Mabel Loomis Todd

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Mabel Loomis Todd
Mabel Loomis Todd from American Women, 1897.jpg
Mabel Loomis Todd, circa 1897
Born November 10, 1856
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Died October 14, 1932(1932-10-14) (aged 75)
Hog Island, Maine
Occupation Writer and editor
Nationality American
Subject Emily Dickinson

Mabel Loomis Todd or Mabel Loomis (November 10, 1856 – October 14, 1932) was an American editor and writer. Her husband was the astronomer David Peck Todd. She is remembered as the editor of posthumously published editions of Emily Dickinson.

Todd's relationship to the Dickinson family was complicated. She had a lengthy affair with Emily's married older brother William Austin Dickinson. In preparing Emily's poetry for publication, which was also marred by family controversies, she freely edited and adapted the writing to suit her own style.


Mabel Loomis as a young girl, circa 1866

She was born Mabel Loomis on November 10, 1856, the daughter of Mary Alden Wilder and Eben Jenks Loomis.[1] Though her family traced its lineage to such New England luminaries as Priscilla Alden, they led financially difficult lives and Mabel spent much of her childhood in boardinghouses in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Concord, Massachusetts, and Washington, D.C.[1] She graduated from Georgetown Seminary in Washington, then studied music at the New England Conservatory in Boston.

She met the attractive and flirtatious astronomer David Peck Todd in 1877, and evidently knew he was a philanderer even before their wedding on March 5, 1879.[1] The couple had one daughter, Millicent. Mabel Loomis Todd had a passionate sexual nature and wrote freely about it. She wrote soon after her marriage: "Sweet communions. Oh joy! Oh! Bliss unutterable" and "A little Heaven just after dinner." In May 1879, the day she got pregnant, she noted: "A very happy few minutes of love in our room."[citation needed] They moved to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1881, where her husband became an astronomy professor at his alma mater Amherst College.[1]

It was in this town that she had an affair with Austin Dickinson, the (married) brother of Emily Dickinson.[2] Austin, a local luminary who served as treasurer of Amherst College, frequently met Todd behind a locked door in a second floor room. They took private trips to the country together, spent time together in Boston, and wrote love letters to one another. Though they tried to conceal the affair, many people were aware of it.[3] They used code names and code words in their correspondence and Austin would often include self-addressed envelopes with his letters to Todd to prevent her handwriting being seen on her responses. They both hoped to outlive their respective spouses.[4] Todd, who was 27 years younger than Austin, occasionally called him "My King". Her husband David, who was also unfaithful, maintained a strong friendship with Austin. Austin's wife Susan demanded the couple keep up appearances, though Todd began wearing his wedding ring by 1887.[5] Todd reportedly kissed Austin Dickinson after he had died, kissed "the dear body, every inch of which I know and love so utterly".[6] The affair—romanticized by Todd descendants—devastated Susan Dickinson, the wife of Austin, and impacted the writing of Emily, who is said to have had to witness audibly the ongoing affair, and to have been routinely displaced from her place of creative work to provide it an ongoing venue.[7]

Todd was a member of the Audubon Society.

Mabel Loomis Todd died in Hog Island, Maine.

Editor of Dickinson's poetry[edit]

Cover of Dickinson's Poems, 1890

Mabel Todd never met Emily Dickinson in person,[8] and though the two women exchanged letters, it has been said that "Mabel effectively destroyed the Dickinson family".[9] Her first reference to Emily came in a letter to her parents dated November 6, 1881, a couple of months after moving to Amherst, in which she references her reclusive nature and claims she has not left the house in 15 years. She refers to her as "a lady whom the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, & seems to be the climax of all the family oddity".[10]

After Emily's death in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia Norcross Dickinson destroyed all her letters, as she was instructed. She left no instructions for her poems, however, and originally asked her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson to oversee their publication. When Susan showed no passion for the project, Lavinia enlisted Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.[11] The first volume of Poems by Emily Dickinson was published in 1890, and included many alterations by Todd. Higginson, who had supported Emily's writing in her lifetime and was a friendly correspondent, also collaborated with Todd on Poems: Second Series in 1891. Higginson, however, disliked Todd's alterations of the work and withdrew from further editorial collaboration. Todd edited a two volume set of Dickinson's letters (1894) and Poems: Third Series (1896) on her own. According to scholar Brenda Wineapple, the third book, without Higginson's pleas to alter as little as possible, "is the most expurgated."[12]

