Tag Archives: Julie Dobrow

On writing


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.


Requiescat in Pace


On this day in 1932, Mabel Loomis Todd was getting ready to close up her beloved Camp Mavooshen on Hog Island and return to her home in Florida for the winter. When her dear friend Howard Hilder (an artist who drove her back and forth between Maine and Florida, assisted her with tasks at both homes and escorted her to many an event) asked if there was anything more he could do to help, she laughingly replied, “Yes, more than a million things.”  “A rather large order,” Hilder responded, “but I will begin and we’ll finish them somehow.”

But Mabel was never to finish all of the unfinished tasks. Nor was she to complete all of the innumerable projects in which she was engaged: the article about the creation of the Everglades National Park she was writing, correspondence she had begun, scrapbooks she was working to update. On this day Mabel suddenly had a massive cerebral hemorrhage, fell on the porch of the house she and David had built and treasured, and died hours later.

When I was doing the research for After Emily, some of the items that affected me most profoundly were found in the enormous scrapbook that Millicent put together after her mother’s death. Like many of Millicent’s scrapbooks, it has so much material that its leather bindings long ago cracked. It contains, among other things, copies of numerous obituaries and tributes that were published and read publicly and hundreds of condolence letters from around the world.

The album begins with the two Western Union telegrams Howard Hilder sent Millicent: “Mama very ill, come at once. Hilder” and “Your mother passed away this afternoon. Please telegraph immediately.”

And it ends with a note that Millicent glued into this scrapbook which came from someone whose name she somehow chose not to note or preserve. But the sentiment expressed seemed so universally held among those who wrote to Millicent that its authorship almost does not matter. It read in part, “But deep as the little Amherst world was in her debt, the debt of the big world of literature to her was wholly different…and will survive many, many college generations to come…On this somber morning I bring up the remembrance of your mother. I like to remember her as living. She was so well made for living. She lived so much and so completely, last year at this time, what a ravishing picture, the pink dress, the jewels, the eyes more shining than the jewels. She was carrying forward the beautiful pure spirit of Emily Dickinson.”

I try to go to Wildwood Cemetery on each of my trips to Amherst. On my most recent visit, I brought with me two late summer blooms from my own garden that I laid on her grave. And on this day, the 86th anniversary of her death, I like to believe that Mabel, who loved to gather and preserve flower petals, would appreciate this gesture of tribute.

Requiescat in pace

The ethereal Indian Pipe


On this day in 1882, Mabel Loomis Todd recorded the following entry in her diary:

“This letter made me happier than almost any other I have ever received. It fairly thrilled me, which shows that my susceptibility to magnetic friendships is not entirely confined to men, as I have occasionally thought myself.”

The letter to which she referred came from none other than Emily Dickinson. Mabel was so taken with Emily’s letter that she copied it, word for word, into her journal, as well as writing about it in her diary.

Emily’s letter to Mabel thanked her for a painting Mabel had created and sent upstairs to the reclusive poet during a recent visit to The Homestead. Mabel’s painting was of Indian Pipe wildflowers. This ethereal looking wildflower is also known as “the ghost plant” or the “corpse plant.” It contains no chlorophyll and because it does not depend on sunlight to grow, can flourish in dark, forested places. It’s more like a mushroom than a traditional wildflower, appearing suddenly and unpredictably. Its white countenance is striking. And it only lasts for a few days.

That without suspecting it you should send me the preferred flower of life, seems almost supernatural, and the sweet glee that I felt at meeting it, I could confide to none,” Emily wrote.

Mabel’s original Indian Pipe panel, left, and the cover of the 1890 first edition, right

Of course Emily Dickinson, who cultivated flowers and studied them meticulously, would have greatly appreciated Mabel’s efforts to capture the ephemeral “ghost plant.” “I had pondered for a long time to send her a painting of something,” Mabel wrote in her journal, “but when I came back I looked over my studies and by a sudden inspiration I determined to paint the Indian pipes on a black panel for her.”

In Emily’s response, Mabel knew that she had hit the mark in her choice of subject:

“To duplicate the vision is almost more amazing, for God’s unique capacity is too surprising to surprise. I know not how to thank you—We do not thank the rainbow, although its twoplay is a snare.

To give delight is hallowed—perhaps the toil of angels whose avocations are concealed.”

