Emily Dickinson famously wrote “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” A characteristically enigmatic phrase, it’s both striking and open to multiple interpretations. Still, it might suggest that biographies and works of scholarship should approach their subjects from unexpected angles.
Did Julie Dobrow, then, deliberately or unconsciously compose her mesmerizing account of the discovery, publication and afterlife of Emily Dickinson’s poetry so that it comes across as a multigenerational soap opera? Just giving a précis of her book “After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet” will show what I mean:
In late 1870s Washington, the flirtatious, self-centered Mabel Loomis was courted by David Todd, a young astronomer working at the Naval Observatory. The 20-year-old beauty married him, despite his confession of past sexual “indiscretions.” An ardent diary-keeper, Mabel was soon using special symbols to mark their sexual activity, and in 1880, she gave birth to a little girl, Millicent, who was almost immediately foisted on her mother’s parents. When David accepted a teaching position at Amherst College, the young couple moved to Massachusetts — initially without the baby — and soon became friendly with the town’s leading family: lawyer Austin Dickinson, his wife, Susan, and their three children, including a shy and epileptic 20-year-old son called Ned. Before long, Ned fell in love with now 25-year-old Mabel, who did little to discourage his attentions.
At this time, the Todds also came to know Austin’s two younger sisters, Emily and Lavinia. When Mabel visited their home to play the piano, she occasionally glimpsed a flitting swirl of white in the next room, sometimes even received a note of thanks for calling, but she never actually spoke with the reclusive, almost spectral Emily.
Meanwhile, during trips to observe solar eclipses or attend conferences, David regularly succumbed to further “indiscretions.” For her part, Mabel felt more and more drawn to Austin Dickinson, 27 years her senior. They took carriage rides together, Ned grew jealous of his father, Susan became suspicious, the town began to whisper. After Austin and Mabel surrendered to something bigger than both of them, the couple sometimes met secretly at the home of Emily and Lavinia. Still, they denied that theirs was a run-of-the-mill adultery — each believed such a soul-stirring love must be heaven-ordained. David even condoned the affair. However, the stern-looking patriarch never left his wife and family.
Then, in 1886, at age 55, Emily died.
Sometime after the funeral, Lavinia unlocked a drawer brimming with scribbled-on paper scraps, many sewn together in little packets. Over the years Emily had frequently shared poems — at least 250 of them — with Susan, who had been her close, perhaps more than close, friend before marrying Austin. But here were hundreds and hundreds more. Lavinia then asked her sister-in-law to oversee the publication of this treasure trove, but Susan demurred. So did critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, with whom Emily had corresponded: Despite many arresting phrases, he pointed out, nothing scanned or rhymed properly. Finally, Lavinia turned to Austin’s artistic and literary “friend.”
For the next two years, Mabel carefully transcribed Emily’s originals, making no changes to them. But when she and Higginson, who had finally been persuaded to join the project, assembled a selection of poems, they added titles and changed the occasional word to render the work more conventional. Published in 1890, “Poems” by Emily Dickinson proved to be a surprise success and ran through multiple printings. A second, then a third selection was brought out, as well as a gathering of letters.
Though doing none of the work, Lavinia — perhaps through prodding by the betrayed Susan — started to feel wrongly overshadowed by the industrious Mabel. There were squabbles about royalties and other matters. When Austin died in 1895, leaving his lover shattered and unprotected, the entire Dickinson clan quickly attacked her on several fronts, culminating in a trial over a land-gift, which she lost. Angry and heartbroken, Mabel managed to keep her priceless Dickinson material locked away in a camphor wood box for nearly three decades.
During those years, David started trying to communicate with imaginary beings on Mars until he was finally confined to an asylum, probably suffering from insanity brought on by syphilis. By this time, little Millicent has grown up, thoroughly puritan and emotionally ambivalent about her vivacious mother. She married at 40 in 1920, first telling professor of psychology Walter Bingham that she didn’t love him. He didn’t care.
With the death of Mabel in 1932, Millicent Todd Bingham bowed to her destiny, producing a further edition of Emily’s poems (“Bolts of Melody” in 1945), as well as a book about a putative romance between the poet and an older family friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord. There were also additional legal skirmishes, first with Susan’s daughter Mattie and later with a bullying Harvard University, which acted with shameful ruthlessness in its pursuit of her Dickinson material. Resisting considerable pressure, Millicent instead willed it all to Amherst College, then died in Washington in 1968.
Such is a bare-bones outline of “After Emily,” albeit one that conveys nothing of the viciousness and passion in this decades-long fight between two enemy camps, both zealously committed to Emily Dickinson’s legacy. Nor does it do justice to years of research by Dobrow, a professor of human development at Tufts. Some of the book’s interpretive chapters do grow repetitive, however, and one or two points are overemphasized, notably that Mabel and Millicent’s private traumas helped them to better appreciate Emily’s poetry. No matter. If you’re interested in “America’s greatest poet,” intellectual property issues or juicy behind-the-scenes literary history, “After Emily” is your book.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Julie Dubrow
Norton. 495 pp. $27.95