As I have been giving talks about AFTER EMILY and fielding emails from people who’ve read the book, I find that one of the most asked questions is what might account for the continued fascination we all have with Emily Dickinson. The other related question is why her poems continue to be so compelling to us.
I have to start out this post with a caveat: I’m not an Emily Dickinson scholar, but I am a fan. And I have learned a few things about her life and work in the work I’ve done on Mabel and Millicent’s lives and work.
Why do so many people around the world love Emily’s poetry? I think it has something to do with how fresh it remains, how remarkable her combinations of words are, how her idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization might give us clues about how to read the poems, even, perhaps, where to breathe.
And it has something to do with how nuanced it all is. So many poems take on a small moment in nature – a spider spinning a web, the leaves turning color in the fall – and yet manage to make us think more broadly of how miraculous these small moments are. Her subtle use of metaphor makes us realize the different levels on which she simultaneously wrote.
The unanswered questions about Emily Dickinson’s craft and her life might account for part of our ongoing fascination with her. For all of the hundreds of books and thousands of articles that have been written, there are still so many things we just don’t know. How is it possible that she wrote so many amazing poems during her lifetime and yet so few people had a clue that she did? Which of the many word choices she left behind did she truly intend? How much of her life story can we read into her poetry? Who were the people that inspired her passion? Why did she begin the retreat to her home and her room that characterized the latter years of her life? I think it’s the mystery surrounding so much of Emily’s life and work that partially accounts for why we continue to find her so compelling.
The other thing that has become clear to me in the correspondence I have received is that Emily Dickinson continues to inspire not only intrigue, but also creative expressions born of some kind of connection to her. People have sent me poems that they’ve composed a la Emily. One person sent me a song, and another, a link to music composed meant to go along with “Because I could not stop for death.” At book readings and events I’ve done I have heard from people hard at work on their own Emily Dickinson-related papers, books and projects.
One of my colleagues at Tufts, Madeleine Delpha, sent along some artistic renderings she’d created. She’s kindly allowed me to reproduce them here on my website, so that I can share them with you.
Happy birthday, Emily! You continue to amaze us, mystify us and inspire us, 188 years after you came into this world.
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”!
I’m thinking this week about a couple of lines from Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Summer begins to have the look” (poem 1693 in the Franklin edition, 1682 in Johnson). In the second stanza of this poem, Emily wrote that “Autumn begins to be inferred” by the changing types of clouds or the intensifying hues that start to cover the landscape. As usual, she encapsulated it brilliantly.
This is the time of year in New England when summer, indeed, starts to have a certain look: plants look tired, the grass is tinged brown. The light at different times of day has changed. Trees have begun to hint at the brilliant palette they’ll soon fully reveal. It’s no longer really summer, and not yet really fall.
Mabel, too, wrote frequently of her love for autumn, about the changes it brought and the associations it brought her. She’d written in 1879 of her hopes for her yet-unborn daughter, “My little child must worship the sky, and exalt in the autumn.” Early in her relationship with Austin she penned, “All his life he has passionately loved all nature. The autumn chirp of crickets thrills him most pressibly, and the misty hills and the first red leaves.”
And years after Austin’s death, still mourning him, the start of fall brought bittersweet associations: “Austin dawned upon my horizon, and I recognized him – and never more on earth or in heaven can I know loneliness or despair. In each of my heights a higher one; to all my aspiration a celestial lift above my idealist dreaming. And so the glory grew and grew, and the autumns were ever more holy time, the springs a benediction. In the streams of leaves, the windy sky, the far lights on the hills, the crisp air, the early twilight drawing in where a hearth fire should have burned – in the pathetic green grass, velvety under the low sun – in all the sweetness, the sadness of this dear month, I saw a radiant light beyond earth, because one noble soul lived who fitted me and complemented my heart. And now the hills lie under the sky with a beauty that stills the heart from beating, the sky, the sun, all are more beautiful than I ever have seen before.”
So here we are, on the precipice of season’s change. With the start of the new school year and the new semester, the pace of life has quickened for me. And we all, as Emily wrote, “reluctantly but sure [perceive]” this change in the tempo of life, as summer inexorably gives way to fall.
We’d just finished delivering our youngest child to begin his first year at Amherst College. Save the forgotten pillow and the quick trip into the mall in Hadley (to say nothing of the 90+ degree heat) it had been an easy, almost seamless transition. We were feeling great about the journey our son was beginning. We got into the car and started up Main Street in Amherst to get back on Route 202 and start our own journey home. As we passed The Homestead, Emily’s house, the light turned red. I quickly checked email on my phone. And there, amazingly, was a note from the wonderful editorial assistant with whom I’ve worked at Norton: “Hi Julie, Finished copies of AFTER EMILY landed in our offices this morning – they look stunning! Congratulations on this beautiful book.”
