The Dickinson Feud

feud. I still have copies of Emily's poems and her letters in the first edition; I bought them at the sale of Mrs. Davis's library after her death. The little books had been presented to her, inscribed by Emily's sister Lavinia. Mrs. Davis told me that Lavinia was only less remarkable than Emily herself.

As I said, Mrs. Davis disliked gossip, but a number of people who came to her house did not. I soon learned the embroidery which the popular imagination was giving to a few simple and unquestioned facts. Emily Dickinson had died in 1886. Four years later Mabel Loomis Todd, assisted by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, made the first edition of Emily's poems. In 1891 the same editors brought out a second series of poems, and in 1896 Mabel Loomis Todd, unassisted, brought out a third series. Emily's letters, edited by Mabel, appeared in 1894, in two small volumes. These were the volumes which I acquired from the library of Mrs. Davis.

Mabel Loomis Todd was the wife of David Todd, who professes astronomy in Amherst College. According to local report, Emily Dickinson died without providing for her own literary debut, and though she knew the Todds, it was not she who asked Mabel to take charge of her immortality. Mrs. Todd's selection to this honor was due, it was said, to her acquaintance with Emily's sister, Lavinia, or more probably, to her friendship with Austin Dickinson, Emily's brother.

Popular report went on to say that Austin had a brilliant wife, Susan, whose disposition was in every respect cordial until Austin contracted, or developed, the habit of spending his spare time in Mabel's company. He also evinced a strong inclination to bestow on Mabel, by gift or bequest, a modest piece of real estates, but before this transaction had been completed in orderly fashion, he died, in 1895. Gossip added two items, one more easy to believe than the other. The incredible one was to the general effect that after Austin's death, Mrs. Todd was involved in some kind of lawsuit over the land which Austin intended to give her but didn't. This rumor we now know was true. The other was that when Austin died his wife, Susan was planning to sue him for divorce. I should hesitate to recall this gossip if it had not been stated in full in the account of the Dickinson feud given by Mrs. Todd's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, in Ancestors' Brocades, published in 1945.

When I first heard these legends, whether true or false, I had not yet laid eyes on a Dickinson. I had, of course, gazed with proper respect on the outside of the brick building where the immortal Emily had resided.

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Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved.
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Last updated on March 10, 2008

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