Today is Mabel’s birthday, her 162nd, if my math is correct. When I look back on what she wrote in her diary or journal on her birthday over the years, I mostly find the kind of reflection many of us tend to have: how fast the time has gone, how hard it is to believe that she’s reached a certain age, how depressing it is to start to see those signs of aging.
Not surprisingly, many of her birthday musings were in direct relation to her relationship with Austin. In 1883, Mabel wrote in her journal, “27! It seems impossible in most things. I feel like a child – in fact it always seems true that I am 18 and I suppose I act so.” Of course this was toward the beginning of her romantic and sexual relationship with Austin, and she was undoubtedly basking and reveling in his attentions. By 1885, things had become tense in Amherst for her, after Susan discovered the full extent of her husband’s attentions to young Mrs. Todd, and on her birthday Mabel wrote, “I am very happy and very unhappy by turns as this finds me this birthday. I will not expatiate upon it now. But I and my soul are becoming very well acquainted of late.”
After Austin died, Mabel threw herself into her work as a way to distract and tire herself. To mark her birthday in 1899 she wrote, “Anyone who lives in this age, in the midst of life, is hurried almost to the point of distraction all the time. I am, particularly, for I am ‘in’ so many lives.” It was still hard to separate herself from Austin. And in subsequent years on her birthday, she often made some comment like “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. But Austin lies in Wildwood – and all the years cannot make me used to it. I miss him so that all the beauty seems empty. I see it all, I appreciate it, I feel it first the same as ever. But it only TELLS me there IS a story – it used to translate the story…I wonder if from the other side of the sunset Austin watches it – and me –and cares still for hills and clouds! I wonder if in the radiance of his new life he remembers and would help and comfort still.”
Over time, she shifted, as we all do, from finding ways to deflect the years to finding ways to deny them. In 1898, for example, she wrote, “My birthday – is it the 42nd? I believe so, but it does not seem possible, and no one can think it.” And just a few years later, in 1901, she wrote, “Another birthday. I cannot count them any longer.” By 1906 her only remark was dour: “Another birthday. They come very fast now.”
But today I hope that Mabel would celebrate her birthday, knowing that once again people are talking about her, and that a version of her life’s story – and one that depicts her other than Emily’s first editor or Austin’s lover – is now in bookstores.
This week marks the first full week during which I will be giving book talks and doing book readings.* As is so often the case, I find myself thinking of Mabel.
Mabel began giving talks in 1891, in a carefully orchestrated effort to garner more publicity for the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. To her surprise and delight, Mabel found that this was an activity she truly enjoyed, and, by everyone’s account, was exceptionally good at doing. She once wrote in her diary, “I put a good deal of nerve force into my talks, which make, I suppose, the quality of ‘brilliant success’ by which everybody describes them…a glowing vitality, if I can so call it, which carries.”
But it wasn’t just Mabel’s sense that she could carry a room: one newspaper account, for example, referred to her as a “personage in the world of letters and a well known lecturer;” another quipped, “while Professor Todd’s lecture was learned and scientific, the opinion of some who heard Mrs. Todd on the same subject was that she presented it in a much more interesting and charming way than her husband, and without the aid of stereopticon” and yet another noted, “She is unquestionably the dean of American women lecturers.”
What began as a PR venture grew. Mabel was leading a very interesting life, and she found that it was personally and professionally rewarding to find ways of sharing this with the world. The range of topics for her talks exapanded from Emily Dickinson, to astronomy, to her observations of the diverse cultures she had occasion to visit on her trips around the world on eclipse expeditions.
Mabel began to garner some significant income from her role as a public speaker, and at least as importantly, it was an activity that fed her seemingly bottomless ego. “I captured them at about the third sentence,” she wrote after one large lecture she gave to a group in Los Angeles in 1902. “How much I wish I know what I possess that does this! But the quality which takes, and keeps, an audience in the hollow of one’s hand is . . . what comes to be when I stand before a waiting audience.”
Her talks served multiple purposes. Not only was Mabel able to use them as a platform for publicizing her own (and, to a lesser extent, David’s work), but she was also able to earn a national reputation as a rare female public intellectual in an era when relatively few women were on the lecture circuit. What would she have done today, with TED talks, YouTube and the whole world of social media? One can only imagine!
Mabel’s talks also had the effect of much-needed distraction after Austin died in 1895. “Thank God for work! IT is my salvation,” she wrote. “I have never been so rushed in my life; and if it were not for that very fact I should probably be dead – or crazy.” Indeed, Mabel ramped up her talk schedule and by 1897, she was giving more than 50 talks a year in venues across the country.