It’s not surprising that, years later, Mabel chose her panel of Indian Pipe wildflowers to grace the cover of the first published volume of Emily’s poetry. For Mabel, this was a symbol not only of the poet whose poetry had long been hidden from the world and would only then sprout up like the Indian Pipes, but also a symbol of the bond she felt she’d made with the poet whom she’d never actually met. Knowing this, years later Millicent also decided that the most appropriate symbol to have etched on her mother’s headstone was…the Indian Pipes

Interesting – and weirdly – right after I had received the first proofs of After Emily from W.W. Norton, I was out walking my dog and saw something I’d never before seen in the woods in front of the home where I’ve lived for three decades: Indian Pipe wildflowers. I snapped a photo on my phone because I could hardly believe what I’d seen!


October! “The morns are meeker than they were…”


It’s dark this morning as I’m writing. The dawn doesn’t come until later and later, punctuated each morning by the sounds of low-flying geese swooping over the pond. I cannot help but think of Emily’s poem titled by Mabel “Autumn,” known now by its first line: “The morns are meeker than they were” (poem 12 in Johnson, 32 in Franklin). Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson first published this poem in the first volume of poetry in 1890. It’s a remarkable poem. We know summer is gone because “the rose is out of town” and that the season has changed dramatically because “the maple wears a gayer scarf.”

So yes, it’s October: the month that Emily, Mabel and Millicent all celebrated in their writing. It’s the month that Emily’s childhood friend, the poet Helen Hunt Jackson, once wrote was her favorite month of year, albeit the most poignant, because so many of the most important events of her life occurred during it (she was born in October, her first husband died in October, she married her second husband in October). In one of several odes to the month Jackson wrote:

“Love loveth best of all the year
October’s bright blue weather.”

I, too, have always loved this month. My childhood memories are filled with the requisite trip to the iconic Martin Viette Nursery on Long Island (now closed), where my brothers and I would get to pick out pumpkins, eat candied apples and go on a hayride around the property. When my own children were young, this month would include a trip to Arena Farms in Concord (also now closed!) to do the same activities that were such a memorable part of my own childhood. October meant apple picking at other local farms, spending a lot of the month creating Halloween decorations to tape around the front door, and assembling interesting costumes (two of my personal favorites: my daughter going trick or treating as Gloria Steinem and one of my sons parading around as an early, boxy Mac computer – inside a box!) Living in New England, October has also meant glorious sugar maple splendor, plentiful crisp apples and increasingly cool nights.

So like Emily, like Mabel, like Millicent, like Helen, I, too, have long loved the month of October.

And of course, this year I have another reason to celebrate the calendar’s shift to October: this will be the month that After Emily is released! To celebrate the month, I think I will do as she, herself, suggested, “and symbolically “…put a trinket on”!

Photo by Maddy Baker on Unsplash

Mabel and the Boston Authors Club


This week the Boston Authors Club (BAC) will hold its annual awards ceremony at the Boston Public Library. I’m thrilled to be on the board of this organization, which honors writers with Boston-area ties and puts on other events of interest to the literary community. But I’m also thrilled to be a part of it because it was an organization that Mabel Loomis Todd helped to form.

In 1899, Mabel hosted a tea at her home in Amherst. Her guests that day were May Alden Ward, a celebrated author and lecturer visiting from Cambridge, and Helen Winslow, one of Boston’s first newspaperwomen. During their time together, the women discussed beginning a Boston Authors Club. This idea of convening authors and those with literary aspirations had precedent in other cities, like New York, but in those days, membership was limited to men. The idea Mabel floated with her guests was to make a more inclusive club that would include both men and women – a radical notion, but one that others quickly embraced.

One of those enthusiastic about the idea was Julia Ward Howe, famous for writing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “Go ahead,” she stated to her female compatriots. “Call some people together here at my house. We will form a club and it will be a good one too.” The group held its first meeting in January 1900 in Julia’s Beacon Street home.

Julia Ward Howe

Membership for the BAC is limited to authors who live within a 100- mile radius of Boston. This is probably not a coincidence: Mabel, one of its founders, lived 90 miles from Boston.

Mabel was an active member of the BAC until 1917, when she moved to Florida. But even after that, she maintained a “non-resident” membership for years. The annual reports of the BAC and correspondence with many of its members can still be found among her voluminous papers at Yale.

Mabel and Julia Ward Howe became good friends and maintained a lively correspondence for years (Julia addressed her letters to Mabel with the greeting “ My dearest Toddkin.”) When Julia died in 1910, Mabel wrote in her diary, “Dear Julia Ward Howe died yesterday and I am grieved to the heart.” She wrote a lengthy and moving tribute to her friend that was read at a BAC meeting.

