As she wrote in a poem published in the original 1890 volume Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson edited and titled, “Resurgam”:
At last to be identified! At last, the lamps upon thy side, The rest of life to see! Past midnight, past the morning star! Past sunrise! Ah! What leagues there are Between our feet and day!
I suspect that Emily would have no idea of just “how identified” she is now the world over, 189 years after her birth. I think the camera shy young girl would be astounded at how iconic that one clear image of her has become; the recalcitrant poet shocked by how many people across the globe quote her verse. It’s been a remarkable year with regard to new, different (and in the minds of some, rather inaccurate and controversial) portrayals of her in both film and television. Regardless of what you think about these versions of Emily, it’s clear that people continue to be fascinated — and inspired — by both the poet and her poetry.
Over the past year since After Emily was published, I’ve been privileged to speak about my work and about the lives of Emily, Mabel and Millicent in more than 50 venues in eight different states. I’ve done readings in small independent bookstores (and urge everyone to do their part to keep them alive – buy local!); I’ve spoken in lots of libraries (still a vital part of so many communities); I have spoken on many college and university campuses; I’ve given talks for historical societies in lots of interesting venues where the past meets the present. Through all of this I find that one of the most frequently asked questions is what I think might account for the staying power of Emily Dickinson.
I don’t have a definitive answer. But it seems to me that it has something to do with the sheer beauty of the poetry and the fascinating ways in which Emily connected words, looped seemingly disparate ideas together and opened up worlds to us from her examination of small moments. Who else would wonder “what leagues there are/between our feet and day”?
But it also has something to do with the mystery that surrounds her life. For all that we do know there is more that we don’t. Despite the dozens of books, the hundreds of articles, the thousands of essays, there’s still an awful lot about Emily’s life and about Emily, herself, that remains shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it always will.
My appreciation for Emily Dickinson only increased over this past summer, when I had the amazing experience of spending several consecutive hours in her bedroom with a producer from “This American Life.” (The radio/podcast piece, focusing on Mabel and Austin’s relationship and the ways in which that might have contributed to the eventual publication of Emily’s poetry, will air sometime early in 2020 – stay tuned!) A piece I wrote about the day was published this week in Lit Hub. Suffice to say that watching the light change through Emily’s windows, just as she would have seen it, made me realize, anew, how keen her powers of observation were, and how finely tuned into that still small voice inside her she was.
I’m very pleased that my publisher, W.W. Norton, has chosen this day to release the paperback version of After Emily. Although Emily, herself, remains a shadowy figure in my book and never actually makes an appearance until after her death, she is, of course, most central to the story.
So here’s to Emily Dickinson on her birthday! For she is and will always be, that “winged spark that doth soar about!”
Last night at the Boston Public Library, After Emily was among the books honored by the Boston Authors Club (BAC). To be recognized by your peers – in this case, writers – is an incredibly humbling experience. But for me there was an additional layer of joy to the event, because the Boston Authors Club came into existence in part because of the efforts of Mabel Loomis Todd.
I tried to reflect this in the remarks I made:
Thanks to my colleagues on the BAC, and especially to the reading group for non-fiction, who had the very wonderful and very formidable task of reading through so many worthy books this past year. Congratulations to Alexander Bevilacqua, Eric Dolan and Simon Winchester. I am honored that my book was considered alongside all of yours.
I want to tell you all, briefly, one other reason that I am so pleased to have After Emily honored by the Boston Authors Club.
In the very late years of the 19th century, Mabel Loomis Todd hosted author May Alden Ward and Boston newspaperwoman Helen Winslow at a tea in her home in Amherst. One of the topics of discussion that day were the attempts of a group of literary minded men in Boston to form a new club of authors. The men, including such notables as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich, had foundered in their efforts. Mabel, who among her other virtues, was an incessant and successful organizer, suggested to her women friends that perhaps if WOMEN banded together they might get the incipient BAC off the ground. They agreed, and reached out to Julia Ward Howe. Julia reportedly said, “Go ahead. Call some people together here at my house. We will form a club and it will be a good one too.”
