I'm so happy to be able to post this interview with Julie Dobrow, whose fascinating After Emily we reviewed earlier this year. Julie, who lives outside of Boston, is the Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies at Tufts University, where she also holds faculty appointments in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development, the Film and Media Studies Program and the Civic Studies Program. A Senior Fellow in Civic Media at the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts, she's also a research associate at the Digital Wellness Lab at Harvard/Boston Children’s Hospital. After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet, published by W.W. Norton, was long-listed for a Pen/Bograd Award in biography, short-listed for the Plutarch Award in biography and the Massachusetts historical book award, named a finalist for the Julia Ward Howe award and received the “Conch shell” award from the Amherst Historical Society as well as being named one of the “best book club books” of the year. You can purchase After Emily on platforms including Amazon and and find out more about Julie, After Emily, Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham at the author's website, which is rich with great background. 

After Emily will also be the focus of our first So19 giveaway, which will appear on our Instagram on August 19 (of course!), 2021. Follow our fledgling account there or check back here on the blog to find out more about the goodies and how to enter to win them. No purchase required!

In the meantime, I'm pleased to share my chat with Julie about After Emily, its two extraordinary subjects, and her intriguing new work-in-progress among other subjects. 

Q. You’re the director of the Tufts University Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and an expert on, among other things, journalism, mass communication, and the impact of media on children. What drew Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter to your attention and prompted you to begin After Emily? 

When I was in college I often walked past the two Dickinson houses on Main Street in Amherst and wondered about the lives of those who’d lived there. I’ve also always been a big biography reader, myself, and it was in reading biographies of Emily Dickinson that I first encountered Mabel Loomis Todd. The more I read about her, the more I was intrigued. However, there WERE no biographies of Mabel! I discovered that she had this equally remarkable daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, about whom there also were no full-length biographical treatments. Poking around, I discovered that they’d left an enormous cache of documents—721 boxes at Yale University, where my daughter had just started college. So it seemed like kismet, a topic I was interested in at a place I wanted to have good excuses to go visit. It was at that point I decided to begin work on what became After Emily.

Q.  Did you know that trove (or should I say, that hoard?) of boxes existed before you began writing the book? Was it catalogued all? How did you organize your examination of so much miscellaneous material, and what were a few of the things you found?

I did know about the materials because, fortunately, they are very well catalogued. But that being said, there were many, many surprises to be found in all of those boxes. I often found myself requesting the maximum number of boxes on my visits to Yale, getting to the library when it opened at 8:30 and staying there until 4:30, when Manuscripts and Archives closed, without getting up at all because I was so desperate to get through as much material as I could. But this wasn’t an arduous task because I was so entranced by what I was finding!

I started my work by reading Mabel and Millicent’s diaries and journals. They were both such great chroniclers of their own lives that I figured this would be a good way to see which events, which people and which places they seemed to think were the most important, and used that as a way of helping to guide me as to which other boxes/files I should look at. This turned out to be a pretty good strategy. Of course, one of the things that happens to you as a biographer is that you sometimes end up finding something that’s fascinating and leads you to go down the historical rabbit hole to look at something else, and that leads to yet another thing; all of this might turn out to be a side note to what you’re doing, but that’s part of the fun of it all!

Q. Before reading your book, the only thing I knew about Mabel Loomis Todd personally was that her long affair with Dickinson’s married brother Austin created a lot of consternation in and beyond the family. After Emily depicts a woman that was immensely more than just a Victorian drama queen. Could you give readers as yet unfamiliar with your book a glimpse of her?

Mabel was an incredibly multi-faceted and talented woman. She was a fine artist who studied painting with Hudson River landscape painter Martin Johnson Heade and produced art in a number of mediums. She was an excellent pianist and singer, trained at the New England Conservatory. She wrote in many genres, publishing several hundred articles in newspapers and magazines, as well as a dozen books. Mabel was also extremely civically engaged, being involved with a number of local, state and national organizations, in all of which she had leadership roles. Through her marriage to astronomer David Peck Todd she traveled the world on eclipse chasing expeditions, which took her to 30 countries on five continents, going to places that few Westerners had traveled in the 19th century and fewer women, still. And she was a conservationist, preserving land in both Massachusetts and Maine, and serving as one of the people who led the effort to get the Everglades saved and made into a national park.

Q. Literary history remembers, and criticizes, Todd for publishing Dickinson’s poems in more conventional form than the poet herself intended. But as your book proves, her brilliant marketing helped give Dickinson the visibility and reputation she has today. Talk about that a bit?

Mabel understood that Emily’s poetry didn’t mesh with 19th century poetic convention. She believed both that there were editorial things that needed to happen to make the poems more “acceptable” to the reading audience of the time, including giving poems titles (of the 1800 or so poems we know that Dickinson wrote, she herself only titled about a dozen of them). But Mabel also knew that editorial changes wouldn’t be enough to sell books. So she launched a marketing campaign that included designing a book cover she thought would appeal to the women whom she correctly believed would be the most likely purchasers (and who says you don’t judge a book by its cover?!); getting men who were literary gatekeepers of the time to write articles about Dickinson’s poetry published in places like the Atlantic Monthly, giving the poetry “legitimacy”; and embarked on a public speaking tour to talk about the poet and her work. This had the effect of helping to launch this image of Emily as the mysterious recluse garbed in white and also of making Mabel into one of the most notable female public intellectuals of her era.

Q. Mabel Loomis Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, is an equally fascinating character—and a somewhat poignant one. Tell us a bit about her if you would.

Ah, Millicent. She had such a troubled life, haunted by so many ghosts!

Millicent, the brilliant child of Mabel and David (I am often asked when I give talks about whether, perhaps, Millicent was the child of Mabel and Austin and the answer is unequivocally no—she was conceived and born before Mabel even moved to Amherst), was in some ways an amalgam of them, and in others, quite unlike either of her parents. Like Mabel, Millicent was an excellent musician and a fine writer; like David, she was methodical, logical (most of the time) and had a scientific bent. A graduate of Vassar College where she excelled academically, Millicent would go on to become the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in geography and geology from Harvard. She had a very promising academic career that she jettisoned when Mabel asked her to help with the Emily Dickinson work. Millicent would write three books about the life and craft of the poet as well as edit and publish a volume of Emily’s previously unpublished poetry. But to the day she died, Millicent feared that because she lacked the “proper” academic credentials, she would never be considered a Dickinson scholar. Sadly, she was right. But I do think that she should be credited for all of the very good work she did, including having the foresight to save the “scraps,” the bits of poetry Emily was auditioning in the margins of newspapers, grocery lists and other innocuous pieces of paper.

Millicent had a tumultuous relationship with each of her parents. Her mother she viewed as too audacious, too dramatic, larger than life in all the worst ways; her father, someone who was brilliant but misunderstood. David was also mentally ill, and one of the burdens Millicent bore was dealing with her father’s institutionalization beginning in 1922; another was her very significant guilt for institutionalizing him. Millicent felt that she was the product of her Puritan ancestors and in a lot of ways she was. She often felt she was “far more Victorian” than her mother. And of course, Mabel’s relationship with the austere “Mr. Dickinson"—a relationship that Millicent tried to deny for years— was something that drove a wedge between herself and her mother that could never be removed. One of the many consequences of this was that Millicent, herself, never had a successful romantic relationship; her ideas about what constituted true love had been warped from such an early age.

Q. Mother/daughter relationships are so fascinating and often, as with Mabel and Millicent, so fraught. How did the responsibility for Dickinson’s legacy affect their bond and dynamic?

Great question, and a complicated one! The short answer is that despite her tremendously conflicting feelings about her mother, Millicent felt her filial responsibility so keenly that she believed she didn’t really have a choice. When Mabel asked her to help, she had to help. Millicent realized that in taking on the Dickinson work it was likely to end her own career as a geographer, but she also knew that at that point in her life (Mabel was in her 70s and had already had a stroke), her mother could not do the work without her. And I think beyond that, Millicent believed in the work. She thought that it was important for “scholarship” that “all the data” had to be out there: that all of the Dickinson poems had to be published, along with all of the letters. Working together on the preparation of a new volume of Emily’s letters, timed to come out marking the centenary of the poet’s birth (there’s another example of Mabel’s incredible marketing instinct!), in odd ways brought this mother and daughter together as they had not ever been, before.

Q. How would you like Mabel and Millicent to be thought of today?

I would like the highly polarized views of Mabel (people either love her or hate her, there is no in-between) to be mitigated by a fuller understanding of who she was and what she did. Mabel should be remembered as more than just Austin Dickinson’s lover or Emily Dickinson’s editor. And Millicent should be thought of as more than just a footnote, and recognized for all of the very important Dickinson work she did. We should all remember that without these two remarkable women, the world might never have known Emily Dickinson’s poetry, at all.

Q. I believe you’re working on a new book about more fierce women. Are you able to talk about that at all?

Sure! I’m writing another dual biography, this time of Elaine Goodale and Ohiyesa, Charles Alexander Eastman. Elaine grew up on a farm in the remotest part of the Berkshires, where she achieved early fame as a childhood poet in the 1870s. She went on to become a teacher at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, a school that had been established to teach freed slaves and then later, Native Americans. Elaine became entranced with her Native American students, went out to the Dakota Territories first as a teacher, then as a school administrator. She was there during a period of time that saw tremendous upheaval in US-Indian relations. In fact, she was at Pine Ridge Agency in 1890 when the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred and she was one of the people who tried to help the victims, along with the man whom she’d marry. Ohiyesa, or Charles Eastman, was a Dakota Sioux who’d been educated at Dartmouth and the Boston University Medical School. He became one of the “foremost educated Indians” in the late 19th century, and was certainly one of the most photographed. The two of them had six children, produced eighteen books and hundreds of articles. And they had a troubled marriage, one that reflected a lot of the tensions of changing gender and race relations in late 19th/early 20th century America.