DECEMBER 11, 2018
IT’S 1907, and Mabel Loomis Todd is looking at Mars. An author, adventurer, and astronomical enthusiast, Todd has traveled from Amherst, Massachusetts, to Iquique, Chile, on an expedition to photograph the “canals” of the red planet. Astronomers have introduced the word “canals” to describe its surface cuts and striations, but the word has caused no small amount of confusion among members of the public, who take it to mean that scientists have discovered water, perhaps even life, on Mars. In her essay “Science,” published in The Nation upon the team’s return from Chile, Todd cleared up the confusion and offered an explanation for why Mars has such a hold on the public imagination: so much of it is visible to the naked eye. Indeed, the new “mechanical means of observation” can often distort the view because they magnify terrestrial things — the “tremulous air” — that you don’t care to see. Not only is the naked view often much clearer, but also when it comes to Mars, the human eye is able to train itself to become a more perfect instrument. The more you look, the better you become at looking. “Even the casual observer, the interested spectator, is able to discover much more at his second, third, or later view than at the beginning,” Todd wrote.
Todd had spent decades training her eye on celestial things. She’d been chasing solar eclipses since the 1880s. She traveled to Japan first in 1887 and then again in 1896, when she became the first American woman to summit Mount Fuji. She went to Libya in 1900, Indonesia in 1901, then back to Libya in 1905. She was in Russia when the war broke out in 1914 and made a perilous escape across Europe. For all this effort, not once did Todd manage to see a solar eclipse, thwarted after months of painstaking travel by cloudy skies. Yet these travels nonetheless became the basis of a series of travelogues Todd published in some of the nation’s most widely read outlets, including Harper’s, The Nation, The New York Evening Post, Home Magazine, and Century Magazine, and they established her reputation as a writer.
Todd’s travelogues represent a tiny sliver of her literary output. She wrote constantly, obsessively. She started a diary in 1866 when she was 10 and kept it for 66 years. In it, she recorded her day-to-day activities, social engagements, and life milestones. Alongside it, she kept a separate journal in which she dilated upon the events of her life and wrote with intimacy and profusion about love, sex, art, pain, and motherhood. She was a prolific letter-writer, as well, and a meticulous keeper of scrapbooks, and a poet, and she published book reviews in the Amherst Record. When you add Todd’s voluminous output to that of her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who was the first woman to earn a doctorate in the field of geography from Harvard, and who likewise kept every scrap of paper she ever touched, you get the 700 boxes of Todd Family Papers that have rested in the Yale University archives since they were donated by Bingham in 1964.
If you want to study the work of Mabel Loomis Todd, however, you don’t go to Yale. You go to Amherst or Harvard, the two institutions that together hold most of Emily Dickinson’s original manuscripts. For it is not for her own literary works that Mabel Loomis Todd is known. Instead, Todd has been remembered primarily as the mistress of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and, with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, as the editor of Dickinson’s first published book of poems.
The story of how Todd came to be Dickinson’s editor is a complicated one, twined with Dickinson’s own vexed family history. When Emily Dickinson died in 1886, she left behind nearly 1,800 poems in manuscript form. She had organized about half of them into what scholars call “fascicles” — a word given to us by Todd, who chose it over the proposed “volumes” because “fascicles” was a botanical term, referring to the bundles of vessels in plants. The other half were strewn across loose pages and scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scrawled on all manner of scraps. No one knew the extent of Dickinson’s creative output, not even her sister Lavinia Dickinson, with whom she lived her whole life in their Amherst family home, and not even Susan Huntington Dickinson, the poet’s sister-in-law, next-door neighbor, and most intimate friend, to whom Dickinson had sent nearly 250 poems during her life. Yet almost as soon as they were discovered, Lavinia Dickinson knew the poems must be published, and she set to work trying to find someone who could read her sister’s nearly impenetrable hand, who could copy it into legible script, and who could bring the poems to press.
What happened next sparked a feud that continues in Dickinson circles to this day. Lavinia brought the poems next door to Susan, Austin’s wife and Emily Dickinson’s closest confidante. (It was Susan who dressed Dickinson’s body for burial and wrote the poet’s obituary.) Susan accepted the charge of editor and began work on the poems, but Lavinia found her progress to be too slow and took the poems back. She then solicited Higginson to edit them, but he declined, thinking the project too massive and the poems too strange to be accepted by the reading public. Lavinia’s third choice: Mabel Loomis Todd, who was five years into an extra-marital affair with Susan’s husband, an affair that had already fractured the Dickinson family and made her Susan’s rival. Todd took possession of a critical mass of Dickinson’s manuscripts and started the work of copying and editing the poems, much to Susan’s dismay. With Higginson, whom she persuaded to become her co-editor, Todd famously messed with Dickinson’s poems, changing words to make her lines rhyme, straightening out her meter, and adding titles — in short, squeezing the poems into conventional 19th-century form.
