Book Reviews - Autumn 2018

A Proximity to Greatness

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How a reclusive writer’s work came to be published

By Jerome Charyn | September 4, 2018
(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.

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