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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:

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:

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.

Amherst Magazine article on David Peck Todd (July 28, 2017)

As excitement builds over the total solar eclipse that will be visible in much of the United States this summer, Julie looks through the other end of the telescope back at astronomer David Peck Todd, one of the subjects of Outside Emily’s Door, and his frustrating lifelong quest to view grand celestial events.

The Star-Crossed Astronomer

Illustration by Michael Waraksa

Across the world he traveled
on the trail of the elusive
total solar eclipse. But again and again,
clouds got in his way.

Total solar eclipses are visible from Earth every year, but the chance to see one from any specific point is rare. In Amherst, for example, totality comes around once in about 375 years. While a lunar eclipse tracks across an entire hemisphere, the track of a typical solar eclipse is only 60 or 70 miles wide. So the celestial happening to which many Americans will be treated this summer is quite unusual: the first total solar eclipse to be visible across a large swath of the continental United States since 1918.

David Peck Todd

David Peck Todd, class of 1875, made a career of trying to view such events. As an Amherst professor, he spent decades chasing eclipses around the globe. While this work brought him some acclaim, it also surrounded him with notoriety. “His exploits,” noted Amherst Professor F. Curtis Canfield ’25 in a somewhat facetious tribute, “successful or not, always got headlines in the national press; Amherst had no need of a publicity department with Davy Todd on the faculty.”

In fact, Todd’s lack of success in recording the elusive total solar eclipse over the course of many expeditions around the world might have contributed to his forced leave of absence from Amherst 100 years ago, in 1917. Elemental forces—those derived from nature and those emanating from humankind—thwarted Todd’s best and considerable efforts. His profound frustration with these failures no doubt fueled the downward spiral into which this once-promising talent dizzyingly tumbled.

Born in upstate New York in 1855, Todd was a precocious intellect, a gifted organist and a tinkerer with a bent for mechanical invention. He enrolled at Columbia University as a 15-year-old, then transferred to Amherst because of its astronomy program and observatory. After graduating he worked for the U.S. Naval Observatory and the U.S. Nautical Almanac Office in Washington, D.C., where he met and married Mabel Loomis, an effervescent young woman with ambitions of her own. Mabel would become one of Emily Dickinson’s first editors, publishing the initial volume of Dickinson’s poetry in 1890. Mabel would also, infamously, have a 13-year-long affair with Austin Dickinson, class of 1850, treasurer of the College and brother of the poet.

David Todd’s interests in astronomy were far-ranging. As an undergraduate he made a name for himself by observing Jupiter’s satellites at the times of their eclipses. When he returned to Amherst in 1881 as an instructor and director of the observatory, he extended his work to studying many types of solar activities. He traveled to California in 1882, for example, to head observations of the Transit of Venus for the Lick Observatory. This rare astronomical occurrence, in which the full outline of Venus can be seen as it passes between the sun and Earth, happens just twice each century. This was Todd’s only chance to see and photograph the event, and he left Amherst for two months in its pursuit.

While in California he began developing ways to take rapid series of photographs that, when put together in a kind of flipbook, could capture movement of a solar event. He tinkered with other equipment too: On one of his first eclipse expeditions, in 1887, he took the unusual step of employing multiple telescopes and spectroscopes. His hope was to enable a more comprehensive and precise view of the eclipse, ostensibly eliminating human error. Todd worked to refine this nascent technology over several expeditions.

In 2004, during this century’s Transit of Venus, astronomers Anthony Misch and Bill Sheehan found all of Todd’s stills from 1882 and animated them, a feat that would have thrilled him. Indeed, Todd’s most lasting contribution to astronomy may be his work to simulate animation—now a fundamental method for studying eclipses. Misch and Sheehan consider his images from 1882 “superb,” and the most complete record of that astronomical event. But Todd’s success with the Transit of Venus photography was an anomaly: It may be that, in the annals of astronomy, he is better known for his failures.