For all of these reasons, Todd has been the marked woman of Dickinson history and scholarship. The judgments upon her are both moral and literary. If the sordid history of Todd’s romantic entanglement with Austin Dickinson wasn’t enough to bring upon her widespread condemnation — which it did, both in her own moment and later — then her editorial choices certainly were. Modern Dickinson editors — Thomas Johnson in the 1950s and Ralph W. Franklin in the 1990s — have imagined much of their work as undoing Todd’s editorial changes, returning Dickinson’s poems to their purest versions, complete with the alternative word choices that Dickinson often listed at the bottom of her poems. Much energy has also been put into undoing the image of Dickinson, as a reclusive, virginal spinster, that Todd is often said to have originated in her introductions to the five volumes of poems and letters she edited. The overwhelming feeling among Dickinson’s family, fans, and scholars has been that Todd did more damage to Dickinson than she did good.
This is not the story told in the first full-length biography of Todd, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet (Norton), by Julie Dobrow, a media studies scholar at Tufts University, who sets out to recuperate Todd. To do so, Dobrow works two angles. The first is that Todd and Austin Dickinson were truly in love — and that this matters to the literary history of Emily Dickinson because it shows that Todd was not some interloper but, rather, a near-member of the family. The second angle that Dobrow works is that Todd, who never met Emily Dickinson, nonetheless knew her in the mystical way necessary for understanding and editing her poems.
In making the case for Mabel Loomis Todd, connection to and knowledge of the poet seem like strange criteria for Dobrow to employ, not least because on both of these counts, the case decidedly goes to Todd’s rival, Susan Huntington Dickinson. Yet Dobrow’s biography finally implies a case for Todd that is quite different from the one it explicitly explores. While Dobrow drills down into the details of Todd’s relationship with the Dickinson family, what emerges in the tailings of her study is a portrait of a brilliant woman seeking many of the things restricted to her by 19th-century gender expectations: a literary career, a public life in lecture halls and concert halls and theaters, and a romantic life of sex, pleasure, and passion. Todd was ambitious, which has often led to her being characterized as having exploited Emily Dickinson’s genius to achieve the fame she could not earn with her own creative endeavors, and having leveraged her connection with Austin Dickinson to do so. But what if we refuse the gendered double standard around ambition? What if the most interesting thing about Todd’s life isn’t her illicit affair with Austin Dickinson and her feud with his wife? Todd’s ambition, and her adventurousness, and her assertiveness, and her vanity — what if these are not shameful marks against her but the instruments she used to navigate a planet unaccustomed to a woman with eyes for Mars?
Dobrow’s After Emily dwells in the tangle, or triangle, of Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson, and Susan Huntington Dickinson. In the chapters on the affair and the ensuing struggle over Dickinson’s manuscripts, Dobrow tends to follow Todd’s interpretation of events. This critical closeness between Dobrow and Todd leads the biographer to repeat, often without comment, her subject’s representation of Susan. Given the venom between the two women, this seems both like a bad idea and a methodological error. Todd’s journal entries reflect not only her abiding love for Austin but also her spiteful feelings toward his wife, and these are sentiments (and words) reproduced in Dobrow’s text. “It seems he and his wife have not been in the least happy together although for the sake of appearances and the children, they have continued to live together,” she wrote in 1883. Todd also recorded many deeply personal details about Susan and the Dickinsons’ marriage told to her by Austin: that his wife wasn’t very smart, that she couldn’t control her anger, that she came from a disreputable family of alcoholics, that she was terrified of childbirth and had attempted to abort their first child — that Susan was, in other words, the undeserving wife of the man Todd loved.
As the fight over Dickinson’s legacy got nastier, so did Todd’s characterizations of her lover’s wife. She came to believe that Susan was terrorizing Lavinia into suing Todd over a small parcel of land that Austin had given her. (The Dickinsons won.) Indeed, when Todd had a stroke in 1913, two months after Susan died, Todd believed that Susan’s ghost had caused it. Todd’s final assessment of Susan: “She has done incalculable evil, and wrought endless unhappiness. At times she seemed possessed of a devil — yet could be smoothly winning and interesting” — lines she wrote upon the death of her “most bitter enemy.”
