How to get published after you’re dead?

Mabel Loomis ToddIn a footnote on page 609 of Alfred Habegger’s My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, I find:

In 1903, traveling in Europe with Sue [Emily’s sister-in-law], Martha [one of Emily’s nieces] married Captain Alexander E. Bianchi, supposedly of the Imperial Horse Guard of St. Petersburg. The captain accompanied his bride to America, ran through her money, cooled his heels in a New York jail, and vanished. After this costly misadventure, Martha took a keen interest in the royalties to be made from her aunt.

Sounds like a Henry James story, something along the lines of Portrait of a Lady. We also begin to get a sense of how, mechanically speaking, the work of a deceased, previously unpublished writer makes its way the public eye. And here, too, one may be reminded of Marx and economic determinism. Had it not been for the gullible Martha’s need for money, . . . ?

Well, . . . It might not have mattered because Cupid re-entered the picture. This from the Emily Dickinson Museum‘s article on “The Publication Question“:

After discovering hundreds of Emily’s poems shortly after her death, the poet’s sister Lavinia resolved that the poetry must be published. . . . [Eventually] Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, . . . [who] was deeply involved in a love affair with Austin Dickinson, Susan’s husband and Emily’s brother. An accomplished artist and musician, Todd brought much-needed vitality and commitment to preparing Dickinson’s poetry for publication. After finally enlisting Thomas Wentworth Higginson as co-editor, Todd completed Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890, just four years after the poet’s death.

Encouraged by the first collection’s success, Todd [pictured above] and Higginson published two more volumes, until (the Museum’s article continues, and we return to our economic leitmotif, adding a pinch of rivalry):

In 1898 a painful lawsuit between the Dickinson and Todd families over a small piece of land brought Mabel Todd’s involvement with the Dickinson family to an abrupt end. For more than thirty years she refused to raise the lid of her camphorwood chest filled with the Dickinson poems in her possession. . . .

[A] period of quiet ensued in the publication story. Lavinia Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Susan Dickinson all died, and Martha Dickinson Bianchi began to assume a larger role in shaping her aunt’s legacy. Having inherited Dickinson’s manuscripts from both Lavinia and Susan, Martha edited at least six volumes of Dickinson’s poetry. . . . Incensed by publications about her aunt that she judged inaccurate, Bianchi wrote several memoirs to assert her unique perspective as “the one person now living who saw [Emily Dickinson] face to face.”

Eventually, Mabel Loomis Todd returned to Dickinson’s work, motivated to counter Bianchi’s efforts with the publication of her aunt’s poetry. With her daughter Millicent’s help, Todd began to edit the poems that remained in her possession, a project that she did not live to see finished. Her daughter completed the work on her mother’s behalf, and in 1945 published Bolts of Melody.

Do we find here confirmed or challenged Kant’s famous proposition: “Aus so krummem Holze, als woraus der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden”? (“From such crooked wood as ‘man’ is made, nothing perfectly straight can be built”?)

— William Eaton, Executive Editor

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