Ever since the invention of photography, astronomers have seen its utility. English scientist John William Draper is credited with taking the first detailed photograph of the moon, in 1840. In 1851 astronomers at the Royal Prussian Observatory became the first to photograph a total solar eclipse. In the decades that followed, photos of total solar eclipses remained quite unusual. The sightings were rare, and the slow shutter speeds of early cameras made it difficult to capture the rapid progression toward totality. But Todd believed his propensity for invention, paired with his proclivity for distant travel, would enable him to accomplish what others had not.

Beginning in 1878, Todd led a series of expeditions to observe solar eclipses. He went on a dozen of them in all, traveling to five continents and more than 30 countries. Mabel and their only child, Millicent, accompanied him on several. There were three expeditions to Japan and two to Libya. Todd also led teams to Angola, Chile, Brazil and other countries throughout Europe, Asia and South America.

The 1896 trek to Japan was known as the “Amherst Expedition.” Funded by multimillionaire railroad magnate Arthur Curtiss James, class of 1889, David and Mabel departed on their journey serenaded by the Amherst Glee Club (which, Mabel noted, culminated its performance with a rousing “Amherst yell!”). They set sail from San Francisco on James’ yacht, the Coronet, across the Pacific to Yokohama. James also financed Todd’s 1901 “Amherst Expedition to the Dutch East Indies.”

Each trip included travels to neighboring countries, visits with people of diverse cultures and the collection of thousands of artifacts, which were carefully packed up and sent home to Amherst. Todd devoted years to planning and raising money. He tinkered with heavy equipment, shipped it around the globe and reconstructed it on remote mountaintops. It often took months for the equipment to reach these locations. There was, however, one thing he could not control. With few exceptions, on every evening when totality approached, the clouds closed in. So consistently did this happen that once, after Todd’s death, Millicent attended a dinner and met a famous British astronomer who acknowledged her father with the moniker “Professor Todd of the Cloudy Eclipses!”

While Todd never made much professional gain from the eclipse expeditions, Mabel certainly did. With the rare ability to spin any experience, she used much of what she saw and heard on these travels to become a nationally recognized newspaper and magazine correspondent. She wrote two books based on the failed expeditions, Corona and Coronet and Tripoli the Mysterious. For Millicent, the expedition to Peru in 1907 became the basis of her doctoral dissertation (she was the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in geography and geology from Harvard) and subsequent publication, Peru, A Land of Contrasts. All the while, David Todd’s main goal of photographing a clear eclipse remained unrealized.

Weather permitting, on Aug. 21, 2017, sky-gazers all across North America, as well as in parts of South America, Asia, Africa and Europe, will get to see a partial solar eclipse. And viewers across 14 U.S. states, from Oregon to South Carolina, will be within the path of totality; they’ll have the rare chance to see a total solar eclipse. A team from Google and the University of California, Berkeley, has recruited citizen scientists to submit, via a free app, footage filmed on smartphones. Edited together, this footage will form a “megamovie,” ideally documenting the entire progression of the eclipse, to show how the corona changes over time.

A century ago, scientists tried to document the same thing. The expedition to photograph the solar eclipse of 1914 was to be a novel experiment. Todd and several other astronomers hoped to take photos at different points along the eclipse’s path in Eastern Europe, with a goal of putting them together to better understand aspects of the phenomenon. The Todd family gallantly traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, only months after Mabel had recovered from a stroke that left her temporarily paralyzed. Fortunately the Todds were diligent—some would say self-promotional—about speaking with reporters, and Millicent typed up more than 150 pages of her journal from this epic voyage. Without those accounts, we would have no record of it.

Having been stymied by the weather many times before, Todd’s plan for the Russia expedition was to fly above any cloud cover in an “aeroplane” and photograph the eclipse from the air. As he told reporters, “This will enable me to learn whether the bands of light visible only during an eclipse come from the corona itself or are reflected by the gasses given off by the sun.” (He was probably referring to what are known as “shadow bands,” rapidly moving bands of light visible before and after a solar eclipse. In the 19th century scientists theorized that these were caused by diffraction from the sun; we now know them to be caused by turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere.) Todd—a founding member of the Aero Club of America who began a chapter at Amherst (the first at any college)—had great hopes for how aviation could be used in pursuit of astronomical photography.

