Poetry News

On Emily Dickinson's Earliest Editors

By Harriet Staff
Emily Dickinson

At Literary Hub, read a selection from Julie Dobrow's forthcoming book, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet, which paints a portrait of Emily Dickinson's earliest advocates. "Before Emily Dickinson died in 1886, her sister Lavinia promised that she would burn Emily’s papers. But when she discovered a cache of almost 1,800 poems that her sister had written, Lavinia instead sought to find someone who could help bring this unique poetry to the world. That person turned out to be Mabel Loomis Todd," the article begins. From there: 

Todd, the beautiful, young and energetic wife of an Amherst College professor, had literary ambitions of her own. She also was peculiarly entwined with members of the Dickinson family, including an intense and passionate extra-marital relationship with Emily and Lavinia’s older brother, Austin. Lavinia (also known as Vinnie) sensed that Mabel would be willing to take on the task of preparing Emily’s poetry for publication. She was right.

But what Lavinia did not realize was the extent of work needed to get the poems into a form in which they could be considered worthy of publication in the late 19th century. These excerpts from my forthcoming book, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet, delineate the complicated process Mabel undertook. Her arduous work led to the publication of three volumes of Dickinson’s poetry, but also had some unintended consequences—including a scandalous lawsuit that rocked the community, the sequestration of more than 600 original Dickinson poems for three decades, and ultimately, the division of Dickinson’s manuscripts between Harvard University and Amherst College. It also led to upending the career path of Mabel’s accomplished daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who took on her mother’s work, and to exacerbating the deep tensions between Mabel and Millicent.

And in the 128 years since the publication of the first volume of Dickinson’s poetry, it’s brought considerable debate over the editorial choices that they made.

Today these debates continue. Looking at Dickinson’s original manuscripts and Todd’s original transcriptions of them, we can clearly see ways in which Todd and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (the well-known abolitionist, Civil War hero and 19th-century literary advocate whom she convinced to join her in the editing project for the first two volumes of poetry published in 1890 and 1891) altered words, changed capitalization and punctuation and perhaps most controversially, gave titles to poems that originally bore none. And yet it is clear that without the work of Mabel Loomis Todd and later, Millicent Todd Bingham, the world might never have known the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Learn more at Literary Hub.

Originally Published: November 9th, 2018