occurred in the winter of 1912-13. I met Walter. He asked me to the Winter Carnival at Dartmouth. My mother went too, and we stayed at the Wilder’s house a few miles down the river from Hanover. Walter once told me that as we were sitting by the fire, and he was about to ask me to marry him, my mother came in. He could have asked me later, but he did not.” It’s interesting how Millicent’s regrets got wrapped around somehow blaming her mother and blaming Walter –the truth was that at the time, she had little to no interest in him and probably would have turned him down, anyway. But in the receding of time, history had corrected itself in her mind. And interestingly, for years afterward this time of year made her think of what she’d come to believe was the lost opportunity of marrying Walter earlier in life when there might still have been a possibility of having children.

As for Emily, as L. Edwin Folsom pointed out in a 1975 article in American Literature, “Involved in the very essence of seeing ‘New Englandly’ are the ‘flitting’ of the seasons and especially the ‘Snow’s Tableau’ in winter. It would seem logical, on the basis of such a statement, to expect a great deal of winter imagery-cold, snowy Connecticut Valley imagery-in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Yet, except for a very few poems …winter imagery seems strangely absent.” Folsom went on to suggest that Emily “wavered between a hope for an eternity of spring or summer, a new Eden, and a fear of an eternity of winter, a frozen grave.” Her poems about summer give transcendence and hope, the ones about winter, a different sort of reality, one with only “a certain Slant of light.”

“Winter is good” (poem 1316 in Johnson, 1374 in Franklin) exemplifies Emily’s mixed feelings about the season. Linda Sue Grimes posits on the Owlcation.com site, that this poem’s first verse “slyly humbles the cold season but not before distinguishing its multitude of genuine positive attributes.”

Emily seems to suggest that to truly enjoy the winter, we would have need to first drink in the summer. While many people will never embrace winter’s delights, knowing the contrasts of the season might be what allows us to appreciate them both. Even the frost of winter can be thought of as having something in which to rejoice if we can see that its contrast to summer provides a kind of other-worldliness. And the cyclical nature of it all is something Emily celebrates:

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —

Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

So wherever you are when reading this and whatever you celebrate this holiday season, I hope for all of you an understanding of why so many of us feel ambivalence, and an ability to overcome it by appreciating all of the differences that this world brings to us. Seasons are to be celebrated – all of them. And may you all find that inner-child this winter so that you can again find joy in its frosty delights.

Photo by Hide Obara on Unsplash

Sources quoted:

“The Souls That Snow”: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson Author(s): L. Edwin Folsom, American Literature, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Nov., 1975), pp. 361-376.

“Emily Dickinson’s ‘Winter is good – his Hoar Delights,’”: Linda Sue Grimes, Owlcation.com, April 14, 2018.

Emily Dickinson at 188, endlessly young and fresh

12/10/18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Artwork by Madeleine Delpha

Halloween musings from Mabel and me

10/31/18

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.

Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash

Publication day!

10/30/18

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:

3/3/11

 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.

On writing

10/22/18

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’.

One of Emily’s “scraps”

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.