But this time it was not Mother Nature that intervened; it was World War I.

As tensions heightened throughout Eastern Europe, the Todd family, along with other astronomers who’d arrived for the eclipse, were told they needed to leave, quickly. “Wakened by the wail of woman in the grey dawn,” wrote Millicent, “an astronomer from a far country, marooned in a great city by impending war, arose to finish his calculations of the sun’s total eclipse he had come thousands of miles to see.”

Unfortunately, there was no airplane in which to fly, and, as Todd later recounted to The Amherst Student, the outbreak of war meant that “railroad traffic was totally interrupted, and my instruments … did not arrive.” The Todds made a hasty and perilous retreat across the continent, waiting hours for trains that never came, frequently changing their itinerary to avoid the spreading conflict. When U.S. colleagues lost contact with Todd, the Aero Club of America unsuccessfully appealed to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan to help find him. One headline screamed, “Prof. David Todd Lost in Russia.” Other articles suggested the “Amherst savant” might have been arrested in the course of his scientific mission.

In truth, Todd and his family were neither lost, nor detained, nor missing. They were just trying to get home. Eventually they made it to Scandinavia and undertook an ocean voyage to England, dodging German U boats. Mabel summarized the expedition to Millicent, who recorded it for posterity: “Another eclipse tragedy.”

David Peck Todd came to see the escape from Russia as part of a pattern—one that began in 1882, when his first office at
Amherst burned to the ground. He told his daughter that he should have recognized the Walker Hall fire for what it was: the leitmotif of his life. Indeed, elemental forces stymied Todd at every turn, “whether fire, which destroyed his calculations, the foundation of his next discovery and building-store of his astronomical reputation,” Millicent wrote, “or the cosmos, which rewarded the years of preparations for observing a total eclipse of the sun, each time, by shutting it out.”

Todd turned his professional attention to ever-stranger pursuits. He became convinced that intelligent life existed on Mars and obsessed with radio communication as a way to connect with Martians. Once again he tinkered, going up in hot air balloons with equipment he’d designed to send signals to Mars and to pick up any signals that Martians might send back.

Todd was hardly the only person experimenting with extraterrestrial signaling—Guglielmo Marconi, for instance, was also discussing this possibility—but Todd’s convictions seemed to run deeper than most. In 1907 The New York Times quoted Todd’s belief that there was probably “something like human intelligence on Mars,” a conclusion he came to based “purely upon inferential indications.” Not surprisingly, he faced derision from his colleagues.

Todd wrote one article, for some unknown publication, headlined “What if People DO Ridicule You!” In his words: “Professor Todd is an astronomer who has done work of genuine scientific value, yet because he was not afraid to experiment with novel ideas, he has been criticized, misrepresented and ridiculed. For years the newspapers have printed jokes about him. They have guyed him for his alleged belief that he would sometime be able to communicate with Mars.” The article goes on to
justify his theories of extraterrestrial intelligent beings and the need to contact them.

His increasingly odd behavior was much more than a departure from scientific rigor—it indicated a departure from sanity. He began to skip classes and meetings. In a 1954 Chapel talk, Professor Canfield related that even when Todd, the “modern Marco Polo,” was in Amherst and not chasing eclipses, “work in his courses worried neither the professor nor his students. It is now legend that all one needed to do to pass astronomy was to appear occasionally at the Todd house for afternoon tea.”

Though the record is scant, Mabel and Millicent noted in their diaries that Todd began to sleep little, at odd times and in odd places—sometimes across a tabletop. He spent money lavishly. He sent Millicent on errands that left her questioning his mental state. He would ask her to fetch something from a person who turned out not to exist, and send her to nonexistent addresses to find friends he wished to see. “I got very tired from all of those wild goose chases,” she noted.