And it was. Unlike other similar literary organizations of the era, the Boston Authors Club was started as a club that admitted both women and men.
I don’t know this for sure, but I believe that the BAC rule that any member must live within a radius of 90 miles from Boston is no coincidence, since when you clock the mileage to Amherst, it’s – you guessed it – about 90 miles!
And so, here we are, 120 years later, in part because of one of the subjects of my book. Mabel, I’m sure, would be thrilled that a book about her is being honored by the BAC. And so am I. Thank you!
When you walk into the Boston Public Library you’re immediately drawn back into the world of another era. The dramatic entry staircase, high painted ceilings, arches and the iconic stone lions that flank it transport you to another century. And that’s what the BAC does, as well: it links people who write and people who love books across time.
I know that Mabel and Millicent – and probably even Emily – would love that a book about their lives and work was recognized by an organization that spans time by recognizing literature the way the BAC does.
I was driving someplace recently and heard a story on NPR that made me think about Mabel.
In Coconut Grove, Florida, where Mabel lived part of each year from 1917 until the end of her life, there’s a fascinating initiative going on to map and measure trees. As reported by WLRN, researchers from Florida International University are attempting to map all the trees and categorize them in an effort to help residents and city officials make good and environmentally friendly decisions about maintaining trees and planting new ones.
This is the kind of smart ecological data that will help home-owners and city officials, especially in this era of climate change. As I write this blog post, newscasters are warning about the potentially devastating effects of oncoming Hurricane Dorian – could there be a more dramatic example of why we need to think carefully and seriously about the impact of humankind on nature and nature on humankind?
This story also made me think of Mabel and Millicent. Mabel, who “loved great trees,” as Millicent once wrote, would have heartily applauded this project. Mabel’s love of trees led her to purchase the land outside of Amherst that later became the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest when Millicent donated it to Amherst College in 1961, and Hog Island, which became the Hog Island Audubon Camp in 1960.
Millicent, who was presciently aware of the effects of humans’ encroaching on the environment and the potentially devastating effects of introducing species to places different than those from which they originated, would also have embraced this project.
The fact that this initiative is occurring in Coconut Grove, where Mabel’s beloved Matsuba resided,
would make it all the more appealing to her. Were she still alive, no doubt she would be a community leader in this project, as she was with so many others!
I’ve written previously about what it’s meant to my understanding of Mabel, Millicent and Emily to do some “footstepping” – to walk in their paths, see and experience some of the places they did. It’s helped to envision their worlds, to get inside of their heads. I recently experienced this again when my family and I traveled to Peru.
In 1907, Mabel and David traveled to South America on yet another eclipse expedition. They left aboard the SS Panama, traveling to Cuba, through what would become the Panama Canal into Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile in May of that year. Millicent, teaching at Wellesley College, was not able to leave during the semester and so traveled by herself to join her parents in Peru – a remarkable thing for a young woman of 27 to do at the time, especially given the long journey by boat, rail and carriage it took to get there.
The 1907 expedition was the second one financed by wealthy mill magnate turned astronomer, Percival Lowell. David spent months on his calculations and arranged to ship the new Clark refractor telescope from Amherst College all the way to South America. Mabel and Millicent both took Spanish lessons in preparation for the journey.
For Mabel, the most significant moments of the expedition included seeing both the incredible poverty of Ecuador, more extreme than anything she’d ever viewed, and the spectacular scenery of Peru. She wrote that the landscape “affects me much as I suppose a trip on the moon might do, so unearthly, so foreign to any land or country I ever saw before or imagined. It is like dreams, or strange thoughts at most weird moments. High above where mountains could be imagined, rise sterile and terrifying peaks, range upon range, half hidden in cloud, and emerging here & there with forbidding effect, massive, stern, grand, awful in their deathlike loneliness, blue atmospheric softening, yet showing through it shadows and crevices the fearful caves and magnificent glaciers…”
Mabel spent much time on this trip riding on horseback (“it would be of no use to anybody to come to South America who did not ride” she noted along the way), and traveled on a train high in the Andes – the highest railway in the world at that time. She also gave an address before the Geographical Society of Peru, becoming the first woman ever to address that group.
