As she wrote in a poem published in the original 1890 volume Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson edited and titled, “Resurgam”:
At last to be identified! At last, the lamps upon thy side, The rest of life to see! Past midnight, past the morning star! Past sunrise! Ah! What leagues there are Between our feet and day!
I suspect that Emily would have no idea of just “how identified” she is now the world over, 189 years after her birth. I think the camera shy young girl would be astounded at how iconic that one clear image of her has become; the recalcitrant poet shocked by how many people across the globe quote her verse. It’s been a remarkable year with regard to new, different (and in the minds of some, rather inaccurate and controversial) portrayals of her in both film and television. Regardless of what you think about these versions of Emily, it’s clear that people continue to be fascinated — and inspired — by both the poet and her poetry.
Over the past year since After Emily was published, I’ve been privileged to speak about my work and about the lives of Emily, Mabel and Millicent in more than 50 venues in eight different states. I’ve done readings in small independent bookstores (and urge everyone to do their part to keep them alive – buy local!); I’ve spoken in lots of libraries (still a vital part of so many communities); I have spoken on many college and university campuses; I’ve given talks for historical societies in lots of interesting venues where the past meets the present. Through all of this I find that one of the most frequently asked questions is what I think might account for the staying power of Emily Dickinson.
I don’t have a definitive answer. But it seems to me that it has something to do with the sheer beauty of the poetry and the fascinating ways in which Emily connected words, looped seemingly disparate ideas together and opened up worlds to us from her examination of small moments. Who else would wonder “what leagues there are/between our feet and day”?
But it also has something to do with the mystery that surrounds her life. For all that we do know there is more that we don’t. Despite the dozens of books, the hundreds of articles, the thousands of essays, there’s still an awful lot about Emily’s life and about Emily, herself, that remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it always will.
My appreciation for Emily Dickinson only increased over this past summer, when I had the amazing experience of spending several consecutive hours in her bedroom with a producer from “This American Life.” (The radio/podcast piece, focusing on Mabel and Austin’s relationship and the ways in which that might have contributed to the eventual publication of Emily’s poetry, will air sometime early in 2020 – stay tuned!) A piece I wrote about the day was published this week in Lit Hub. Suffice to say that watching the light change through Emily’s windows, just as she would have seen it, made me realize, anew, how keen her powers of observation were, and how finely tuned into that still small voice inside her she was.
I’m very pleased that my publisher, W.W. Norton, has chosen this day to release the paperback version of After Emily. Although Emily, herself, remains a shadowy figure in my book and never actually makes an appearance until after her death, she is, of course, most central to the story.
So here’s to Emily Dickinson on her birthday! For she is and will always be, that “winged spark that doth soar about!”
I’ve written previously about what it’s meant to my understanding of Mabel, Millicent and Emily to do some “footstepping” – to walk in their paths, see and experience some of the places they did. It’s helped to envision their worlds, to get inside of their heads. I recently experienced this again when my family and I traveled to Peru.
In 1907, Mabel and David traveled to South America on yet another eclipse expedition. They left aboard the SS Panama, traveling to Cuba, through what would become the Panama Canal into Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile in May of that year. Millicent, teaching at Wellesley College, was not able to leave during the semester and so traveled by herself to join her parents in Peru – a remarkable thing for a young woman of 27 to do at the time, especially given the long journey by boat, rail and carriage it took to get there.
The 1907 expedition was the second one financed by wealthy mill magnate turned astronomer, Percival Lowell. David spent months on his calculations and arranged to ship the new Clark refractor telescope from Amherst College all the way to South America. Mabel and Millicent both took Spanish lessons in preparation for the journey.
