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 was driving someplace recently and heard a story on NPR that made me think about Mabel.
In Coconut Grove, Florida, where Mabel lived part of each year from 1917 until the end of her life, there’s a fascinating initiative going on to map and measure trees. As reported by WLRN, researchers from Florida International University are attempting to map all the trees and categorize them in an effort to help residents and city officials make good and environmentally friendly decisions about maintaining trees and planting new ones.
This is the kind of smart ecological data that will help home-owners and city officials, especially in this era of climate change. As I write this blog post, newscasters are warning about the potentially devastating effects of oncoming Hurricane Dorian – could there be a more dramatic example of why we need to think carefully and seriously about the impact of humankind on nature and nature on humankind?
This story also made me think of Mabel and Millicent. Mabel, who “loved great trees,” as Millicent once wrote, would have heartily applauded this project. Mabel’s love of trees led her to purchase the land outside of Amherst that later became the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest when Millicent donated it to Amherst College in 1961, and Hog Island, which became the Hog Island Audubon Camp in 1960.
Millicent, who was presciently aware of the effects of humans’ encroaching on the environment and the potentially devastating effects of introducing species to places different than those from which they originated, would also have embraced this project.
The fact that this initiative is occurring in Coconut Grove, where Mabel’s beloved Matsuba resided,
would make it all the more appealing to her. Were she still alive, no doubt she would be a community leader in this project, as she was with so many others!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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! (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
Today marks half a century since the death of Millicent Todd Bingham. Because Millicent, herself, was so attuned to the significance of different dates and anniversaries, I want to mark this occasion with a few thoughts that honor her.
As I’ve written in After Emily, Millicent was a woman of many talents, but someone who cared – and cared deeply – about being as high achieving within each area of her life as possible. For instance, when she was a junior at Vassar College and had the opportunity to take a semester off to travel with her parents on an astronomy expedition to Asia, she fretted about whether doing so would impede her excellent academic record and prevent her from being elected to Phi Beta Kappa (it didn’t). She gave up playing the violin despite being a fine musician because she worried that her other academic pursuits and travel would prevent her from practicing enough to attain professional-level skill. And later in life, she obsessed over whether her Dickinson scholarship would be valued because her doctorate was not in English literature; receiving two honorary doctorates for her work still didn’t seem to convince her.
In a recent profile of Millicent I published in Harvard MagazineI delineated her lifelong concerns about her many talents. Rather than being satisfied with what today we would call interdisciplinary work, Millicent forever worried that she somehow lacked the proper credentials to do her work. Yet she demonstrated aptitude in both the sciences and the humanities, published books in geography and literature. Her scholarship was impeccable and meticulous in both fields.
Millicent’s environmentalism was remarkably prescient. While Mabel believed that it was important to buy land to save great trees from loggers, Millicent somehow knew that land preservation was necessary for ecological reasons. Here’s something she wrote in 1936:
“The problem of conservation has been brought to public attention very often of late, in books and articles, over the radio . . . but in spite of all the activity, however, the general public is not yet aware of what it is all about. . . . They are . . . results following causes which we, ourselves, have set in motion—destruction of forests, over- grazing, marsh drainage, and so on.”
Years before anyone uttered the term “climate change,” Millicent somehow recognized what was going on.
Her recognition of the importance of teaching environmental appreciation in an experiential way was equally remarkable, hence her quest in the 1930s to make Hog Island into a place to teach teachers about ecology, and to make her gift to the National Audubon Society permanent. Today the camp at Hog Island thrives and remains vibrant, as generations of campers will attest. (You can read more about the Hog Island Audubon Camp here).
One other thing I’ve highlighted about Millicent Todd Bingham is that, although she was well aware of each of her parents’ flaws and foibles, she still felt deeply connected to them. And to her family roots in a broader sense. Millicent was keenly aware of where she came from. Sometimes she felt this as a burden that weighed her down, but more often, she believed that her sense of familial obligation was part of a proud and important tradition. I found – and continue to find – her devotion to her family, despite her understandably mixed feelings, affirmative.
Millicent’s beliefs in scientific rigor and in great art in a number of forms made her someone who thought of marking big anniversaries as an important thing to do. I’m pretty sure that she wondered if people would mark anniversaries of her life. In noting this anniversary of her death, however, I want to celebrate her life.
It’s Halloween, which I’ll be marking by giving a talk in the Sterling Library at Yale this morning. Later today I’ll drive home and put some candy in a wicker pumpkin in case any trick-or-treaters come by. But all day long, I’ll also be thinking of what Mabel, Millicent and Emily might have thought of Halloween.