Millicent recorded her journey in great detail in a journal she later typed up (150 pages’ worth). Most of her comments were not only about the sights she saw, but also about her observations of differences in race and class. Unlike Mabel, who was passionate about trying to paint a picture in words, Millicent waxed far more practical in what she chose to record. It’s not as though she didn’t see the poetry of nature – she just didn’t feel the need or believe she had the ability to capture it. To wit, upon seeing an incredible sunset in Peru, which she suggested was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever seen, she wrote, “I don’t try to describe these sunsets for several reasons – (1) I shall remember every color to my dying day, (2) they change instant by instant, (3) they are entirely different in different parts of the horizon (4) they are different every night (5) I can’t.”
But that doesn’t mean that even practically- minded Millicent couldn’t also be philosophical or poetic, at least on occasion. After describing a trek she had taken with David up 17,000 foot Mt. Meiggs, (described today as “where the Andes glaciers meet the sky”), Millicent was awed.
Peru moved Millicent in ways she didn’t realize at the time. Its rugged and contrasting geography would become the topic of her 1923 doctoral dissertation at Harvard, “An Investigation of Geographic Controls in Peru,” and was, as well, the subject of her book Peru, A Land of Contrasts, published in 1917. “Any statement regarding Peru implies a contrary statement equally valid,” she wrote. “Contrast is its characteristic quality, true as to the general aspects of the country and ramifying through remote details. It is the obvious point of view from which to study Peru…To the charm of limitless nature is added the mystery of great peoples destroyed before they were known. The riches of the Incas and of the glittery, vice-regal Spanish days, when continents were found, taken, and explored, contrast with present poverty. Contrasts of nature, of people to country, of antiquity to the present – these diverse elements are insistent wherever one turns.”
Having now been to Peru, I understand why it was that Millicent found the geography there so compelling. It really is a land of contrasts: enormous snow-capped peaks, verdant fields, cacti alongside bromeliads and other tropical plants, ancient terraces cut into the mountainsides, cloud forests, jagged rocky expanses, glacial plateaus. In her travel journal Millicent marveled, “You may go up 17,000 feet to the region of eternal snow. Your mules may drop beneath you with the cold and deadly lack of atmosphere. Still the glaciers crawl down upon you from peaks towering thousands of feet above, where no human foot has ever trod, no living heart ever throbbed. The rocks are jaggeder here and you feel as if the rough places of this earth had been turned up to where they could brush against the sky.”
Of course Millicent was a little wrong about that: human feet had indeed trodden there before. The Todds were in Peru shortly before Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham (no relation to Walter Van Dyke Bingham) “discovered” Machu Picchu. (Bingham’s legacy in Peru is a checkered one, to say the least. Contemporary writers in anthropology, archaeology, history and politics now generally acknowledge that while Westerners might not have known about the amazing ruins, the people who lived there certainly did; Machu Picchu was a part of the Peruvian people’s culture and their lives). The Todds saw and were amazed by many of the other Inca ruins throughout the country. The ruins are unmistakable evidence that well before the Spanish or any other Western culture set foot on this land, Peru was occupied by cultures who found ways of not only taming this remarkable landscape, but of understanding it.
For me, the highlight of our trip was the trek up the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Other than childbirth, this was unquestionably the most rigorous physical experience I have ever had. Our guide kept encouraging us along the way, telling us that this was a pilgrimage. When, at the end of 7 hours of arduous hiking, much of it up vertical ascents on ancient stone steps the Incas carved into the mountainside, we saw the “Sun Gate” glowing in the afternoon light and knew that the ruins of Machu Picchu lay just beyond, I felt inspired to go the rest of the way. I knew our guide was right: this WAS a pilgrimage. I’m sorry it’s one that Mabel, David and Millicent didn’t know about, because it would have been as meaningful an experience for them as it was for me and my family.
As we traveled elsewhere in Peru, I found myself thinking of the Todds, a lot. I felt like I was again footstepping. I better understood them in truly visceral ways.
