Born this day in 1856: Mabel Loomis Todd (1856–1932), writer and editor most remembered for being the first to edit and publish the poems of the late Emily Dickinson
A native of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mabel Loomis graduated from Georgetown Seminary in Washington, D.C., and studied music at the New England Conservatory. She married astronomer David P. Todd in 1879. They had one daughter, Millicent, the following year. The family moved to Amherst, Massachusetts, when Mr. Todd joined the faculty of Amherst College in 1881. In Amherst they became friendly with the Dickinson family.
Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, lived next door with his wife, Susan. Emily shared much of her poetry with her sister-in-law, and it was Susan who first introduced Todd to Dickinson’s poetry. The poems struck Todd as both “strange” and “powerful.” Todd spent quite a bit of time in Emily Dickinson’s house (according to Todd’s diary—as well as Austin’s—at least several afternoons each week, if you catch my drift). Emily often invited Todd to play piano or sing, listening from behind closed doors. She would thank her with notes and poems.
After Emily died in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, found hundreds of Emily’s poems stashed away in a box. The family asked Todd to edit them for publication. For several years Todd pored through the work, transcribing and editing the poems. She eventually enlisted the aid of writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson had long corresponded with Dickinson about her poetry. Together they published Poems by Emily Dickinson in 1890. The volume was well-received, and they followed it with a second volume the following year. Todd published two volumes of Dickinson’s letters in 1894 and a third volume of poetry in 1896.
Todd was an accomplished writer in her own right. She was an avid traveler and collector, often accompanying her husband on astronomical expeditions. Her books include nature writing, travel accounts, popular science, and fiction. She was also very active in her community. She founded the Amherst Historical society, was director of the Massachusetts State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and promoted the Audobon Society and preservation of the Florida Everglades. She lectured, gave piano recitals, and taught both music and painting.
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