Yet it still came as a surprise to the Todds when, in 1917, President Alexander Meiklejohn wrote to say the College’s board of trustees (including family friend and benefactor Arthur Curtiss James) had voted unanimously to grant Todd an “indefinite” leave of absence. “On the whole, I think it would be better for us, and possibly for you, if your leave of absence were continued,” wrote Meiklejohn. “The work in astronomy has not gone well and has been pretty thoroughly out of harmony with the general scheme of instruction.”

The Todds packed up their home in the College-owned Observatory House (now faculty apartments on Snell Street) and left Amherst behind, along with all the College and town had meant to them, in the summer of 1917.

Todd’s subsequent projects included attempts to find a solution to the sun breaking in two (something he was certain would occur during his lifetime) and a plan to crack a “secret code devised by Captain Kidd” and “locate treasure” buried near Deer Isle, Maine. By 1922 his progressively erratic behavior and increasingly fantastic ideas led Mabel and Millicent to the excruciating decision to institutionalize him. He was in and out of mental institutions and nursing facilities until his death in 1939.

In 1932 Millicent and husband Walter Van Dyke Bingham took Todd to Maine for what would be his last eclipse. This time, the viewing was clear. Writing about that night years later, Millicent said, “I gained a flash of understanding of his blighted life, which filled my heart with compassion and my eyes with tears … a glimpse of understanding of what a series of cloudy eclipses, failures, meant to my father, who had put all he had into the preparation for success, time after time, betrayed by his own cosmos.”

Todd is buried in Amherst’s Wildwood Cemetery, where the engraving on his tombstone depicts an eclipse, the sun’s corona clearly visible. The irony of the image would not have been lost on this complicated, brilliant and troubled man.

This August, as Amherst alumni across the United States point cell phone cameras toward the path of the total solar eclipse, they should pause and think of David Peck Todd. He would have applauded the effort—and urged them to take some video, too.

Julie Dobrow, a Tufts University professor, is the author of the forthcoming bookOutside Emily’s Door: Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet (W.W. Norton).

Movie Review: A Quiet Passion

“A Quiet Passion” – film review of the new bio-pic by Terrence Davies

April 2017

I walked out of the theater and was reminded of the time when, years ago, we’d taken our kids to see the first “Harry Potter” film. My daughter Mira, an avid reader, was indignant. “Mommy, there were at least 40 things I counted that were wrong in that movie!” she proclaimed.

It’s one thing to make changes when you are adapting a novel to the screen and need to compress a multi-hundred page book to a two-hour treatment. It’s another to reduce a real person’s life to a story that works in filmic form.

My biggest problem with the movie was, not surprisingly, Terrence Davies’ treatment of Emily’s relationship with Mabel. It’s not a relationship of mutual respect. It’s not a relationship of artistic exchange. It’s not nuanced, at all.

Davies has them meeting face to face, which, of course, never happened. He shows them engaged in a cat fight:  Emily is furious with Mabel over the relationship with Austin, and furious with Austin for betraying Susan. Mabel is just a slut, albeit a stylish one who can sing Schubert beautifully. There’s some line when Emily and Vinnie are talking about her in which one of them says something about how “all the men are in love with Mabel” and the other says “at least according to her.”  Certainly, Mabel was somewhat self-centered, but there was so much more to her! Viewers of this film would emerge befuddled over how and why it was that Mabel became Emily’s first editor. Or of how and why Mabel would have had any true understanding of Emily, at all.

Other historical inaccuracies abound:  Susan appears after she’s married Austin and as if the rest of the Dickinsons only met her then for the first time (instead of 6 years prior, during which time she had established a very significant friendship with Emily, in particular); Edward, Austin and Vinnie suddenly show up at Mt. Holyoke to take home a very fit-looking Emily who doesn’t seem to have been ill (she was); Charles Wadsworth appears in Amherst and the implication is that Emily and Vinnie heard him preach there, rather than in Philadelphia (which is what actually happened); Mabel doesn’t make an appearance until after Emily Norcross’ death (when we know that she in fact played piano and sang for her.)