While Dobrow notes that these statements reflect Todd’s perspective, she retains very little critical distance between her own narrative and the story as it was told by her subject. The “real” Susan Huntington Dickinson has been hard to reconstruct, in part because the letters she wrote to her closest friend, Emily Dickinson, were burned upon the poet’s death. But it seems intuitive to pause over, and question, the representations of a wife by her husband’s lover, and of a wife by her husband to his lover. The most that can be made of Todd’s statements about Susan are that they reflect her feelings toward her, as well as her feelings about being deeply in love with a man who spoke a great deal about leaving his wife and never did.
Dobrow’s willingness to follow Todd’s interpretation of events matters for a key reason. It seems to have caused Dobrow’s biography to skip over what we do know about Susan: that Emily Dickinson adored her.
Dickinson met Susan in 1847 or 1848, when she was still Susan Gilbert. (If you saw the recent biopic of Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, you saw Austin introduce Susan to his sister after their marriage in 1856. It was not so.) The two began a correspondence that lasted 40 years. While very few of Susan’s letters to Dickinson remain, hundreds of poems and letters that Dickinson wrote to her sister-in-law escaped the fire, and they were published in full for the first time in 1998, in a volume called Open Me Carefully, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith.
The early letters from Dickinson to Susan vibrate with the intensity of young love. “If you were here, – and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language – I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come,” wrote Dickinson in 1852. During the time of Dickinson’s most furious poetic output — between 1862 and 1865, when she wrote 849 poems by Ralph W. Franklin’s count — she sent many dozens of poems to her sister-in-law to review and discuss. The two quite famously had an exchange over one of Dickinson’s most beloved poems, #124, “[Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –],” in which Susan prompted the poet to rewrite the original second stanza, which Dickinson did. In their late letters, Dickinson speaks to her friend with the kindled warmth of lifelong devotion: “Susan is a / vast and sweet / Sister, and / Emily hopes to / deserve her, but not now[,]” she wrote in the early 1880s.
The story of Dickinson’s companionship and poetic collaboration with her sister-in-law has emerged late in the poet’s historiography. This is due, in part, to Todd. Todd edited the first volume of Dickinson’s letters, and because she was denied access to the correspondence between Dickinson and her bitter enemy, the volume contains not a single letter to Susan. Indeed, there’s barely a mention of Susan in Todd’s 1894 Letters of Emily Dickinson because Todd took great pains to remove her name — literally, physically — wherever it was mentioned. She even seems to have erased Susan from many poems and letters that originally bore it, erasures that Hart and Smith have carefully restored.
Todd’s editorial decisions to erase Susan had the effect of beginning a century of focus by biographers and critics on the relationships Dickinson had or didn’t have with men. Much of this work has taken shape around the Master Letters, a series of love letters Dickinson penned in the early 1860s to an unnamed someone called “Master,” and oceans of ink have been spilled on trying to determine the identity of this “Master,” whom almost everyone assumes is a man. Much attention has also been paid to the role of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in Dickinson’s poetic development. In 1862, Dickinson wrote Higginson to ask if her poetry was “alive,” and he is often characterized as her literary mentor. Then, of course, there is Dickinson’s father, and her brother, and Judge Otis Lord and whether she loved him in the 1860s or just the 1880s, and Emerson and whether she actually met him at the Evergreens, and what her seclusion had to do with heartbreak, and whether she ever had sex. And, and.
The more recent work on Susan comes out of feminist circles and represents a feminist approach to Dickinson’s life and work. Despite her attention to Todd’s experience as shaped by gender, Dobrow’s book mostly side-steps the story of Dickinson and Susan, perhaps because this story would seem to weaken her argument about Todd — that we should be happy that it was Todd, not Susan, who edited Dickinson’s poems, and we should be happy about this because Todd developed a deep and personal and mystical knowledge of Dickinson’s mind. Where Dobrow does present Huntington Dickinson, she reinforces Todd’s (sometimes quite literal) demonization of her. Neither Dobrow’s nor Todd’s interpretation of Susan seem true, and neither serve the hard feminist work that has been done on Dickinson.
There’s also something symptomatic about Dobrow’s treatment of Susan, for in the larger sense, Dobrow has missed the opportunity to tell the great story of a whole set of brilliant women living under gendered constraints in 19th-century Amherst, and bursting through them. Dickinson lived a women-centered life, and for 60 years following her death, her manuscripts were handled almost exclusively by women — Lavinia Dickinson, Susan Huntington Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, and their two daughters, Mattie Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham. It was all women, and caught up as she is in the feud among them, Dobrow fails to highlight the significance of this fact. Told differently, this is a story in which the fierce quarrels among the Dickinson and Todd women appear but do not overshadow the remarkable stewardship that together these women accomplished.