Interestingly, in the middle of Millicent’s South American travel journal she pondered, “I wonder if hearing this journal will ever give a wider horizon to anybody, will show somebody that if they have tried and failed there are chances elsewhere. Or if, perhaps, it might inspire somebody to think of other worlds than those that have become humdrum through too long familiarity?”
Writing after Mabel’s death in 1932, Millicent recounted that a friend of her mother’s once said, “Every outside thing she did came right back to Amherst to be shared here.” Mabel’s many contributions to the town of Amherst – her civic leadership, her land stewardship and her artistic, writing and editing endeavors – had deep roots in her adopted town. She came to love the small college town partly because it was such an integral part of Austin and who he was, but partly because the blend of its natural beauty and cultural connections resonated deeply with the person she was, as well.
Mabel was initially reluctant to come to Amherst. Up until that point, she had only lived in cities: Cambridge MA, Washington D.C. and Boston. An excellent musician, a talented painter and writer and an extremely socially engaged person used to the vibrant arts community and society these urban areas afforded, Mabel was fearful that the small college town would not yield her as many opportunities as she was used to. She did, however, love to be outdoors and relished family trips to the country. Amherst, it turned out, was the perfect blend of urbanity and nature.
Within a few short weeks after moving there in 1881, Mabel was writing in her journal, “Do you know, I think Amherst in many respects quite ideal. I always did like a college town, with its air of quiet cultivation, and by living in such a one it is possible to continue two things which are otherwise generally not found together – I mean the possibility of living in the country, amid the luxuriance of nature, and yet of having refined and educated society at the same time.”
Throughout the thirty-six years she lived in Amherst, Mabel was deeply invested in both the College and the community. As a faculty wife Mabel frequently had teas for David’s colleagues and students, she taught both music and art at a school developed by Mary E. Stearns (wife of former Amherst College president William Augustus Stearns) that operated out of the president’s home,
and chaperoned Amherst College dances. These dances weren’t always pro-forma affairs. Millicent once related that in 1892, her mother discovered that “…when two Negro boys invited their guests to Commencement,” the “Southern boys refused to go to the promenade if the Negro couples were permitted to attend. Having heard this, my mother invited them as our houseguests…along with Katherine Garrison, granddaughter of William Lloyd Garrison – and had a reception” for them.
Perhaps less heralded but equally noteworthy were Mabel’s contributions to saving areas of forest around Amherst: in 1913 her efforts led to her election as chairman of the Amherst Forestry Association. In work that preceded the development of the ecology movement in the United States, Mabel began to purchase land for preservation and wrote widely about it. She bought 80 acres of land in nearby Pelham to save the woods from loggers; in 1961 Millicent donated this land to Amherst College where it became known as the Mabel Loomis Todd Forest and was used for years by the biology department as a kind of living ecological laboratory.
I’ve written previously about Mabel’s many other civic legacies in the town of Amherst (see my blog post from 11/21/18). Suffice to say that many of the institutions she started are still going strong in Amherst.
One of these is the Amherst Historical Society and Museum. And on June 1, I will be leading a “Mabel Loomis Todd tour of Amherst” for this institution. We’ll tour sites of importance for the Todds and the Dickinsons, starting at the History Museum and ending up in Wildwood Cemetery. If you’d like to sign up and join us, you can do so here.
Today is Austin Dickinson’s birthday. For years after his death, Mabel would mark this day with a combination of reverence and sadness. I’d like to mark this day by spending a little time pondering this enigma of a man who was so central to the story of After Emily, and yet about whom there are still so many unanswered questions.
We know that Austin was widely heralded as having a keen intelligence and as being industrious and dedicated. Though a graduate of both Amherst College and Harvard Law School, he “…never attained prominence as a practitioner before the courts,” noted his obituary in the Springfield Republican. “In fact he avoided the trial of cases, but he was a singularly valuable, clear-headed and conscientious, and his advice and assistance were much sought in the community….” As Richard Sewall pointed out, Austin paid $500 to a man to take his place in the army during the Civil War. And though you’d think that Austin’s prominence in Amherst through his family name and his many acts of civic engagement would have made him a logical candidate for political office, he “…never held a political office, and no town office of importance, except that of moderator, which for nearly 20 years he had held almost continuously.”