The final shots of the movie at Emily’s funeral are particularly, infuriatingly inaccurate. They show the wrong flowers, depict her coffin being put into a carriage (when we know it was carried by the household workers at Emily’s own request) – and buried in Wildwood Cemetery rather than West Cemetery. When an image of Wildwood came up on the screen it was all I could to not to shout out “That is the WRONG place!”

Then there are the sort of bizarre depictions of some of the people that didn’t at all match my sense of them. Vinnie, in particular, was portrayed in ways that didn’t make sense to me. She’s strong, wise and kind in the film, not the sort of easily influenced and in some ways easily manipulated person I believe she actually was.

Davies even invents a proto-feminist gal pal foil for Emily in the person of Vryling Wilder Buffum. Vryling was a real person; she just wasn’t probably a friend of Emily’s. (Born in 1860, Vryling was more a contemporary of Mabel’s. She graduated from Wellesley College in 1881, and taught school in Amherst sometime in the late 1880s). Though we know that Vryling did accompany Lavinia to the 1897 trial, if she knew Emily at all it would only have been at the very end of the poet’s life. But in the film, we see Vryling trading quips, ideas about gender roles and quasi-literary one-liners with Emily as they stroll around the grounds, exchanging knowing glances and twirling their parasols.

There’s a lot about Emily that’s not in the film, too:  her love of her gardens, her dog Carlo, many of the other important people with whom she met or corresponded. Otis Lord is only mentioned with regard to Austin trying a case in his court in Boston (not Salem).

And then there’s the use of the poems. I guess it’s difficult to figure out how to use poetry well in a film. When Davies has Cynthia Nixon reading poems offscreen it works better than when he shows Emily reciting one in a context in which it surely was not written (like seemingly composing “I’m Nothing, who are you” on the spot as she is handed the infant Ned).

There are some good things about the film. Emily certainly comes across as a woman who knew her own mind and capabilities in a world that wasn’t quite ready for them. The cinematography is gorgeous. I do think Davies got the relationships between Emily and her parents right and you get the sense of how screwed up all three Dickinson kids were because of Edward and Emily N. There’s a lovely opening shot that goes 360 degrees around the drawing room, making you feel how insular the Dickinson family was and how dark (literally and figuratively) was their Victorian world. There’s a Civil War montage that’s a little strange but does make viewers realize how profoundly the war affected even those living so far from the battlefields, in Amherst.

Ultimately, I was reminded of a letter that Jay Leyda wrote to Millicent, in which he said something about how “a totally unhappy Emily Dickinson is so much easier to imagine.” Davies’ Emily conforms to his vision of a fiercely intelligent, somewhat independent Emily whose loyalties to her own family and to her own craft cause her to sequester herself. The Emily Dickinson in this film suddenly appears in a white dress after her mother dies. “Emily, we’re in mourning!” a shocked Vinnie says when Emily opens her door. “I am,” Emily replies.

Terrence Davies alters facts to shape a vision of ED that is understandable in a film. In some cases even those of us who are more in the know will forgive his artistic license because there ARE things about his Emily and his Amherst that are recognizable. But in others, he will not be forgiven because he really is “telling it slant.”

Here is a trailer for the film:

May, 2017: Centenary of Todd’s Departure from Amherst

In May of 1917, the Amherst College Board of Trustees voted unanimously to grant David Peck Todd an “indefinite leave of absence.” David’s behavior had become so erratic -and so troubling – that Amherst College President Alexander Miekeljohn wrote to Millicent informing her that her parents needed to pack up and vacate Observatory House, a college-owned property. It’s now been a century since the Todds left Amherst and all it had meant to them. But their influence in the town, and at the college, lives on in many ways.

Austin Dickinson