For Mabel, the most significant moments of the expedition included seeing both the incredible poverty of Ecuador, more extreme than anything she’d ever viewed, and the spectacular scenery of Peru. She wrote that the landscape “affects me much as I suppose a trip on the moon might do, so unearthly, so foreign to any land or country I ever saw before or imagined. It is like dreams, or strange thoughts at most weird moments. High above where mountains could be imagined, rise sterile and terrifying peaks, range upon range, half hidden in cloud, and emerging here & there with forbidding effect, massive, stern, grand, awful in their deathlike loneliness, blue atmospheric softening, yet showing through it shadows and crevices the fearful caves and magnificent glaciers…”
Mabel spent much time on this trip riding on horseback (“it would be of no use to anybody to come to South America who did not ride” she noted along the way), and traveled on a train high in the Andes – the highest railway in the world at that time. She also gave an address before the Geographical Society of Peru, becoming the first woman ever to address that group.
Millicent recorded her journey in great detail in a journal she later typed up (150 pages’ worth). Most of her comments were not only about the sights she saw, but also about her observations of differences in race and class. Unlike Mabel, who was passionate about trying to paint a picture in words, Millicent waxed far more practical in what she chose to record. It’s not as though she didn’t see the poetry of nature – she just didn’t feel the need or believe she had the ability to capture it. To wit, upon seeing an incredible sunset in Peru, which she suggested was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen, she wrote, “I don’t try to describe these sunsets for several reasons – (1) I shall remember every color to my dying day, (2) they change instant by instant, (3) they are entirely different in different parts of the horizon (4) they are different every night (5) I can’t.”
But that doesn’t mean that even practically- minded Millicent couldn’t also be philosophical or poetic, at least on occasion. After describing a trek she had taken with David up 17,000 foot Mt. Meiggs, (described today as “where the Andes glaciers meet the sky”), Millicent was awed.
Peru moved Millicent in ways she didn’t realize at the time. Its rugged and contrasting geography would become the topic of her 1923 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “An Investigation of Geographic Controls in Peru,” and was, as well, the subject of her book Peru, A Land of Contrasts, published in 1917. “Any statement regarding Peru implies a contrary statement equally valid,” she wrote. “Contrast is its characteristic quality, true as to the general aspects of the country and ramifying through remote details. It is the obvious point of view from which to study Peru…To the charm of limitless nature is added the mystery of great peoples destroyed before they were known. The riches of the Incas and of the glittery, vice-regal Spanish days, when continents were found, taken, and explored, contrast with present poverty. Contrasts of nature, of people to country, of antiquity to the present – these diverse elements are insistent wherever one turns.”
Having now been to Peru, I understand why it was that Millicent found the geography there so compelling. It really is a land of contrasts: enormous snow-capped peaks, verdant fields, cacti alongside bromeliads and other tropical plants, ancient terraces cut into the mountainsides, cloud forests, jagged rocky expanses, glacial plateaus. In her travel journal Millicent marveled, “You may go up 17,000 feet to the region of eternal snow. Your mules may drop beneath you with the cold and deadly lack of atmosphere. Still the glaciers crawl down upon you from peaks towering thousands of feet above, where no human foot has ever trod, no living heart ever throbbed. The rocks are jaggeder here and you feel as if the rough places of this earth had been turned up to where they could brush against the sky.”
Of course Millicent was a little wrong about that: human feet had indeed trodden there before. The Todds were in Peru shortly before Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham (no relation to Walter Van Dyke Bingham) “discovered” Machu Picchu. (Bingham’s legacy in Peru is a checkered one, to say the least. Contemporary writers in anthropology, archaeology, history and politics now generally acknowledge that while Westerners might not have known about the amazing ruins, the people who lived there certainly did; Machu Picchu was a part of the Peruvian people’s culture and their lives). The Todds saw and were amazed by many of the other Inca ruins throughout the country. The ruins are unmistakable evidence that well before the Spanish or any other Western culture set foot on this land, Peru was occupied by cultures who found ways of not only taming this remarkable landscape, but of understanding it.
