Tag Archives: Julie Dobrow

Traveling in Mabel and Millicent’s Footsteps – Peru Edition

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.

Millicent on board (Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Yale University)

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.

One of the Todds’ photos from the 1907 expedition to South America (Todd-Bingham Picture Collection, Yale University)

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.

The view into Machu Picchu

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?

You know, Millicent, it has.

 

 

Mabel and Amherst, Amherst and Mabel

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.

Amherst College in the 19th century

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,

Mabel teaching art. Photo in the Todd-Bingham picture collection, Yale University

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.

“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.

On the road again!

I’m hearing Willie Nelson’s refrain in my head. March 3rd marked my own return to the book tour road, with a reading at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, MA. In the next few months I have about two dozen book events scheduled. Some of the events are in little indie bookstores, others in libraries, others in a variety of larger venues.

I’m also going to be the guest of a number of book clubs that are reading After Emily. I’m thrilled to join their discussions; no one means more to a writer than an engaged reader, and to meet with a group of engaged readers is a writer’s dream come true!

There also seems something somehow appropriate about my going out on the lecture circuit to talk about Mabel. A large part of Mabel’s professional career was documented and publicized by the many lectures she gave. At the height of her career, Mabel was giving more than 60 talks a year in venues across the country. She spoke on an astonishing number of topics.

When I went through a folder of her lecture notes at Yale I was amazed to see outlines for talks about not only Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, but also about: various topics on astronomy, “Bermuda, The Summer Islands,” “Carthage, Then and Now,” “Club Life for Women,” “The Cruise of the Coronet,” “Ellis Island, “Famous Women,” “Granada and the Alhambra,” “The House Beautiful,” “Japanese Art,” “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” “Quakers in America,” “Witchcraft in New England” and many, many others.

Mabel kept a little notebook in which she recorded when she spoke, where she spoke and what fee or other compensation she received for her talks. Her talks were given to women’s clubs, literary organizations, university clubs and to increasingly large general audiences. Mabel was a natural and dynamic public speaker, and she knew it. After the first public talk she ever gave, in May 1890, she recorded in her journal in a characteristically self-congratulatory way, “My talk in Boston upon Fuji was very enthusiastically received. It was really the first elaborate one I ever gave, but I knew I could do it more than well. When I am to play anywhere, even without notes, my hand trembles and my heat beats tumultuously for a long time before and even when I am to sing, which is greatly easier, my heart is always quickened, often uncomfortably so. But before that Boston talk I was as quiet and happy as if some one else was to have done it. I had thought out quietly what I wished to say, but I found that dozens of bright things came to me spontaneously which I had not intended and the flow of words and pictures was smooth and inspired. My mother, who is a most severe critic, said it was the best thing she ever listened to, and she was thoroughly enthused by it.”

As she became an even more experienced public speaker, Mabel recorded that she could easily “talk to an audience and make them desperately enthusiastic, rippling with laughter one minute and their eyes filled with tears the next.” On her talk at the Sixth Biennial of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles in May 1902, she reported, “I captured them at about the third sentence. How much I wish I know what I possess that does this! But the quality which takes, and keeps, an audience in the hollow of one’s hand is…what comes to be when I stand before a waiting audience.” It was certainly not only her love of being the epicenter of attention and of performing, but doing something she felt she did quite well and promoting the poetry that became such a focal point of her professional life, that made Mabel an enthusiastic and successful public speaker. The talks she gave on Emily’s life and poetry began to fill the halls and launched Mabel’s career as a public speaker and a rare female public intellectual. She relished both of these roles.

But Mabel wasn’t the only one who felt that she was a gifted public speaker. Newspapers sang her praises. She accumulated many letters from people who’d attended her lectures and found themselves informed, amused and moved by them.

I am quite certain that I could ever approach Mabel’s gift for lecturing (one newspaper clipping referred to her as “unquestionably, the dean of American woman lecturers”). But I do try to conjure my inner Mabel with every book talk and reading I do. If I can channel even a fraction of Mabel in my talks I’d be more than satisfied!

Book reading at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore

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

Footstepping and “Footprinting”

2/13/19

This past weekend I was incredibly honored to be the 2019 recipient of the Amherst Historical Society’s “Conch Shell Award.” This award, which takes its name from the 18th century practice of using “ye auld kunk” to summon Amherst residents to town meeting and to worship (strange that a town so far from the sea would have used a conch shell…) is given annually for contributions to the Town of Amherst and its history.

Because Mabel was one of the founders of the Amherst Historical Society back in 1899, receiving an award from this organization is especially meaningful to me. As I said in my remarks, Amherst has become a place that has all kinds of personal and professional importance to me.

Part of this is the connection that I, as a biographer, have come to feel for this place. Richard Holmes, the well-known British biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, among other subjects, has coined the term “footstepping” – the effort to go where your subjects have been and do what they have done. To walk where my subjects had walked; to go into buildings that were once their homes and imagine the scenes that happened there, long ago; to see the seasons in Amherst as they might have – at least before the ravages of climate change alter these seasons any more significantly; – to know the images of 19th century Amherst from Lovell photos and close my eyes and see these places before there was a Jones Library or an Amherst Books, has given me an amazing, physical, visceral connection to the world of the Dickinsons and the Todds – and to Amherst, itself.

