×

New book details mother, daughter behind Emily Dickinson’s legacy

  • Julie Dobrow’s new book, “After Emily,” details how Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, were instrumental to the fame of Amherst poet Emily Dickinson, shown above. The two women were responsible for editing and publishing Dickinson’s poems following her death. Courtesy image/Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

  • “After Emily” Contributed image

  • Author Julie Dobrow Contributed photo/Alonso Nichols

  • Mabel Loomis Todd Courtesy Photo/Amherst College Archives and Special Collections



Staff Writer
Saturday, October 20, 2018

Although she’s thought of as an extremely solitary figure, Emily Dickinson is remembered today largely with the help of — perhaps because of — two other women from the 19th and early 20th centuries who also stand out as extremely accomplished for their time.

Despite living less than a half-mile away, the woman who would come to first edit the reclusive poet’s works and bring her posthumous fame, Mabel Loomis Todd, never really met the elusive Dickinson, with whose older brother she was having an affair.

In her new book, “After Emily,” Julie Dobrow — director of Tufts University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies — reveals layers of intricate relationships between members of the Dickinson and Todd families, including between Todd (1856-1932) and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham (1880-1968), who also went on to edit Dickinson’s works.

Together, mother and daughter edited three volumes of her poems and two volumes of her letters. And including Dickinson herself, all three women pushed against the edges of their respective eras in a way that made them rare among their peers.

A seven-year endeavor

The necessary research for the 400-page book involved seven years of poring over letters, diaries and even notes from Bingham’s therapy sessions, along with other archives at Amherst College, Jones Library, and Harvard and Yale universities.

Dobrow will read from and discuss her book Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. at Amherst College’s Frost Library, as well as at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst on Dec. 2.

Writing in detail about Todd’s roughly 12-year affair with the much older William Austin Dickinson and conflicts between the families, Dobrow said, “was definitely a complicated story to tell.”

“I hope readers will agree that what I’ve been able to do in this book is to figure out how all of these pieces of the puzzle actually fit together,” she said.

Despite her frequent visits to the homestead to play piano for the Dickinson family, Todd never saw Emily Dickinson, who hid behind the door. She came to know her only through their correspondence and small intimate gifts they exchanged. Todd laid eyes on “the Belle of Amherst” for the first time in her casket.

Dickinson, Todd writes in her journal, “is called in Amherst ‘the myth.’ She has not been out of her house for 15 years. … She writes the strangest poems, and very remarkable ones. She is in many respects a genius … She has frequently sent me flowers & poems, & we have a very pleasant friendship in that way.”

After the 1886 death of Dickinson, who was unknown outside a small circle of family and friends, her sister, Lavinia, invited Todd to edit the nearly 1,800 poems she’d discovered after her sister’s death. Lavinia had promised her older sister she would burn all of the papers, but couldn’t bring herself to carry out her promise.

Dobrow, who graduated from Smith College in 1981 and remained in Northampton another year, when she went on to the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication for two graduate degrees, said she’s always been interested in women’s history. While working at the Sophia Smith Collection one summer, she said, “I became fascinated by the idea of doing archival research.”

After reading biographies of Dickinson and Polly Longsworth’s book, “Austin and Mabel,” about the well-documented liaison, Dobrow became intrigued by the fact that no one had written a full-length biography of the complex woman. People seemed to know little about Bingham.

Neither mother nor daughter, who turned out to be fascinating women in their own right, hardly ever threw out a scrap of paper, Dobrow learned. When her own daughter began studying at Yale, she discovered the archival records there and decided around 2011 to begin plowing through Todd’s diaries on microfilm.

Flirtatious and showing a “zest,” in Todd’s own word, the graduate of Georgetown Seminary and  attendee of New England Conservatory took a shine to the poet’s brother soon after moving to Amherst in 1881 with her astronomer husband, David, who began teaching at the college where her paramour was treasurer.

“The Mabel-Austin relationship was a dirty little secret a lot of people in Amherst knew, even while going on for 12 or 13 years,” Dobrow said. “And most of the evidence we have suggests Lavinia and Emily were well aware of the fact their brother was having a relationship with Mabel, who was a frequent visitor to the Dickinson Homestead.”