But was Austin’s reluctance to practice law outside of his father’s firm and his reticence to run for political office a direct function of the conflicted relationship he seemed to have with his father? Austin acceded to Edward’s requests (demands?) that he stay in Amherst, that he join the family law firm, that he move into the house built for him next door to his family’s home, but he clearly didn’t follow in his father’s legal or political footsteps. Was Austin’s avoidance of military duty an act of bravery or a deed of civil disobedience he didn’t dare to state publicly? Though it’s not clear that 19th century politics was any more devoid of scandal than politics today, was Austin Dickinson’s life so riddled with “issues” that it would have precluded a successful political run – or would he have been as unscathed by it all as he seemed to be in his personal life?
Austin was, in so many ways, “the most influential citizen of Amherst,” as his obituary noted. Polly Longsworth has catalogued his many civic bequests to the town, including his work with banks, with helping to bring gas and electricity to Amherst, his role in the First Church and his efforts to create Wildwood Cemetery. “No man in Amherst has done more to beautify the town,” stated the writer of his obituary; indeed, as president of the village improvement association, Austin helped to bring Frederick Law Olmsted to Amherst to design the town common, a place which remains a vibrant part of the town to this day. Austin served as treasurer of Amherst College for many years and was so involved in helping to improve its buildings, grounds and financial affairs that these activities merited an entire paragraph in almost any published description of him. “His love for Amherst was so strong he did not care to spend a vacation elsewhere and he always expressed the satisfaction he had on returning to the town from a trip of even a few days duration,” stated the writer of his obituary (no doubt with at least a prompt from Austin’s surviving family members, who also, no doubt, were at very least conflicted in their relationships with him following all the years of the Mab-stin pairing).
But was Austin’s unwillingness to leave Amherst so very different from his sister’s eventual unwillingness to leave the confines of her family home? While there’s no doubt his dedication to his town and to his college were true and sincere, were they actually also another indication of his enormous reluctance to leave? And was this desire to stay put also suggestive of his averseness to change, a sign Mabel should have read as a not-so-subtle warning that Austin would never do what he would have needed to do for the two of them to be together as they so often wrote they needed to be?
We know that Austin and Emily shared a special bond. Quite apart from Mabel’s reporting of this relationship (which might well have been tinted by the power of her relationship with Austin and her own self-interested interpretation of the Dickinson filial bond) we have the record of Austin and Emily’s correspondence, letters that document their clever repartee, their shared fascination with the natural world and their somewhat skeptical interpretations of their parents.
But what was the nature of Emily’s relationship with Susan Huntington Gilbert and what happened when she became the object of Austin’s desire? In what ways might have Austin’s relationship with Emily changed then? And when Austin turned his ardor to Mabel, how did the dynamic shift between Emily and Austin?
Finally, we’ve heard from both Mabel and from Emily that despite Austin’s austere exterior and intense practicality, he was, in fact, a thoughtful, romantic – and even poetic soul. In her introduction to the second edition of Emily Dickinson’s letters Mabel wrote that Austin “was a poet too, only the poetry of his temperament did not flower in verse or rhyme, but in an intense and cultivated knowledge of nature, in a passionate joy in the landscapes seen from Amherst hill- tops.” After Austin sent some actual verse he’d composed in 1853 to his sister, Emily wrote him, “Austin is a Poet, Austin writes a psalm. Out of the way, Pegasus, Olympus enough ‘to him,’ and just say to those ‘nine muses’ that we have done with them! Raised a living muse, ourselves, worth the whole nine of them.”
But was Brother Pegasus’ poetic soul confined by the roles he felt forced to play in life? As Sewall suggested, the one publication Austin was known to have penned – an address at the 150th anniversary of the First Church in 1889, “was strictly local, written in the line of duty.” Did the muffled poet find voice in his soaring odes of love to Mabel and did that intensify their relationship? What else might have Austin Dickinson have written if he had felt that he could spend his life composing verse instead of financial documents?
So happy birthday, Austin. While so many questions remain about your life, there’s no doubt that your role was central as we ponder answers to the stories of all things Dickinson.
As I continue to do book events in large venues, public libraries, colleges and universities and small independent bookstores, I continue to meet people who have read After Emily. And they come to these events with some wonderfully thoughtful questions. In this week’s post, let me recount a few more of the questions I’ve received and the answers I’ve given.
Question: How was it that Mabel ended up getting to edit Emily’s poetry?
Answer: After Emily’s death, Lavinia Dickinson discovered this enormous cache of poetry no one really knew existed. Convinced of her sister’s genius, and likely not feeling constrained by the promise she’d made Emily to destroy her correspondence, Vinnie was determined to share these poems with the world. She reached out first to Susan Dickinson, with whom Emily had shared many poems during her lifetime. But Vinnie was impatient and when Sue didn’t move quickly enough, she also contacted Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, another poetic confidante of Emily’s. But Higginson was not willing to put in the time necessary to decipher and decode Emily’s writing.
At that point, Vinnie turned to Mabel. She knew Mabel was young, energetic and ambitious. She likely believed that because of Mabel’s great love for Austin, she would do anything to further her connection to him. And so it was that Mabel ended up the curator of Emily’s poetry and letters.
Question: How long did it take you to do this book?
Answer: I began the research in 2011 and started writing in 2013.
Question: Why did Millicent agree to marry Walter Van Dyke Bingham if she didn’t love him?
Answer: Good question! At age 40 and battered down by a series of fairly disastrous relationships, Millicent probably felt that Walter was her last chance for some stability. And it was a time when she needed it: she was completing her Ph.D. but still uncertain of her career directions, her parents were each starting to show more prominent signs of the medical issues that would plague them, and given the wild ride she’d just been on in her tumultuous relationship with Joe Thomas, she was ready for something and someone who would be safe and steady. That someone was Walter. Millicent had met him years earlier and he tried to court her then. She wasn’t interested. He finally showed up at the right place and the right time in Millicent’s life.
Question: Are you willing to meet with book groups?
Answer: Absolutely! Send me an email and we’ll set it up!
Question: Are the Emily Dickinson poems today the ones with Mabel’s editing?
Answer: For the most part, no. The more contemporary editors of Emily’s poetry have tried to restore it to the form in which she wrote it. This has meant taking out instances where Mabel and Thomas Wentworth Higginson substituted words that scanned better but might not have been among the word options Emily left behind, utilizing Emily’s methods of capitalization and punctuation, and removing titles. Today the poetry is either known by the first line, or by one of two different numbering systems developed by Ralph Franklin or by Thomas Johnson. You can see the original manuscripts on the Harvard Online Emily Dickinson Archive. Amherst College’s Archives and Special Collections is digitizing all of their holdings on Emily Dickinson, including materials they have from Mabel and Millicent regarding their versions of the poems and letters.
Question: Who would you want to see play Mabel in a movie version of your book?
Answer: Reese Witherspoon. She’s a talented actress, an avid reader and someone who has been a big proponent of finding stories about complicated women.
I’m hearing Willie Nelson’s refrain in my head. March 3rd marked my own return to the book tour road, with a reading at the Silver Unicorn Bookstore in Acton, MA. In the next few months I have about two dozen book events scheduled. Some of the events are in little indie bookstores, others in libraries, others in a variety of larger venues.
I’m also going to be the guest of a number of book clubs that are reading After Emily. I’m thrilled to join their discussions; no one means more to a writer than an engaged reader, and to meet with a group of engaged readers is a writer’s dream come true!
There also seems something somehow appropriate about my going out on the lecture circuit to talk about Mabel. A large part of Mabel’s professional career was documented and publicized by the many lectures she gave. At the height of her career, Mabel was giving more than 60 talks a year in venues across the country. She spoke on an astonishing number of topics.
When I went through a folder of her lecture notes at Yale I was amazed to see outlines for talks about not only Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry, but also about: various topics on astronomy, “Bermuda, The Summer Islands,” “Carthage, Then and Now,” “Club Life for Women,” “The Cruise of the Coronet,” “Ellis Island, “Famous Women,” “Granada and the Alhambra,” “The House Beautiful,” “Japanese Art,” “The Lost Art of Letter Writing,” “Quakers in America,” “Witchcraft in New England” and many, many others.
Mabel kept a little notebook in which she recorded when she spoke, where she spoke and what fee or other compensation she received for her talks. Her talks were given to women’s clubs, literary organizations, university clubs and to increasingly large general audiences. Mabel was a natural and dynamic public speaker, and she knew it. After the first public talk she ever gave, in May 1890, she recorded in her journal in a characteristically self-congratulatory way, “My talk in Boston upon Fuji was very enthusiastically received. It was really the first elaborate one I ever gave, but I knew I could do it more than well. When I am to play anywhere, even without notes, my hand trembles and my heat beats tumultuously for a long time before and even when I am to sing, which is greatly easier, my heart is always quickened, often uncomfortably so. But before that Boston talk I was as quiet and happy as if some one else was to have done it. I had thought out quietly what I wished to say, but I found that dozens of bright things came to me spontaneously which I had not intended and the flow of words and pictures was smooth and inspired. My mother, who is a most severe critic, said it was the best thing she ever listened to, and she was thoroughly enthused by it.”
As she became an even more experienced public speaker, Mabel recorded that she could easily “talk to an audience and make them desperately enthusiastic, rippling with laughter one minute and their eyes filled with tears the next.” On her talk at the Sixth Biennial of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles in May 1902, she reported, “I captured them at about the third sentence. 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.” It was certainly not only her love of being the epicenter of attention and of performing, but doing something she felt she did quite well and promoting the poetry that became such a focal point of her professional life, that made Mabel an enthusiastic and successful public speaker. The talks she gave on Emily’s life and poetry began to fill the halls and launched Mabel’s career as a public speaker and a rare female public intellectual. She relished both of these roles.
But Mabel wasn’t the only one who felt that she was a gifted public speaker. Newspapers sang her praises. She accumulated many letters from people who’d attended her lectures and found themselves informed, amused and moved by them.
I am quite certain that I could ever approach Mabel’s gift for lecturing (one newspaper clipping referred to her as “unquestionably, the dean of American woman lecturers”). But I do try to conjure my inner Mabel with every book talk and reading I do. If I can channel even a fraction of Mabel in my talks I’d be more than satisfied!
This morning I woke up to an extraordinary full moon setting over the pond in the back of my house. Slightly orange, very bright, it slowly dipped down across the horizon. According to Space.com, this was a “Super Snow Moon,” one of a trio of “supermoons” for 2019 (which appear about 10% larger than most full moons due to the moon’s position relatively closer to the Earth. The February 19 supermoon is the biggest one of the year.
Seeing any astronomical sight always makes me think of the Todds. David’s eclipse chasing focused more on solar eclipses than on lunar ones, but he certainly spent a lot of time thinking about and making calculations on the moon’s positioning. The Todd crater, which is a moon or a natural satellite of Mars, is named for him.
Mabel’s own writing about the moon trended towards the poetic, even when discussing astronomical phenomena. For instance, while her1894 book Total Eclipses of the Sun is probably the most closely hewed to scientific description, Mabel still utilized figurative language to explain scientific issues. Her discussion of the difficulties for astronomers along the route of an eclipse to communicate with one another in those days is a beautiful example:
Evidently the odds are largely in favor of the electric messenger, as the actual speed is many thousand-fold greater than the lunar velocity. But while the Moon moves steadily onward, telegraphic despatches [sic] are often subject to sundry and irregular detentions; so there may well be doubt as to which may outstrip the other, when both are matched together on the airy highway of space.” (p. 164)
Her 1912 book, Tripoli the Mysterious, abandoned attempts to be “scientific” and simply waxed poetic in her descriptions. She wrote, “The faithful moon had crept on and on toward the great moment when she should glide in between us and the sun, and with her small bulk over the only screen to his brilliancy which has ever been effective in allowing a sight of the corona to mortal eyes” (p. 123).