So when I go the BAC awards this week, part of me will be very much present in the present as we honor some excellent books from 2017. But part of me will be thinking back to the days when Mabel worked to begin this organization, and think of what she might think were she to come to one of our meetings, today.


You can read more about the history of the BAC in an article I wrote for the Boston Globe Magazine, and learn more about the BAC on its website: http://bostonauthorsclub.org/about-1/

Millicent and reflections on WWI, a century later


Exactly one hundred years ago this week, Allied forces in World War I began their final offensive against Bulgaria. Their success meant that Bulgaria became the first of the Central Powers to accept defeat. It was, arguably, one of the first critical steps that led to the end of the war.

A little known part of little known Millicent Todd Bingham’s story is the part that focuses on her experiences in World War I. I’m not going to recount the whole story here – suffice to say that it’s an amazing tale of love and loss, and it’s one that profoundly affected her for the duration of her long life. It’s well documented in After Emily. But what I have found myself thinking about, throughout this entire year of 2018 when there’s been so much in the news about the 100th anniversary of end of World War I, is what Millicent would have thought about all this media coverage.

Of course I cannot know for sure, but I rather suspect that one of her major reactions to the news and feature stories in newspapers, the TV specials on The History Channel or CNN, the occasional thought-provoking reflection you can find on NPR or by perusing the internet, is that she would believe the focus is not what it should be. While the politics, the resulting shifts of geo-political alliances and, frankly, the gore, have been well covered, Millicent would find the patriotic fervor this war created for her and for so many Americans poorly represented in today’s popular press.

In 1918, Millicent decided that the pull of doing something for her country superseded the pull to continuing to work toward her Ph.D. at Harvard. She joined a women’s unit of the YMCA that was dispatched to France to provide aid for American troops. “For the first time I have a grasp of the glory of the canon for which I am going to work,” she wrote in her journal.

I spent a lot of time reading Millicent’s letters from France back home to her parents and to her friends. I went carefully through the diaries and journals she kept there during her two year stint. One of the common themes that came through over and over was her fervent belief that what she, along with all the women volunteers and the male military personnel were doing, was work that was not only personally gratifying, but truly important. “I wish I could even in [a] thousand years tell you how great the experiences we’re having here are, but I can’t,” she wrote home to Mabel. “ There is one thing I can say. That is that the courage and sublime unselfishness of these everyday soldiers is the biggest thing in this world, and I know it.”

After the armistice she wrote in her journal, “I came with the attitude I had since had since I arrived in France – that of wishing to give all I had, money, time, energy, to the very last ounce of it which was all too small, to help win the war. Our cause was not only worth it, it was a Holy Grail. Life itself was too poor to offer to such a cause. The world would not be worth living in if we failed. If we won a brighter, shining world would be the gift of our sacrifice and suffering to a loftier, more understanding race, who would stand upon our shoulders and go on rejoicing.”

And this feeling continued for the rest of her life. As the war in Vietnam ramped up and nightly news coverage contained not only the carnage from overseas, but also the increasing domestic protests against it, Millicent could not understand. She kept thinking back to her own experiences in France; while she recognized the discord of the 1960s, she couldn’t identify with it.

In a taped interview she did in her final decades, Millicent recounted, “I don’t know how to tell people of this modern generation about our feeling about that war. There was a feeling of such consecration – a feeling of such tremendous idealism and uplift. We felt that if there was anything that we had in the world we could offer to help the country to win that war it was all too little. And I, of course, felt at once that the thing which I had to offer was [my]ability to speak French, and I was very well and strong, so I volunteered.”

Millicent’s photo of wounded soldiers in Angers, France

Emily, Mabel and the change of season

I’m thinking this week about a couple of lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Summer begins to have the look” (poem 1693 in the Franklin edition, 1682 in Johnson). In the second stanza of this poem, Emily wrote that “Autumn begins to be inferred” by the changing types of clouds or the intensifying hues that start to cover the landscape. As usual, she encapsulated it brilliantly.

This is the time of year in New England when summer, indeed, starts to have a certain look: plants look tired, the grass is tinged brown. The light at different times of day has changed. Trees have begun to hint at the brilliant palette they’ll soon fully reveal. It’s no longer really summer, and not yet really fall.

