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.