The symmetry and symbolism bowled me over. “How is this possible?” I asked my husband. “We are LITERALLY in front of Emily’s house!” He turned from the steering wheel to face The Homestead and shouted, “The book is done!”
It felt like one of those precious, miraculous moments of convergence. A moment that you just can’t really explain.
I’ve certainly had a few of these moments over the past few years as I worked on this book. I’ve had times I could swear I heard Mabel or Millicent whispering in my ear. I’ve had flashes of insight into these women that have made feel like I was inside their heads, articulating things that perhaps they thought but never dared commit to paper. I’ve walked in houses they walked in and felt echoes of past footsteps on dark wooden stairs. I got up early one morning on Hog Island, saw the light on the bay and smelled the salt on my skin; a centering sense of calm came over me and I knew for certain why it was the Todd family felt that this was one of the most special places on earth.
And now this. It seemed like such an amazing sense of bookending a book. The process which in some ways started right there in Amherst so many years ago, would in one sense be completed in the very same place.
Of course the original title of my book was Outside Emily’s Door. Here I was, outside Emily’s door, maybe 50 yards away from it, and I found out that the completed copies of my book were delivered to W.W. Norton. It will soon come to me, and then, on October 30th, to you.
It’s Emily Dickinson’s birthday and I find myself thinking about one of the birthday messages for her that won’t be coming this year.
Every December 10 for just shy of a quarter century, Garrison Keillor, the honey-toned host of public radio and podcast’s The Writer’s Almanac, made certain to have a special segment on Emily. A quick Google search yields dozens of hits linking the reclusive Amherst poet and the gregarious Minnesota-based writer/poet/radio host.
But you can’t do more than see those short summaries now, because as of the end of November, Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media cut their ties with Keillor over allegations of “inappropriate behavior.” Click on one of those links and you’re informed, “MPR has ended our contract with the company that owns the rights for production and public distribution of The Writers Almanac and MPR no longer has the rights to post the archives.”
As a long-time fan of both The Writer’s Almanac and the iconic Prairie Home Companion, I was saddened to learn that Keillor had been swept up in the veritable storm of men brought down by their own bad behavior. But I’m especially saddened because The Writer’s Almanac was one of the few venues for hearing poetry read aloud. Poems need to be heard to be fully appreciated.
Keillor read from poets long dead, poets from not long ago, and newer voices to whom he introduced us. The broadcast reached more than 2 million listeners each week; apparently you could directly track mention of a poet on this show with a jump in sales of that poet’s work on Amazon. (Here’s a link to a story about The Writer’s Almanac and what its demise means that aired on WBUR: http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2017/12/06/poets-writers-almanac)
The end of this show certainly won’t mean that people stop reading Emily’s poetry, nor that new generations will cease to find wonder when they’re introduced to her work. It’s clear that we have Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham to thank for that, since without them, Emily’s poetry might never have been published, at all.
Mabel realized Emily’s brilliance the first time she was introduced to her poetry in the early 1880s. And when, after Emily’s death, Mabel agreed to try to get the poems published, she approached Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the 19th century abolitionist, Unitarian minister and literary advocate, to help. Higginson had read Emily’s poetry and thought it wonderful but its form too difficult and crude to publish. It took Mabel reading some of the poems aloud to him to convince Higginson that in fact, he must sign on to this important project of getting Emily’s poetry published and bringing it to the world.
While I suspect that Emily, herself, would have been both somewhat horrified and also incredulous to know that her poems could somehow be broadcast so widely, Mabel would surely have been thrilled. Her own very considerable work to promote Emily’s verse and ensure it had a wide readership was limited by the tools at her disposal to disperse it. I somehow think that were Mabel alive today, she would have seen Garrison Keillor’s departure as an opportunity. She would have come up with a plan for a show to replace The Writer’s Almanac, pitched it, and offered herself up as host. And I am certain that she would have sparkled in this role.
But because they’ll be no broadcasts today of Emily’s poems, read one aloud instead – even if you’re the only one in the room. The Emily Dickinson Museum offers a number of tips for reading the poetry: https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/read_poem
And they do conclude that Emily’s poems, like all poems, derive from an oral tradition. You can learn new things from a poem by hearing it.
So happy birthday, Emily! I’ll be reading some of your poems out loud today in celebration.
Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet