By Nick Grabbe
Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd lived in houses that were only one block apart, and while the two women were a study in contrasts, their connection resulted in a major contribution to American literature.
One woman stayed in her family’s house during most of the second half of her life, while the other was a world traveler. One woman was known for extreme social distancing, while the other was gregarious. One woman was modest while the other was attention-seeking. One woman was virtually unknown in her lifetime but is now recognized internationally as a major poet, while the other woman, who was gifted in many areas, is little known today.
And even though Mabel Loomis Todd was key to bringing Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the world’s attention, and carried on a 13-year love affair with the poet’s married brother, the two women never met face to face.
The basics of Emily Dickinson’s life are well known. Born in 1830 to a prominent Amherst family, she retreated to a severely sequestered life sometime after age 30. She never married or had children. She wrote about 1,800 poems, but only a few were published in her lifetime. She died in 1886. Her poems were discovered, edited, and published in three editions in the 1890s.
The Emily Dickinson Museum includes the house at 280 Main Street, where she lived, and The Evergreens, the house just to the west, where her brother and his family lived. The museum was visited (before the pandemic) by about 15,000 people every year. Built in 1813 by the poet’s grandparents, the Dickinson Homestead may have been the first brick house in Amherst.
Many people around the world know about Amherst because it’s where Emily Dickinson lived. Her life has been the subject of a play (“The Belle of Amherst,”) a novel (“Miss Emily,”), a coming-of-age TV series (“Dickinson”), a movie (“A Quiet Passion”), many books and countless scholarly essays.
Here’s how the museum’s website summarizes Dickinson’s image and influence:
“Often caricatured in popular culture as a white-clad recluse who poured out morbid verse in the sanctuary of her bedroom, Emily Dickinson was a serious artist whose intellectual curiosity and emotional intensity are revealed in concise and compelling poems that capture a range of human experiences.”
The Dickinson Homestead is currently closed for renovations and restoration, but may reopen this summer. The museum is now engaged in fundraising for the final phase of the work, which will include the kitchen, laundry and servants’ quarters.
Programs related to Emily Dickinson continue. This Saturday at 11:30 a.m., there will be a virtual reading and walk to mark the 136th anniversary of her death. Volunteers will read from her works, and poets will share Dickinson-inspired poems they have written. At her grave at West Cemetery, “we will share reflections and a light-hearted virtual toast.” The annual walk used to be in person but, as a virtual event, it reaches many more people around the world.
Interest in Emily Dickinson remains high almost two centuries after her birth. When the museum invited people to create postcards with greetings to the poet (“The World Writes Back”), it received about 1,000 (many of which are shown on the website) from 21 countries. The website includes a virtual syllabus, Spotify playlists, printable coloring sheets, and even a color-by-numbers Emily Dickinson portrait.
There has been much speculation about Emily Dickinson’s life. Did she suffer from epilepsy or some other medical condition? Did she have a love affair with her married neighbor, William Smith Clark (a theory advanced by Ruth Owen Jones of Amherst)? Why did she retreat from the outside world? No one knows for sure.
But we do know that her life intersected with that of Mabel Loomis Todd, who moved to a house at 97 Spring St. in 1881 when she was 25. (In 1907, the house was moved to 90 Spring St.) Emily Dickinson was 51 at the time, and her brother Austin, a respected lawyer, was 53.
Mabel Loomis Todd was an accomplished singer, painter, writer, editor and lecturer. She traveled to Japan, Russia and Chile, and may have been the first Western woman to hike up Mt. Fuji. She wrote or edited 12 books and hundreds of articles, and gave lectures all over the country. She was a co-founder of the Amherst Women’s Club and the Amherst Historical Society. A play about her life, “A Woman of the World,” was staged off-Broadway in 2019.
She seems to have had an open marriage with her husband, David Peck Todd, a professor of astronomy at Amherst College and an expert on eclipses. In her diaries, she recorded her many sexual encounters with both her husband and with Austin Dickinson. A Washington Post story about these liaisons was headlined “Amorous in Amherst.”
Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd exchanged love letters, went on private trips, and spent time together in Boston. A book by Dickinson scholar Polly Longsworth called “Austin and Mabel” (UMass Press, 1999) details their affair, which lasted until Austin’s death in 1894.
She came to the Homestead to play the piano and sing for Austin and his sister Lavinia. Emily apparently heard Mabel sing but didn’t make an appearance. The two women exchanged notes and conversations between rooms. Mabel wrote in her diary, “She writes the strangest poems & very remarkable ones.”
Mabel sent Emily a painting she did of an Indian Pipe flower, and Emily wrote back in appreciation, “Dear Friend, I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept this Humming Bird,” and included a poem called “A Route of Evanescence.”
Mabel referred to Emily Dickinson as “a lady whom the people call the Myth,” and wrote that she “seems to be the climax of all the family oddity.” When Dickinson’s poems surfaced after her death, Mabel Loomis Todd was one of the few people who recognized her genius.
The poems had “a wonderful effect on me, mentally and spiritually,” Mabel wrote. “They seemed to open the door into a wider universe than the little sphere surrounding me.”
She spent nine years assembling the poems and editing them, regularizing some of Dickinson’s unorthodox syntax and punctuation, changing some rhymes and adding titles to conform to contemporary literary tastes. Since then, scholars have largely restored the original versions.
The Jones Library’s Special Collections Department includes some of the books that Mabel Loomis Todd wrote, plus her diaries on microfilm (the originals are at Yale). The library has a copy of the first edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems, illustrated on the cover with Mabel’s Indian Pipe painting. The Amherst Historical Society has her swimsuit, dresses and some of her artwork.
Mabel Loomis Todd contradicted the image of a prim 19th century woman with few options outside the home. She died in 1932, in Maine, and her daughter donated land there to the Audubon Society, forming a wildlife sanctuary six miles east of Damariscotta. Her husband, who was frustrated in his attempts to view eclipses and tried to communicate with Mars, was institutionalized in 1922 and died in 1939. Both are buried in Wildwood Cemetery.
Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though different, were both extraordinary women who defied the conventions of their times. Their lives came together over poetry and their sensitive outlook, noticing beauty and the subtle details of life.
Amherst artist Victoria Dickson, the Emily Dickinson Museum, and Cynthia Harbeson, curator of special collections at the Jones Library, provided insights and information for this post.