And of course, the first piece of writing for which Mabel was paid was the story she titled “Footprints.” In 1883 this story, one that she’d worked on and revised, repeatedly, was published in the New York Independent. She received $25 for it. The idea for this story emanated from a sleigh ride and walk she had taken with Austin.  Several years after the story was published, Mabel recalled in her journal that she’d written it “… in one of those soft, dreary snowfalls and I can remember well the delicious joy of creating, as I wrote, and my joy and belief to be unequalled for me by anything else in the world.” The idea of two lovers’ footprints in the snow joining them in nature and in love inspired her. to write a story in which the protagonist recognizes the love of his life by the footprints she leaves on a beach. The story concludes with a description of the two lovers’ footprints in the sand, side by side, together.

Somehow I think that Mabel’s recognition of “footprinting” as a resonant symbol, and my need to do some “footstepping” in Amherst to know and understand her (and Millicent, and Emily) are both symbols of the journey we go on as writers. It’s important for us to write authentically, for readers to feel that characters are real, that scenes are genuine. For writers of fiction, this means being able to know your characters so well you that an image of the set of footprints left in the sand can tell a meaningful story; for writers of non-fiction, it means knowing your subjects well by doing your best to tread where they have trodden so you can describe places well and get inside the heads of those about whom you are writing. Footsteps leave a trail of footprints; writers leave a trail of words.

I’m grateful to the Amherst Historical Society and Museum for believing that the footstepping I’ve done in Amherst has been in some way significant.

Photo by Chloe Simpson on Unsplash

By the way, I’ll be doing more footstepping in Amherst later this spring:  on June 1, I’ll be leading another “Mabel Loomis Todd of Amherst.” You’ll soon be able to sign up for it on the Amherst Historical Society and Museum’s website.

Baby names

February 5, 2019

On this, the 139th anniversary of Millicent’s birth, I find myself thinking about what I imagine she would be thinking about: how will I be remembered? This was something that Millicent thought about quite a bit during her own lifetime. With an intense sense of family lineage, Millicent was forever thinking about her forebears and her connections to them. She reflected throughout her life about how she felt this, how her Puritan ancestors had influenced and guided her every thought and action.

Eben Jenks Loomis and Molly Alden Wilder Looms
Grandma Wilder

Millicent also had a keen sense of history, of the passage of time. Perhaps because she was a child raised primarily by her grandparents and even by her great-grandmother, her sensibilities belonged to prior generations. She was exceedingly loyal and deferential to those who taught and mentored her. She wrote books in tribute to her grandfather, Eben Jenks Loomis, and to Mrs. Mary E. Stearns, one of her most influential teachers. “From babyhood I always collected old people – [they were] more my contemporaries” Millicent wrote in the notes for her autobiography, a task she never completed.

Ensconced – or perhaps even trapped – was she in the past. Millicent was keenly aware of this. Reflecting on her life towards the end of it, in 1964 she mused, “it is curious how my life has been dedicated to the cause of the dead – Mrs. Stearns, Grandpa…my mother, even a brief memoir of Walter. But chiefly to carrying out the wishes of mother, to set the record straight about Emily Dickinson…Tributes to the dead, in deference to the truth. Should not the final one be to myself – who have so short a time to wait? It would be in line with my life-order.”

Millicent, at about age 10

One of the most poignant things about Millicent was her acute awareness of the fact that she was the end of the line of Wilder women. This knowledge haunted her. The ghosts of her ancestors were so much more present than any sense that she would be able to pass their sensibilities along to a next generation. Though in her thirties Millicent was convinced that “…my highest usefulness is to be the mother of children,” and at the end of her seventies, wrote,“…although some tangible accomplishments of my nearly 80 years may have helped others, I have failed in the only way by which I could have made a unique contribution, namely, by a child of my own. My storehouse of knowledge will disappear, my skills, also. But what is there that will remain?” By age 81 looking back on her life she twisted the thought: “Did I ever consider [having a child] my duty to my family? The line ends in me. Did I ever yearn for a child of my own? I cannot remember that I ever did.” But she had, most clearly. Memory might fade, might sometimes play tricks on us. In Millicent’s case, the clarity of her thought up until the time of her death suggests that she needed to try to find solace by deferring and deflecting, because she probably did remember. And if she didn’t, she certainly had an enormous amount of documentary material to jog her memory.

I don’t know if Millicent would find any small comfort in knowing that at least in surface ways, what goes around, comes around. In a recent quest for trivia, I found myself looking at the most popular baby names for 2018 and 2019 “Emily,” clocking in at #12, wasn’t really surprising. “Emily” has been on these lists for many years in my recent memory. But lo and behold, there was “Mabel,” a “new entrant” on the Nameberry top 100 list! And even more surprising, “Millie” and “Millicent” both made a couple of lists of trending names!

But in all seriousness, I do think that the thing that actually would make Millicent feel better about “how will I be remembered?” is the correspondence I have had from many people who have read my book. “Thank you for telling Millicent’s story,” wrote one woman. “She is truly the unsung heroine of the Emily Dickinson saga.” “Millicent deserves our deepest thanks for keeping the legacy on track,” said another man. And another reader suggested, “Millicent Todd Bingham should rightfully emerge from the footnotes.”

So happy birthday, Millicent. It’s one of my dearest hopes that the work I’ve done has in some small way helped to ensure that you’re being remembered in ways that I think would have meaningful to you.

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)