Mabel, too, wrote frequently of her love for autumn, about the changes it brought and the associations it brought her. She’d written in 1879 of her hopes for her yet-unborn daughter, “My little child must worship the sky, and exalt in the autumn.” Early in her relationship with Austin she penned, “All his life he has passionately loved all nature. The autumn chirp of crickets thrills him most pressibly, and the misty hills and the first red leaves.”

And years after Austin’s death, still mourning him, the start of fall brought bittersweet associations:  “Austin dawned upon my horizon, and I recognized him – and never more on earth or in heaven can I know loneliness or despair. In each of my heights a higher one; to all my aspiration a celestial lift above my idealist dreaming.  And so the glory grew and grew, and the autumns were ever more holy time, the springs a benediction. In the streams of leaves, the windy sky, the far lights on the hills, the crisp air, the early twilight drawing in where a hearth fire should have burned – in the pathetic green grass, velvety under the low sun – in all the sweetness, the sadness of this dear month, I saw a radiant light beyond earth, because one noble soul lived who fitted me and complemented my heart. And now the hills lie under the sky with a beauty that stills the heart from beating, the sky, the sun, all are more beautiful than I ever have seen before.”

So here we are, on the precipice of season’s change. With the start of the new school year and the new semester, the pace of life has quickened for me. And we all, as Emily wrote, “reluctantly but sure [perceive]” this change in the tempo of life, as summer inexorably gives way to fall.

Photo by Andrew Small on Unsplash


Bookending the book

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

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


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

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

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

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


Book-writer’s almanac: Some thoughts on Emily’s 187th birthday (December 10, 2017)

December 10, 2017

It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday and I find myself thinking about one of the birthday messages for her that won’t be coming this year.

Every December 10 for just shy of a quarter century, Garrison Keillor, the honey-toned host of public radio and podcast’s The Writer’s Almanac, made certain to have a special segment on Emily. A quick Google search yields dozens of hits linking the reclusive Amherst poet and the gregarious Minnesota-based writer/poet/radio host.

But you can’t do more than see those short summaries now, because as of the end of November, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media cut their ties with Keillor over allegations of “inappropriate behavior.” Click on one of those links and you’re informed, “MPR has ended our contract with the company that owns the rights for production and public distribution of The Writers Almanac and MPR no longer has the rights to post the archives.”

As a long-time fan of both The Writer’s Almanac and the iconic Prairie Home Companion, I was saddened to learn that Keillor had been swept up in the veritable storm of men brought down by their own bad behavior. But I’m especially saddened because The Writer’s Almanac was one of the few venues for hearing poetry read aloud. Poems need to be heard to be fully appreciated.

Keillor read from poets long dead, poets from not long ago, and newer voices to whom he introduced us. The broadcast reached more than 2 million listeners each week; apparently you could directly track mention of a poet on this show with a jump in sales of that poet’s work on Amazon. (Here’s a link to a story about The Writer’s Almanac and what its demise means that aired on WBUR:  http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/12/06/poets-writers-almanac)

The end of this show certainly won’t mean that people stop reading Emily’s poetry, nor that new generations will cease to find wonder when they’re introduced to her work. It’s clear that we have Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham to thank for that, since without them, Emily’s poetry might never have been published, at all.

Mabel realized Emily’s brilliance the first time she was introduced to her poetry in the early 1880s. And when, after Emily’s death, Mabel agreed to try to get the poems published, she approached Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the 19th century abolitionist, Unitarian minister and literary advocate, to help. Higginson had read Emily’s poetry and thought it wonderful but its form too difficult and crude to publish. It took Mabel reading some of the poems aloud to him to convince Higginson that in fact, he must sign on to this important project of getting Emily’s poetry published and bringing it to the world.

While I suspect that Emily, herself, would have been both somewhat horrified and also incredulous to know that her poems could somehow be broadcast so widely, Mabel would surely have been thrilled. Her own very considerable work to promote Emily’s verse and ensure it had a wide readership was limited by the tools at her disposal to disperse it. I somehow think that were Mabel alive today, she would have seen Garrison Keillor’s departure as an opportunity. She would have come up with a plan for a show to replace The Writer’s Almanac, pitched it, and offered herself up as host. And I am certain that she would have sparkled in this role.

But because they’ll be no broadcasts today of Emily’s poems, read one aloud instead – even if you’re the only one in the room. The Emily Dickinson Museum offers a number of tips for reading the poetry:  https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/read_poem

And they do conclude that Emily’s poems, like all poems, derive from an oral tradition. You can learn new things from a poem by hearing it.

So happy birthday, Emily! I’ll be reading some of your poems out loud today in celebration.