Not surprisingly, the moon also played more than a bit part in Mabel’s private writings, many of which focused on discussions of times spent with Austin. There are plenty of descriptions of moonlit sleigh rides, assignations that happened during full moons noted by her usual euphemism of “a call”: “A call about eight. Full moon! Oh! Dear!” or “Full moon, royal evening. A call, quietly” There was this lovely passage from a February 1891 diary entry: “Sat in the moonlight, with the whole world sheathed in a glittering crust of ice on the snow, until the Pelham hills seemed but from silver. Wonderful sights.” Even after Austin died, Mabel continued to equate the romance of seeing the moon and her romance with Austin. In 1905 on the anniversary of his death she wrote from North Africa, “The moonlight was incredibly splendid. And it is the anniversary, the tenth.”
Of course Emily Dickinson, too, wrote about the moon in a number of her poems. Perhaps best known of these is “The Moon was but a Chin of Gold,” first published in the third volume of poems in 1896 (Franklin #735, Johnson #737). But I really love “The Moon upon her fluent Route” (Franklin #1574, Johnson #1528). The first couple of lines speak to both the science and the romance of the moon:
The Moon upon her fluent Route
Defiant of a Road
So on this day of the “Super Snow Moon,” I think of the ways in which both Mabel and Emily captured it so well.
And here’s how my son, Jonathan, captured it, rising above Johnson Chapel at Amherst College:
This past weekend I was incredibly honored to be the 2019 recipient of the Amherst Historical Society’s “Conch Shell Award.” This award, which takes its name from the 18th century practice of using “ye auld kunk” to summon Amherst residents to town meeting and to worship (strange that a town so far from the sea would have used a conch shell…) is given annually for contributions to the Town of Amherst and its history.
Because Mabel was one of the founders of the Amherst Historical Society back in 1899, receiving an award from this organization is especially meaningful to me. As I said in my remarks, Amherst has become a place that has all kinds of personal and professional importance to me.
Part of this is the connection that I, as a biographer, have come to feel for this place. Richard Holmes, the well-known British biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, among other subjects, has coined the term “footstepping” – the effort to go where your subjects have been and do what they have done. To walk where my subjects had walked; to go into buildings that were once their homes and imagine the scenes that happened there, long ago; to see the seasons in Amherst as they might have – at least before the ravages of climate change alter these seasons any more significantly; – to know the images of 19th century Amherst from Lovell photos and close my eyes and see these places before there was a Jones Library or an Amherst Books, has given me an amazing, physical, visceral connection to the world of the Dickinsons and the Todds – and to Amherst, itself.
And of course, the first piece of writing for which Mabel was paid was the story she titled “Footprints.” In 1883 this story, one that she’d worked on and revised, repeatedly, was published in the New York Independent. She received $25 for it. The idea for this story emanated from a sleigh ride and walk she had taken with Austin. Several years after the story was published, Mabel recalled in her journal that she’d written it “… in one of those soft, dreary snowfalls and I can remember well the delicious joy of creating, as I wrote, and my joy and belief to be unequalled for me by anything else in the world.” The idea of two lovers’ footprints in the snow joining them in nature and in love inspired her. to write a story in which the protagonist recognizes the love of his life by the footprints she leaves on a beach. The story concludes with a description of the two lovers’ footprints in the sand, side by side, together.
Somehow I think that Mabel’s recognition of “footprinting” as a resonant symbol, and my need to do some “footstepping” in Amherst to know and understand her (and Millicent, and Emily) are both symbols of the journey we go on as writers. It’s important for us to write authentically, for readers to feel that characters are real, that scenes are genuine. For writers of fiction, this means being able to know your characters so well you that an image of the set of footprints left in the sand can tell a meaningful story; for writers of non-fiction, it means knowing your subjects well by doing your best to tread where they have trodden so you can describe places well and get inside the heads of those about whom you are writing. Footsteps leave a trail of footprints; writers leave a trail of words.
I’m grateful to the Amherst Historical Society and Museum for believing that the footstepping I’ve done in Amherst has been in some way significant.