The relationship between Todd and the Dickinson family, however, proved difficult. Emily's younger sister Lavinia, who controlled the copyright of the poems, wanted to give royalty payments to Todd herself instead of having the publisher divide proceeds. The argument was unnecessary as there were no profits.[13] In 1896, Todd and the Dickinson family had a falling-out over a legal battle regarding property owned by Austin Dickinson. Austin had left Todd and her husband a strip of his land and Lavinia had begun the process to make it legal before changing her mind and suing them in 1898 for the claim. She won the lawsuit but Todd refused to continue the project during Lavinia's lifetime.[14] As a result of their disagreements, Emily Dickinson's manuscripts were split between the two families.

Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's niece, inherited the poet's manuscripts from her mother Susan, except for those in Todd's possession. Between 1913 and 1937, she produced four books of Emily's poetry and two biographies, occasionally with assistance from Alfred Leete Hampton.[15] Todd, upset at the rival publications and assuming only she had legal rights to Emily's works, released an updated edition of her compilation in 1931.[16] In 1945, Todd's daughter Millicent published some of the poems from Todd's portion of the manuscripts.[17] By 1955, she had published three more.[18]


  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1883). Footprints. OCLC 2692762. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1894). Total Eclipses of the Sun. OCLC 3838009. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1894). Letters of Emily Dickinson 1830 - 1886. OCLC 776139426. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1898). Corona and Coronet. OCLC 931060. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1906). Witchcraft in New England. OCLC 528846. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1910). A Cycle of Sunsets. OCLC 3837985. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1910). Poems by Emily Dickinson. OCLC 551319074. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1912). Tripoli the Mysterious. OCLC 4725475. 
  • Todd, Mabel Loomis (1982). Mabel Loomis Todd Papers. OCLC 122552303. 



  1. ^ a b c d Leiter, 387
  2. ^ Longsworth, no page number
  3. ^ Gay, 90
  4. ^ Sewall, 181
  5. ^ Leiter, 390
  6. ^ Gay, 92
  7. ^ Lyndall Gordon (2010). Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family Feuds. Viking Press. ISBN 0143119141. 
  8. ^ Leiter, 389
  9. ^ "Emily Dickinson, Sweeping up the Heart". The Economist: 83. 7 August 2010.  |chapter= ignored (help)
  10. ^ Sewall, 216
  11. ^ Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2007: 284–285. ISBN 0-8160-5448-7
  12. ^ Wineapple, 299
  13. ^ Wineapple, 298
  14. ^ Leiter, 285
  15. ^ Longsworth, Polly. "'Whose But Her Shy—Immortal Face': The Poet's Visage in the Popular Imagination" in Language as Object: Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art, edited by Susan Danly. Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 1997: 38. ISBN 1-55849-066-3
  16. ^ Longsworth, Polly. "'Whose But Her Shy—Immortal Face': The Poet's Visage in the Popular Imagination" in Language as Object: Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art, edited by Susan Danly. Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 1997: 38–39. ISBN 1-55849-066-3
  17. ^ Smith, Martha Nell (1998). "Dickinson's Manuscripts". In Grabher, Gudrun; Hagenbuchle, Roland; Miller, Cristanne. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press. pp. 113–137. ISBN 155849488X. 
  18. ^ Longsworth, Polly. "'Whose But Her Shy—Immortal Face': The Poet's Visage in the Popular Imagination" in Language as Object: Emily Dickinson and Contemporary Art, edited by Susan Danly. Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 1997: 39. ISBN 1-55849-066-3


  • Gay, Peter (1984). Education of the Senses: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. ISBN 0-393-31904-0. 
  • Leiter, Sharon (2007). Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, Inc. ISBN 0-8160-5448-7. 
  • Longsworth, Polly (2010). Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair & Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Penguin. ISBN 0374107165. 
  • Sewall, Richard B. (1974). The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-53080-2. 
  • Wineapple, Brenda (2008). White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 978-14000-4401-6. 

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