For me, the highlight of our trip was the trek up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Other than childbirth, this was unquestionably the most rigorous physical experience I have ever had. Our guide kept encouraging us along the way, telling us that this was a pilgrimage. When, at the end of 7 hours of arduous hiking, much of it up vertical ascents on ancient stone steps the Incas carved into the mountainside, we saw the “Sun Gate” glowing in the afternoon light and knew that the ruins of Machu Picchu lay just beyond, I felt inspired to go the rest of the way. I knew our guide was right: this WAS a pilgrimage. I’m sorry it’s one that Mabel, David and Millicent didn’t know about, because it would have been as meaningful an experience for them as it was for me and my family.
As we traveled elsewhere in Peru, I found myself thinking of the Todds, a lot. I felt like I was again footstepping. I better understood them in truly visceral ways.
Interestingly, in the middle of Millicent’s South American travel journal she pondered, “I wonder if hearing this journal will ever give a wider horizon to anybody, will show somebody that if they have tried and failed there are chances elsewhere. Or if, perhaps, it might inspire somebody to think of other worlds than those that have become humdrum through too long familiarity?”
Writing after Mabel’s death in 1932, Millicent recounted that a friend of her mother’s once said, “Every outside thing she did came right back to Amherst to be shared here.” Mabel’s many contributions to the town of Amherst – her civic leadership, her land stewardship and her artistic, writing and editing endeavors – had deep roots in her adopted town. She came to love the small college town partly because it was such an integral part of Austin and who he was, but partly because the blend of its natural beauty and cultural connections resonated deeply with the person she was, as well.
Mabel was initially reluctant to come to Amherst. Up until that point, she had only lived in cities: Cambridge MA, Washington D.C. and Boston. An excellent musician, a talented painter and writer and an extremely socially engaged person used to the vibrant arts community and society these urban areas afforded, Mabel was fearful that the small college town would not yield her as many opportunities as she was used to. She did, however, love to be outdoors and relished family trips to the country. Amherst, it turned out, was the perfect blend of urbanity and nature.
Within a few short weeks after moving there in 1881, Mabel was writing in her journal, “Do you know, I think Amherst in many respects quite ideal. I always did like a college town, with its air of quiet cultivation, and by living in such a one it is possible to continue two things which are otherwise generally not found together – I mean the possibility of living in the country, amid the luxuriance of nature, and yet of having refined and educated society at the same time.”
Throughout the thirty-six years she lived in Amherst, Mabel was deeply invested in both the College and the community. As a faculty wife Mabel frequently had teas for David’s colleagues and students, she taught both music and art at a school developed by Mary E. Stearns (wife of former Amherst College president William Augustus Stearns) that operated out of the president’s home,
and chaperoned Amherst College dances. These dances weren’t always pro-forma affairs. Millicent once related that in 1892, her mother discovered that “…when two Negro boys invited their guests to Commencement,” the “Southern boys refused to go to the promenade if the Negro couples were permitted to attend. Having heard this, my mother invited them as our houseguests…along with Katherine Garrison, granddaughter of William Lloyd Garrison – and had a reception” for them.
Perhaps less heralded but equally noteworthy were Mabel’s contributions to saving areas of forest around Amherst: in 1913 her efforts led to her election as chairman of the Amherst Forestry Association. In work that preceded the development of the ecology movement in the United States, Mabel began to purchase land for preservation and wrote widely about it. She bought 80 acres of land in nearby Pelham to save the woods from loggers; in 1961 Millicent donated this land to Amherst College where it became known as the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest and was used for years by the biology department as a kind of living ecological laboratory.
I’ve written previously about Mabel’s many other civic legacies in the town of Amherst (see my blog post from 11/21/18). Suffice to say that many of the institutions she started are still going strong in Amherst.
One of these is the Amherst Historical Society and Museum. And on June 1, I will be leading a “Mabel Loomis Todd tour of Amherst” for this institution. We’ll tour sites of importance for the Todds and the Dickinsons, starting at the History Museum and ending up in Wildwood Cemetery. If you’d like to sign up and join us, you can do so here.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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! (email@example.com)
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.
Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet