Book Reviews - Autumn 2018

A Proximity to Greatness

How a reclusive writer’s work came to be published

By Jerome Charyn | September 4, 2018
(Wikimedia Commons)
(Wikimedia Commons)

After Emily: Two Remarkable Women, and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet by Julie Dobrow; Norton, 384 pp., $29.95

There must have been a thousand village poets in Massachusetts in the 19th century, half of them dying of heartbreak, half of loneliness; they disappeared without a trace. Yet the work of another village poet, Emily Dickinson, survives, almost by accident, thanks to the guile and stubborn will of a perfect stranger named Mabel Loomis Todd. In her new book, Julie Dobrow, a senior lecturer at Tufts University, serves as a kind of fiercely clever detective in stitching together Todd’s remarkable influence and all the other little intrigues behind the marketing of Dickinson and her legacy.

Todd was born into a world of impoverished gentility in 1856, moving as a girl with her parents from boardinghouse to boardinghouse in Washington, D.C. As Dobrow writes, Todd was “[p]etite, with dark liquid eyes, [and] soft light brown hair that elegantly framed her fine features” and, by the time she was in her teens, possessed a beauty that could grab the attention of any room she entered. In 1881, she arrived in Amherst with her husband, David Peck Todd, a newly hired astronomer at Amherst College, both in their mid-20s. There she befriended Susan Dickinson, the local empress of art and culture and sister-in-law of the reclusive Emily; Susan’s three children (Ned, Mattie, and Gib); and her husband, Austin, treasurer of Amherst College.

Although she seldom caught a glimpse of the reclusive Emily, Mabel often sang and gave piano recitals for her and her sister Lavinia (or Vinnie) at their dead father’s manor house, The Homestead. The poet would listen from her upstairs room, and after every performance, Emily would have a flower or a glass of wine or a poem sent down to Mabel.

The town’s great seductress, Mabel had a powerful sexual appetite and even kept track of each act of intercourse and orgasm. Her husband fed her grapes and figs in the morning, before and after they made love, but Mabel was not easily sated. Her friend Susan, stuck in a frozen marriage, never really enjoyed having sex with “Squire” Austin. Soon enough, Mabel and the Squire began taking long, furtive rides in his carriage. Susan’s son Ned, a “special” student at the college who suffered from epilepsy and who himself had fallen in love with Mabel, squealed, telling his mother that Mabel was a “coquette.” From that point forward, Susan shunned her and cut her out of her social orbit.

After Emily died in 1886, Vinnie discovered a great stash of her sister’s poems in a drawer and wanted to have them published. She went to “Sister Sue,” but Susan procrastinated. So Vinnie asked literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had befriended Emily, to oversee the publication of the poems, but he refused, feeling that they were too unconventional and would not sell. Vinnie then turned to Mabel, who agreed to help. Mabel worked for two years on the poems, which were barely legible and had to be transcribed. “The poems were having a wonderful effect on me, mentally and spiritually,” she would later write. “Their sadness and hopelessness was so much bitterer than mine.”

Mabel took the transcribed poems to Higginson, who still felt that they were idiosyncratic and wouldn’t find an audience, which brings us to the pivotal moment in Dobrow’s tale: Mabel recited her favorite poems to Higginson, “sang” them to him, and for the first time, he heard how musical they were. Without that recital, we might never have known Emily at all. Higginson changed his mind, after which he and Mabel together committed little acts of literary treason; they regularized the poet, ripped apart her punctuation, added their own scheme of rhymes. But the product of their labor proved a great success: after the first book of Dickinson’s poems was published in 1890, it went through 11 printings in two years. Mabel knew how to market the poems, embarking on speaking tours, reciting the poems like a diva, and helping to create the myth of the woman in the white dress.

Vinnie, though, wouldn’t split the royalties with Mabel or Higginson. Austin did what he could, giving Mabel a tract of land, but he never finalized the deed. After he died in 1895, Vinnie sued Mabel and got back the land. In response, Mabel, who still had hundreds of Emily’s unpublished poems, stashed them in a camphorwood box, where they remained unseen for decades.

The second half of Dobrow’s book, not as successful as the first, involves Mabel’s daughter Millicent. This is, perhaps, partly Mabel’s own fault. “I was made for a wife—for a mother, truly, no,” she admitted in her diary. Millicent lacked Mabel’s verve. “I frequently find myself singing aloud,” Mabel wrote, whereas Millicent never sang—“I have no joy. I never laugh,” she mused in her own journal.

Emily Dickinson may have understood her best. From the perch of her bedroom window, the poet must have espied Millicent walking with her mother once or twice. “I trust that you are well, and the quaint little girl with the deep eyes, every day more fathomless,” she wrote to Mabel. Millicent remained that quaint little girl for the rest of her life, even when she, 30 years after her mother had closed it, opened the camphorwood box and took up the task of championing Dickinson by releasing much of the poet’s remaining unpublished work, albeit without Mabel’s panache.

Dobrow’s storytelling, commendable as it is, cannot hide a deeper neglect. Mabel Todd’s “early determination to be known as a great writer haunted her throughout her life,” Dobrow writes, and the closest she came to that greatness was by mingling her own melodies with that of a great poet, and thus, Dobrow believes, she communed with Dickinson’s ghost. But that ghost—the essence of the poet herself—is largely absent from this book.

Dickinson scholar Marta Werner tells us that the poet’s scattered manuscripts “seem like … bright fragments torn from an infinite but now vanished map.” Despite Dobrow’s fine detective work in mapping out the different feuds and strategies involved in the publication of Dickinson’s poems, she never takes us into the territory of that other vanished map.

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