Many people know of Emily Dickinson and her renowned works of poetry. However, not many know of Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham, the mother and daughter duo that brought Dickinson’s writing to life.
Great Neck South High alumnus Julie Dobrow takes us on a journey through time after the death of Dickinson, and how Dickinson’s works really came to be, with her book After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet.
Dobrow grew up with her two brothers, Marty and Joe, in the Great Neck Public Schools. Her father had a medical practice locally, and her mom taught in the same district she attended.
“Though none of us live in Great Neck anymore,” Dobrow said. “It remains an important part of who we are.”
Dobrow credited the Great Neck Library with helping her start her literary career.
“I will never forget getting my first library card,” she recalled. “My mother made me practice printing my name for weeks. That orangey card with my childish print that I received at the Station branch library was the prize; it unlocked a whole new world for me.”
From an early age, Dobrow had a knack for writing, which was also a family affair. Her brothers and she worked on books revolving around fascinating and relatively unknown historical figures together.
Now she is a professor at Tufts University, and serves as the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe and the Huffington Post, among other prestigious publications.
After Emily fulfilled a long-time dream of Dobrow’s. She first became interested in Emily Dickinson when she was in college, and routinely walked by the Dickinson house in Amherst, MA. She often wondered about the lives of those who lived there. It was in reading biographies of Dickinson that Dobrow first encountered Mabel Loomis Todd. Todd had a long love affair with Austin Dickinson, Emily’s reclusive brother, which led her to Dickinson’s works. After her death, Todd brought Dickinson’s poetry to print, but her controversial editing of Dickinson’s poetry and her affair with Austin complicated her relationship with the Dickinson family. The more Dobrow found out about Todd, the more intrigued she became.
“I learned that she had an equally fascinating daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, who continued to publish Emily Dickinson’s poems after Todd’s death,” Dobrow said. “There was virtually nothing known about Bingham. I found out that there was an enormous archive of their papers at Yale. It seemed like kismet to me—an interesting project, very different from anything I’d previously done.”
After years of research, Dobrow started writing the book in 2013. It was no easy feat. There was so much material to go through, 700 boxes at Yale alone. Sometimes she read things out of order, and had to figure out the chronology.
An article she wrote about Todd piqued the interest of some literary agents, and through them she eventually locked W.W. Norton as her publisher, an agency which is known for its stellar reputation and the quality of its books. After Emily was published in October 2018. The book has received thumbs-up reviews on the Washington Post and the New Yorker, and was a finalist for the Plutarch Prize.
Dobrow has hosted various book talks at public libraries including the Great Neck Library, independent bookstores, and large venues such as the Emily Dickinson Museum and the Massachusetts Historical Society. It was fascinating to meet people who were intrigued by the story. Some people came up to her afterwards telling her that they met Millicent Todd Bingham. At the Great Neck Library event, she got a big surprise: Norman Wheeler, her AP U.S. History teacher from Great Neck South High School, attended. Wheeler was proud of how far his student came.
Dobrow gave some advice to kids who want to be writers.
“Just keep writing,” Dobrow said. “Try new genres, push yourself out of your comfort zone. And don’t be afraid to have other people read what you write.”
When she isn’t writing or teaching, Dobrow tends to her large vegetable garden, listens to music, and has fun with her four children and pets. She does not know for sure what she is up next, but said she will most likely work on a biography of another fascinating woman.
Joy Wei is a seventh-grade student at Great Neck North Middle School, who likes drawing and writing.