The Tale of Mabel, Millicent, and the Poet

Julie Dobrow recounts the lives, loves, and lawsuits of the mother and daughter who created the legend of Emily Dickinson
three first editions of Emily Dickinson's poetry
First editions of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
January 16, 2019

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If you’ve ever enjoyed a poem by Emily Dickinson, you can thank Mabel Loomis Todd. Without her efforts, Dickinson’s poems may never have been published at all.

Todd steered the first three volumes of her works to publication after the poet’s death, and helped find a market for them. Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, brought more poems to light and wrote extensively about Dickinson’s life and craft, helping cement the Amherst poet’s reputation.

Yet Julie Dobrow’s new biography of the two editors—After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (W.W. Norton & Company)—is not geared to the Dickinson completist. Dobrow, the director of Tufts’ Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, said she found in Mabel and Millicent two women who “pushed up against the edges of what women in their eras did.”

“If anything, I had too much material; neither Mabel nor Millicent threw out a single scrap of paper in her life,” said Julie Dobrow. Photo: Alonso NicholsTodd, born in 1856, was one of the few female public intellectuals of her time. She traveled to thirty countries on five continents, wrote or edited a dozen  books, founded the Amherst Historical Society, and helped found the Boston Authors Club, among other organizations. Bingham, born in 1880, was the first woman to get a Ph.D. in geography and geology from Harvard. She was a translator, a writer, a teacher, and a prescient environmentalist.

After Emily, which is longlisted for the PEN/Bograd Weld biography award and the Plutarch Award, delves into the pair’s critical role in bringing Dickinson’s work to light, but Dobrow gives ample time to the lives of the women themselves. After all, as a book review in the Washington Post points out, their lives were a bit of a “multigenerational soap opera,” with free love, jilted lovers, and internecine legal battles.

Todd was a painter, singer, and pianist who was readily welcomed into the Dickinson family social circle when she and her husband moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1881. Yet while Todd visited the Dickinson house many times, she never met the reclusive Emily in person. (Though in Victorian fashion, they did exchange affectionate letters.)

After death kindly stopped for Dickinson in 1886, as she put it in a famous poem, her sister asked the multitalented Todd to help publish the many poems she had found in Emily’s belongings. Todd, along with nineteenth century reformer and literary advocate Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, edited and organized them into several books. They also took liberties that future generations would criticize them for, such as changing words, altering Dickinson’s unconventional punctuation and adding names to untitled poems.

Mabel Todd in the early 1880s. “Mabel was such a polarizing figure in this world. There are the pro-Mabel people and anti-Mabel people, and no one in the middle,” said Julie Dobrow. Photo: Todd-Bingham Picture Collection (MS 496E), Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University LibraryDobrow, who was not a Dickinson expert when she began working on the book, knew that she would have to be careful and thorough in her depiction of the editing controversies. “I recognized that I was coming into this whole other area of scholarship that there had been people who spent their lives studying this,” she said. “Mabel was such a polarizing figure in this world. There are the pro-Mabel people and anti-Mabel people, and no one in the middle. I knew I was wading into that.” 

By all accounts—including her own—Todd was charming, talented, and very attractive. “My life is positively the most brilliant one I know of,” she wrote, noting her many callers, letters, and admirers. “I mean in its continual succession of delightful things, with almost never a second to dim the brightness of my sun.”

Todd wrote about everything in her diary, a common way for nineteenth century women to validate their lives, Dobrow said. “For many, the diary was a place where women could escape others’ definitions of them and ‘let the real self have its day,’” she said. Yet in their writing, Dobrow’s subjects are often self-congratulatory, overly effusive, and sometimes disingenuous, and she calls them out for it. “I didn’t always like them,” Dobrow said, “but I always admired them.” 

In the years she spent researching the book, Dobrow became very connected to her subjects. Reading Todd’s diary entries after her lover died (“There never was such a love, as his for me and mine for him”), Dobrow found herself crying in the middle of Tisch Library; a librarian asked if she was OK. “‘Austin died’ is all I managed to blurt out,” she said.

That would be Austin Dickinson, Emily’s married older brother, with whom Todd had a passionate, thirteen-year affair. It fractured her relationship with the Dickinson family, and led to a decades-long fight over who controlled the rights to publish Emily’s writings.

Todd passed that fight along to her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, in the form of a camphorwood chest filled with Emily’s papers. Bingham took up her mother’s cause, changing careers to devote the latter part of her life to publishing the remaining poems, writing her own books on Dickinson, and continuing her mother’s legacy.

Dobrow sought to unravel the complex relationship between mother and daughter, which was marked by devotion, obligation, and disappointment. Drawing on her knowledge as a senior lecturer in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, Dobrow saw that Bingham, who spent most of her early life living with her grandparents, most likely missed out on the parental attachment that is important early in life for forming healthy relationships later.

Millicent Todd Bingham. Photo: Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Digital Images DatabaseIn fact, Dobrow, true to her interdisciplinary nature, found herself calling on disparate parts of her training while writing this, her first biography. In addition to her background in journalism, which helped her find the story in their lives, her studies of advertising and marketing helped her appreciate the role Todd had in promoting Dickinson’s work—building pre-publication hype by placing articles in newspapers, and cultivating the myth of “the woman in white.” Targeting a female readership, she drove sales of the book through speaking engagements. “She instinctively knew that it would help to create what we today would call ‘buzz,’” Dobrow said.

Piecing together their stories had its challenges. While some biographers struggle to find primary sources, Dobrow had the opposite problem—both her subjects kept detailed diaries, Todd for sixty-six years, Bingham for close to eighty. Add in letters, travel journals, scrapbooks—even, in Bingham’s case, detailed notes on sessions with her psychiatrist—and Dobrow found herself wading through more than 700 boxes worth of writing and ephemera just from the women themselves.

“How do you begin to go through the clutter of two sets of lives and figure out what is important and what is not?” Dobrow asked. “If anything, I had too much material; neither Mabel nor Millicent threw out a single scrap of paper in her life.”

After Emily begins just as the title suggests—on the day of Dickinson’s funeral. She never appears in the book, yet she hovers over it and her editors like a spirit. Todd and Bingham may never have met her, but her poetry shaped their lives, just as their lives shaped what the world knows of her poetry.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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