An elegant recovery of the two women without whom “Because I could not stop for Death” likely wouldn’t be required reading for American high school students.
During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) didn’t publish much, but after she died, her brother’s mistress took up the cause of Dickinson’s verse. Mabel Loomis Todd is one of the stock characters of the Dickinson story. Dobrow (Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Studies/Tufts Univ.) spent years in the massive Todd archives—Yale’s Sterling Library holds more than 700 boxes of diaries, journals, and notes about psychiatric sessions—in order to recount, with sympathy and nuance, Todd’s near obsession with editing Dickinson, securing a publisher, and publicizing the poet on the lecture circuit. While telling Todd’s story, the author sensitively explores the (much-criticized) editorial choices Todd made and the question of who was responsible for the “legend” of Emily-the-recluse-in-white. Less well known than Todd is her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who completes Dobrow’s twinned biography. Bingham grew up immersed in her mother’s obsession with Dickinson: “Initiation into the vagaries of Emily’s handwriting is one of the earliest rites I can recall,” she once said. As an adult, she took over the work, publishing yet-unseen poems and letters and delving into arguments about copyright and archive battles. (Dobrow manages to make wrangling between university libraries fascinating.) The author reduces neither woman to her devotion to Dickinson. She attends to their professional accomplishments, world travels, marriages, and passion for conservation. The book, then, is about the Belle of Amherst, but it is also about being a working woman, a mother, and a daughter.
All entries in the voluminous literature on Dickinson are controversial—some will bristle at such a positive depiction of Todd or suggest that some of Dickinson’s relatives deserve more charity or credit. One hopes the controversy will simply bring increased attention to Dobrow’s fresh, remarkable account.