There’s also great irony in Dobrow’s failure to see the alliances among women who despised each other — because it is Todd who teaches us this lesson. As Dobrow shows, Todd was multitalented polymath, a musician and painter and writer, a conflicted mother, a Spiritualist, and a genuine master of performance and publicity, who has nonetheless been erased and demonized from the historiography of Emily Dickinson and 19th-century literature more generally. How did this come to be? To understand, we should read Todd not against Susan or Mattie Bianchi. It was Todd against a world that was not built for women.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Dobrow’s discussion of the “modernization” of Dickinson editing in the 1950s. Her chapter on the effort by Harvard, Amherst, and the Library of Congress to acquire Dickinson’s manuscripts from Mattie Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham reads like a veritable catalog of powerful men’s names: there’s Gilbert Montague, a wealthy collector who orchestrated Harvard’s acquisition of the batch of manuscripts that had stayed in the Dickinson family; there’s William Jackson, director of Harvard’s Houghton Library, who for 10 years pressured Millicent Todd Bingham to give up her manuscripts to Harvard; there’s Charles Cole, president of Amherst College, who likewise angled for the manuscripts in Bingham’s possession while privately ridiculing the other items in the collection that Amherst would be required to accept; there’s Thomas Johnson, a Harvard literary scholar hired to complete the first “definitive” edition of Emily Dickinson’s works, to restore them to their original forms, and to rid them of previous editors’ impurities. And, and.
As Dobrow’s chapter suggests, but doesn’t explicitly say, in the larger story of the editing of Emily Dickinson — a story in which a team of remarkable women brings Emily Dickinson out — the central conflict was not in fact a conflict between the Dickinsons and the Todds. The central conflict was between these women, all of them, and the male editorial establishment of the 1950s, which deployed the wealth, power, and status of the country’s most elite institutions to take charge of Emily Dickinson’s legacy.
There is little doubt that Johnson’s 1955 variorum edition of Dickinson’s poems did much good to advance Dickinson scholarship. For one thing, he ordered the poems chronologically, or at least as close to chronologically as he could determine based on Dickinson’s handwriting. He also revealed the many options of word choice that Dickinson often left in the margins of her poems (hence the designation “variorum”). He restored Dickinson’s original capitalizations, rhymes, and dashes. It is hard to dispute that Johnson helped bring readers closer to Dickinson’s original manuscripts. But the gender dimensions of the “modernization” of Dickinson editing are nonetheless striking, as is the implication — made by Johnson, and perpetuated by subsequent scholars — that Susan Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, Martha Bianchi, and Millicent Todd Bingham were just amateurs, playing at being editors.
In the 1950s, this call for a “definitive” edition of Dickinson’s work would become the rationale for transferring the poet’s manuscripts from the women who held them to the male editors and elite institutions where they are currently housed. But it wouldn’t be long before the definitiveness of Johnson’s edition would be called into question and a new “definitive” edition called for. This time, it would be edited by Ralph W. Franklin, whose volumes are now the standard in the field. Yet what is clear from the historiography of Dickinson editing is that “definitive” is not a stable thing, especially when it comes to Dickinson. “Definitive” is merely a moment of pause in an evolving understanding.
Or, to return to Todd’s writing about Mars, a relationship to a poem might not be unlike an encounter with a planet — a moment when an “interested spectator” applies herself nakedly, prodigiously, and discovers more in the “second, third, or later view than at the beginning,” as the red planet reveals and conceals herself in tremulous air.
This Todd knew. It is a theory of astronomical observation — a theory of pondering a different world where different things may be possible — that is also a theory of how to approach the editing of Emily Dickinson, and it is not to be found in the private writings by Todd that Dobrow plumbs. It’s there in the travelogues that fall to the side of Dobrow’s account, travelogues that were written during the same years that Todd was editing her Dickinson volumes, as she chased eclipses she did not see. An alternative chronology to the one Dobrow emphasizes would show that Todd published Poems in 1890, Poems: Second Series in 1891, “The Ascent of Fuji the Peerless” in 1892, “Pike’s Peak and Colorado Springs” in 1893, and Letters in 1894. From this chronology it becomes clear that Todd was thinking about Dickinson and thinking about mountains at the same time.
It should be no wonder, then, that as Todd was climbing her mountain of Dickinson manuscripts, she was writing of Fuji that her approach to ascending the mountain was not so much as a tourist, “merely to say that he [sic] had been to the top,” nor as a pilgrim, “to pay vows at the shrine of the adorable goddess,” nor as a poet, who wishes to “venerate the lofty eminence,” but as a scientist who is merely starting out, charting a course for the future. Her purpose in ascending, she wrote, was to make “sundry observations” as to whether such peaks might be occupied by others for ongoing astronomical work. What more might Todd have to say to us, quite apart from the Dickinsons?