There’s a debate in the scholarly community about the extent to which Emily Dickinson might have believed in the occult. Many have pointed to all the references to death in her poetry and letters, and biographers have noted the extent to which Emily must have seen images of death all around her (a home overlooking a route to the cemetery, the deaths of friends and relatives including her beloved young nephew, Gib). But others believe that the language Emily used in her poetry referenced death as a part of nature’s cyclical patterns, and the imagery of ghosts and witches was meant to be taken more as metaphor than as belief in the supernatural.
Millicent, I’m pretty sure, would not have thought much of Halloween, other than agreeing that it’s a holiday made up to sell silly costumes and highly caloric sweets. She tenaciously held onto a pragmatic, evidence-based way of looking at the world and didn’t believe in the things she couldn’t see. But that certainly wasn’t true of Mabel.
Some form of Halloween originated eons ago with the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain where people believed they could ward off ghosts by lighting bonfires and wearing costumes. In the early days of this nation, European American people still celebrated All Saints Day but attempted to make it more about community get-togethers than about ghosts and witches. And in Victorian America, while there certainly was an emphasis on scientific and technological progress, there was also widespread belief in and fascination with the parnormal, supernatural and the occult.
Mabel was one of those who was more than a little superstitious. Her entire life, she collected and preserved lucky four leafed clovers (somehow she seemed to find them with great regularity!) She believed that rainbows had magical powers if you saw and wished upon them. She visited palm readers, avidly read about spiritualism and seemed obsessed with stories of witchcraft. When Austin became ill, she paid calls on faith healers whom she felt certain could help him – even from across the state.
After Austin died, Mabel’s beliefs in a world beyond the one we know only deepened. She read about theosophy. She corresponded with people who were convinced about reincarnation and she visited spiritualists. And then, she decided to go spend some time in Lily Dale.
At the turn of the 19th century if you wanted to try to connect with your dearly departed, there was one place to go. The small hamlet of Lily Dale in upstate New York, organized in 1879, had become widely known as the epicenter of the Spiritualist movement. By this time there were perhaps a million professed Spiritualists in America, with more than 70 newspapers and other vehicles for spreading word about the movement. Stemming from this Spiritualist impulse, Lily Dale literally became an occultist cottage industry, with house after house owned by mediums who would guarantee visitors a clear connection to the other side.
After two weeks in Lily Dale during which she attended countless séances that she derided as “tricks” or clear efforts by the medium to pick up on a few cues given by the bereaved to persuade them of their loved ones’ presence, there was one session Mabel simply could not explain. “How, supposing he had desired to cheat me,” she wrote of the medium, “could he have known that it was Austin, and Austin alone I desired? And if by any…chicanery he could have found out his name in the few hours between his arrival in Lily Dale and my coming to him, how could he have known that the middle name was the one I called him by? And how could he have imitated that voice! And said the characteristic things with certain reiterated words just as Austin did!..It was wonderful to stupefaction.”
She described how the medium, someone who’d only just arrived in Lily Dale that morning and had no knowledge of who Mabel was, allowed Austin to speak through him. She recorded in detail what was said: “You kept me nine months on the Earth after my body was dead – your grief and loving kept me. But I have wanted to speak to you for seven long years.” Mabel added, “he went on with things that kept me breathless for nearly an hour.”
This remarkable encounter “…tore my heart strings so that for weeks I walked in a daze. The voice was identical with what I had so longed for years to hear …Some things just could not have been invented. But what does it mean?” And this visit stayed with Mabel for the rest of her life; her journal entries referenced it for many years afterward.
So I am quite certain that while Mabel, like Emily and Millicent, would probably look at the commercial holiday of Halloween askance, she would maintain a quiet and deep faith that there’s actually something to it, beyond the candy corn, costumes and plastic orange pumpkins.
And I will admit to one Halloweenish experience of my own. This past Thursday morning I was in Amherst, having stayed over after giving the first talk on my book tour. As usual, I rose well before dawn. Since I had to get on the road to be back in time to facilitate an event at Tufts in the morning, I decided just to get up and get going. But before heading east, I decided to pay a brief visit to Wildwood Cemetery, to let Mabel know that the book was almost out.
It was very dark, except for the full moon. When I got to Wildwood I had a brief moment of panic, wondering what I was doing – really, wandering around in a cemetery well before it started to get light? Was I nuts?
Fortunately I’ve been there enough that it was still relatively easy to navigate my way to the Todd plot. I had to use the light on my cell phone to fumble around on the ground a little, but I did find a good- sized pebble. And with the spooky light of the moon guiding me, I placed it on top of Mabel’s headstone. Somehow, I knew, this is a gesture she would have appreciated.
Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet