The Dickinson Feud

about Mrs. Todd in Ancestors' Brocades, it is evident that the defeat in the lawsuit over the Dickinson property hurt her deeply. The rumor in Amherst, recorded by her daughter, that Austin Dickinson cared more for her than for his wife, was not unflattering and could not have been entirely displeasing, but it called for some sort of comment, and the attacks on Susan's character began, which are little short of disgrace to American biography. Unpleasant things were said about the social status and private character of her parents and remoter ancestors; her lack of wealth in her youth was stressed, and Mrs. Todd's personal testimony was quoted to prove that Austin spent evenings in her home because he couldn't endure the society of his wife.

Martha Bianchi was loyal to her mother and would have moved heaven and earth to defend her and to get even with her detractors. Both she and Mrs. Todd were fighters, the difference being in what they fought for, but Martha, unfortunately, had that score to settle with Amherst for the derisive guffaws at her matrimonial experiment. It embittered her life in the place where three generations of her people had been honored. The town wanted Austin Dickinson's house as a library or museum, or something of the kind, but Martha directed in her will that it should go to her collaborator, Mr. Hampson, and when he wanted it no longer, it should be torn down. The attitude of most people in Amherst and near by, remained derisive toward her rather than hostile. In 1931 Amherst College gave her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. On the Committee to make the award was Calvin Coolidge for the Trustees, and Professor Bigelow, among others, for the faculty. Biggie told me how Bigelow exercised his humor at Martha's expense. He asked first of all what she had done to deserve a degree. He was reminded of her volumes of verse, of her four of five novels, and of her editions of Emily Dickinson. The ex-President, having spent his life in the neighborhood, probably knew as much as anyone about the history of the Dickinsons and about Emily's poems, and feud over the editing. He probably knew the famous lawsuit by heart, but he pretended ignorance, asked who Emily Dickinson was, said he had not read any of Martha's original books, and asked whether they were popular. Committee members, to bolster Martha's case, reminded Mr. Coolidge of the great services rendered to the College by her family. Her brother Edward had served in the Library, her father was Trustee and Treasurer, her grandfather was Treasurer and one of the founders of the institution.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 2000 by
Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved.
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Last updated on March 10, 2008

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