Yet, sister “Vinnie” also had a sense that Todd had the organizational and literary skills to get her older sister’s poems published.

“I don’t think she had a clue what it would take to get the job done,” Dobrow said. “She thought it was just copying the poems, which were in Emily’s somewhat difficult-to-read handwriting.”

Savvy marketing

Todd turned out to be savvy about the publishing industry, and tried out marketing approaches that were ahead of their time and wildly successful.

“She was able to get these poems out there in ways that were pretty extraordinary,” Dobrow said.

Todd designed the book cover to appeal to women, correctly identifying that these were the readers who would be most likely to buy the collection of poems. She saw the need for advance press and had co-editor Thomas Higginson write about the new poems before the first book was published.

Building on and emphasizing Dickinson’s enigmatic personality to deliberately appeal to her audience, Todd also successfully lectured around the country about the Belle of Amherst.

“It was sort of the 19th-century equivalent of trying to get something to go viral,” Dobrow said. “It was extraordinary. She was really able to captivate an audience. She started out speaking at women’s clubs and in small groups, and as it went on, she was giving up to 60 lectures a year, sometimes speaking to very large audiences.”

In doing so, Dobrow said, “Mabel definitely knew that by talking about Emily as a recluse who wore white dresses it would help to build intrigue and increase sales. That’s the image we have of Emily Dickinson today.”

Todd also took liberties, not only in assigning titles to Dickinson’s poems, but changing punctuation, spelling, capitalization and substituting words to make the poetry less “capricious” and idiosyncratic.

In her journal, after the first volume of poems had been published, Todd wrote that the poems’ “carelessness of form exasperated me. I could always find the gist of meaning, and admired her strange words and ways of using them, but the simplest laws of verse making she ignored, and what she called rhymes grated on me. But she could not hide her wonderful power, and I knew she had genius.”

Dobrow also writes about the “absolutely torturous relationship” that Todd had with her daughter, who became the first woman to earn a doctorate from Harvard in 1923 in geography. Her mother convinced her in 1929 — as the centennial of Dickinson’s birth approached — to turn her attention to editing a new volume of the Amherst poet’s letters.

“She was trained a scientist from her earliest days, and she was a good writer and a good musician, as her mother was, and interested in world literature,” Dobrow said of Bingham. “She seemed to be on track for a successful academic career in geography, but she faced a terrible dilemma: She knew if she were to help her mother with the Dickinson stuff, she would be jettisoning her own career. She really struggled with this decision. She knew it was going to irrevocably alter her professional path.”

Aside from having very different personalities and sensibilities — between Todd’s larger-than-life way of being and seemingly easy successes, and Bingham’s shyer nature and hard work at everything she accomplished — there had also been the affair with Dickinson’s brother, Dobrow suggested.

Bingham “had the sense as she walked down the streets of Amherst with her mother that people were whispering and talking behind her back,” Dobrow said. “That had to be really difficult for an adolescent. All adolescents want to do is fit in and be like everybody else. And her family had these odd professions. They went on eclipse expeditions around world, the stuff they had decorating their house was different; her parents just weren’t like other parents. That all contributed to a very, very difficult relationship … all the way through her entire life.”

With the long-term book project behind her, Dobrow said, “What I’ve tried do in this book is present as clear a portrait of Mabel Loomis Todd as I can. There’s no doubt she’s been many things, including a polarizing figure in this story.

There are many, many things that are admirable and many things also that troubled me,” Dobrow added. “I tried to be honest about those as well,” while also fleshing out the story of Bingham, who hasn’t been appreciated for her contribution to bringing Dickinson’s poems and letters to light.

“I tried to argue that if we know more about Mabel and Millicent, we’re actually going to end up knowing more about Emily Dickinson,” Dobrow said. “That’s because we can see through Mabel’s and Millicent’s relationships with other people that their own backgrounds and proclivities made them particularly receptive to Emily Dickinson and her story ... and also influenced the way they portrayed her.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 40 years. He can be reached at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.