So in some ways it feels like this story has come full circle, with me about to begin speaking on my book about Mabel. I hope to be half as good at speaking about her as she was about speaking about herself! But seriously, I hope that I can take a page out of her playbook, as it were, and use my talks to introduce more people to her fascinating life, the fascinating life of Millicent, and the ways in which understanding both of their lives can give us more of a window into the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson.
* Upcoming book readings and book talks
Today, 11/4 at 3 p.m. at the Concord Bookshop, 65 Main Street, Concord, MA
Tomorrow, 11/5 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Bookstore, 1256 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA
11/13 – Tewksbury Public Library, 7 p.m., 300 Chandler Street, Tewksbury, MA
11/14 – Tisch Library, 3 p.m., Tufts University, Medford, MA
11/17 – Whitelam Books, 3 p.m. , 610 Main Street, Reading, MA
11/29 – MA Historical Society, 5:30 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. talk, 1154 Boylston Street, Boston, MA
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.
Today is the day I’ve long waited for. After Emily is officially published!
Throughout the time I’ve been working on this book, I’ve kept a journal about the process. This has been a kind of meta-experience, writing about the writing. I’m very glad I did this because it’s been a way to think through and process these intertwined and complicated stories. I’ve also learned a lot about writing, and about myself.
This was the very first entry in the journal:
Today I feel like I really started the project for the first time. The microfilms I’d requested from Yale on inter-library loan FINALLY arrived after weeks of waiting, and I spent 7 hours looking at them. I went through 4 years’ of Mabel’s diaries; didn’t even complete a whole reel. This is going to take me a very long time.
It was both about learning more about her day-to-day existence and also about starting to figure out how to do this work. And also about starting to make sense of it. I decided I should start this file to help me process the process.
It did take me a long time to go through the materials, to do the research and to go through the processes of writing, re-writing and editing that were necessary to get this book done. But I’m so glad I did it.
I looked back to see whether I could find anything either Mabel or Millicent had written when their respective books were published. In November of 1890, Mabel had initially written of her excitement when she received the first few pre-publication copies of the first edition of Emily’s poems. And then on publication day, she wrote, “Today Emily’s book of Poems is issued. I had more copies since Sat, but the bookstores got them today. Her gifts are now shared with the world.”
In 1909, Mabel’s mother was very ill, and Mabel wrote in her journal about how her mother was “living to wait to see” Mabel’s most recent book – A Cycle of Sunsets – published. Despite her conflicted relationship with her mother, it seemed important to Mabel that her mother live to see this work. This is interesting because it wasn’t Mabel’s first book (by 1910 she had already published four of her own books as well as three edited volumes of Emily’s poetry and two edited books of her letters).
I’m not entirely sure why she wanted Molly to be able to see this book (she did – she didn’t die until the fall of 1910 and the book was published in the spring). Perhaps it’s because more than any of Mabel’s other books, this one was about nature, and reviewers had commented, among other things, that “Mabel Loomis Todd is a worthy successor to Thoreau.” The link to Henry David Thoreau would be one that Molly greatly appreciated, the Wilder family having been intimate friends with the Thoreaus. Molly always believed – and instilled in both her daughter and her granddaughter – that this link between the Wilder and Thoreau families was important. A book in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau (A Cycle of Sunsets is a series of essays about sunsets over the course of a year) would naturally be a book that Mabel’s mother would endorse. Mabel would have believed that this book would earn her the kind of whole-hearted praise from her mother she’d long sought and seldom received, despite all her many achievements.
And for Mabel, who wanted more than anything else in life to be known and remembered as a great writer, the idea that she’d written a book in the tradition of Thoreau would also have been tremendously appealing.
I wasn’t able to find much that Millicent had written about the publication of any of her books. This is partially because for Millicent, the publication of her four Dickinson books was so fraught with conflicted feelings and so fraught with the “battles with Harvard” that having them finally published must have seemed more a relief than a triumph. And I think it’s partially because Millicent was actually working on the four Dickinson books at the same time, an overwhelming task in itself. But she apparently also was thinking about whether she could also write some of the stories she most wanted to tell, in addition to fulfilling the promises she made to her mother about getting the Dickinson work done. In 1938, for example, she pondered, “These MSS, lying around, unpublished – warbook, debut book, geographic controls in Peru, Mamma’s edited Emily Dickinson poems – to name a few. The deadlock must somehow be broken.”
For Millicent the deadlock got broken when her sense of filial responsibility won out and she worked on the Dickinson books rather than the others she’d clearly been thinking about.
So today, on the publication date of my own book about Mabel and Millicent, I find myself wondering, as I often do, what they would think about it all…
In a few hours I will be off to New Haven to begin my book tour. It seems so appropriate to me to begin this part of the journey where so much of the journey of this book took place: at Yale, home of the Todd/Bingham Family Papers.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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”!
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.
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.
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.”
Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet