Mabel Loomis Todd in the World

Mabel Loomis Todd in the World

By Julie Dobrow

To the extent that she is remembered today, Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932) is mostly remembered either as the first editor of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, or as the woman who had a lengthy affair with Emily’s older brother, Austin. But Mabel led a full, rich and multifaceted life. There was so much more to her than her important roles as Emily’s editor or Austin’s lover.

One of the lesser-known and yet extraordinary aspects of Mabel’s life was that she traveled the world. At a time when few Westerners travelled abroad extensively – and fewer women, still – Mabel spent significant periods of time between 1885-1914 traversing the globe. Her travels took her from Amherst to many places few Westerners had at that point read of, much less seen, including destinations in Asia, Africa and South America. In all, Mabel visited more than 30 countries on five continents. She also undertook extensive domestic travel and journeyed to many areas within the United States, including the territories of Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii well before they were granted statehood.

Travel provided Mabel with an amazing set of personal and professional opportunities, as it does for so many of us. Because she was an epic chronicler of her own life, keeping both diaries and journals, we can gain insights into how she sought to understand the world contemporaneously as she saw it.

In addition to all of the writings she left behind, Mabel was also an inveterate collector. She bought and shipped back to Amherst cartons filled with artifacts with which she decorated her home, much to the embarrassment of her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham (1880-1968). Millicent was mortified by all of the “heathenish” things her parents collected that were so different from those that could be found in most Amherst homes.1 Some of these artifacts Millicent ultimately donated to the Peabody Museum at Yale University and to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, though some of these artifacts reside in Amherst and are on display in this exhibit.

 Mabel Loomis Todd was a world traveler and an inveterate collector. She and her husband, David Peck Todd, bought and shipped boxes of artifacts from their travels back to Amherst. Many of these unusual tools, baskets, pottery and fabrics were displayed in their home. Their daughter, Millicent, eventually donated many of the artifacts to the Peabody Museum at Yale University and to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Mabel’s international travels stemmed mostly from accompanying her husband, David Peck Todd (1855-1939) on astronomical expeditions. David, a professor of astronomy and director of the Amherst College observatory, was at the forefront of a late 19th century movement to use photography in documenting astronomical occurrences. To capture images of eclipses often required finding un-obscured sites in obscure places around the globe. These expeditions also required assembling large technical teams, local support teams, shipping heavy equipment thousands of miles months in advance, and slow travel by rail, sea and then overland by whatever means of local transport was available. It often took many weeks to reach the destination from which an eclipse might possibly be observed. Unfortunately for David, nature (and fate) almost always intervened. Eclipse night was invariably cloudy, no matter where on earth he traveled.

But for Mabel, these journeys yielded much more success. Her boundless curiosity, unrelenting resilience and unflagging spirit of adventure made her a traveler who embraced every opportunity. And her innate drive and ambition ensured that even as these astronomical expeditions were for David almost always clouded and missed professional chances, for Mabel they were occasions to shine.

In 1887 David led an expedition to Japan. The Todds traveled by train from Boston to Montreal, and then across Canada. They set sail from Vancouver for Yokohama on June 20, and arrived in Japan at the beginning of July. Mabel kept a special diary and journal for this voyage, in which she noted from her vantage point on the deck seeing sharks, whales, flying fish and schools of enormous Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish. Mabel was exceedingly proud of the fact that she never got seasick, and spent long hours out on deck, along with the crew.

Once in Japan Mabel took careful notes in her diary and journal. She painted many of the scenes she saw and wrote long and detailed letters back home to Austin and to her daughter, Millicent, to document some of the unusual things she saw.  “Queerest sights, Jinrickshas, men with inverted saucers on their heads, women with babies on their backs.  Some men working boats in no clothes at all”2 she noted in her diary on the day they arrived in Japan.

Mabel’s careful descriptions of the “exotic” things she saw found their way into a series of articles she wrote that were published in The Nation, entitled “The Eclipse Expedition to Japan.”  With publication of these articles, Mabel was finally able to break through and get her writing published in a number of nationally distributed magazines and newspapers. She subsequently wrote two other articles about this trip, “Ten Weeks in Japan,” which appeared in St. Nicholas and “Ascent of Mt. Fuji the Peerless,” which came out in The Century Magazine.  The interest generated by these unusual travelogues that described things and people few Westerners had seen served to launch Mabel into the world of newspaper and magazine journalism.  Mabel also began to learn to use some of David’s photographic equipment on this expedition, ensuring that not only would the journey be well documented with words, but also with images.

It was on this trip to Japan that two other important facets of Mabel’s writing became apparent.  The first was her ability to articulate her own role in some very unusual circumstances and bring this before the reading audience:  riding down a crowded Japanese street in Tokio [sic] in a jinrikisha, experiencing a strong earthquake, living in a castle atop a mountain awaiting the eclipse.

Another highlight of this trip was the ascent up Mt. Fuji.  Mabel became the first western woman to successfully make the climb.  Her article about this climb, ostensibly co-written with David, focused on the wonders of ascending this peak of over 12,000 feet, the “mountain sickness” experienced, the Japanese pilgrims paying religious homage to the mountain, the sights and sounds along the climb.  “Grandeur and majesty, with desolation and loneliness, unspeakable, form the crown of Fuji-San,” they concluded in this detailed, if often flowery description of the ascent.3

The second facet of Mabel’s developing narrative style that became more apparent than ever on this expedition was her ability to spin events and present them in a more positive light than they probably deserved.  Mabel, it turned out, was exceedingly good at spin in every aspect of her life.  This was also true in her writing.

Despite months of planning, shipping heavy equipment trans-Pacifically, the arduous process to set it up atop a Japanese mountain, and traveling thousands of miles to get there, when the night of the eclipse came about in mid-August, the clouds closed in, obscuring the view.  Privately Mabel wrote in her diary, “The clearest day for weeks, until almost an hour before the eclipse.  Then clouds arose in the mist and spread all over like the finger of …fate…I am so sad for David beyond words.  He bears it nobly.”4

But in the second of the series of articles she wrote for The Nation, Mabel stated, “Sixteen thousand miles of continent and ocean traversed for three wonderful minutes, and unremitting labor during every clear night, and on all days for whatever sort, all for that little time, which may or may not be cloudy, at its own sweet will.  Such are the chances of an astronomer’s life, but glorious his compensation when nature is kind.”5

After her return from Japan, Mabel became absorbed in the work she had taken on to copy and edit Emily Dickinson’s poems and prepare them for publication. She did travel through Canada in 1888, but didn’t venture abroad again until two years after the publication of the initial volume of Dickinson’s poems, when she took a brief trip to Bermuda. But after the publication of Poems by Emily Dickinson in 1890, Mabel also launched another facet of her career that involved travel:  she began to give talks about Emily’s unusual poetry and more unusual life in an effort to help promote book sales. Mabel’s talks took her throughout the United States. She continued to be enormously productive in her writing, as well, publishing pieces in magazines and newspapers about her travels. In 1894 her book Total Eclipses of the Sun came out.

 After Austin Dickinson died in 1895, Mabel was bereft. As she slowly worked through her grief, she became eager for new challenges and for a change of scene. When the opportunity arose in 1896 to go on a second expedition to Japan, Mabel jumped at the chance. She and David went by train across the country and sailed to Hawaii aboard the Coronet, a yacht owned by David’s Amherst College classmate, friend and patron, the multi-millionaire Arthur Curtiss James. In Hawaii Mabel’s journals were filled with descriptions of the “exotic” cultures she observed, the tropical flora she found so extraordinary and of a spectacular eruption of the Mauna Loa volcano she witnessed.

From Hawaii, they sailed on to Japan. Though nature once again intervened and thwarted the so-called “Amherst Eclipse Expedition” and David’s quest to produce photographs of the solar eclipse, Mabel was still able to parlay her experiences into a series of published articles about the things she was seeing along the way.  Mabel’s observations would today certainly be thought of as Eurocentric and not particularly culturally relativistic, but were not surprising for a Western observer at the time. In particular, Mabel wrote of her time with the Ainu, an indigenous ethnic group living in the Hokkaido region. In an article that appeared in the Century Magazine titled “In Aino-Land,” Mabel wrote, “ In the summer of 1896, as a lay member of the Amherst College expedition which visited northern Japan to view the total eclipse of the sun, I had the rare opportunity of seeing the absolutely primitive hairy Aino of that region…The dwellers in the province of Kitami are too distant to be sought by visitors; and a foreign woman, the Japanese officials informed me, had never before reached Kitami…”6

Mabel continued to reap the literary benefits of this trip for years to come. In 1898 she published a book, Corona and Coronet, and wrote a series of additional articles. She also incorporated her experiences into her career as a public speaker, giving talks before women’s clubs and large general audiences.

In 1900 the Todds, for the first time including their then 20 year old daughter, Millicent, sailed to Europe en route to attempt to photograph another eclipse in Tripoli, Libya. The journey there took them through Spain, where Mabel was particularly moved by her tour of the Alhambra, and then on through Tunis, Tunisia, where her walks through the ancient city of Carthage so impressed her that she wrote in her journal, “I would have crossed the ocean several times to see old Carthage alone!” In Tripoli Mabel wrote extensively of the unusual things she observed – the great mosque which Christians could not enter; the Arab wedding she attended with customs she found both “odd and delightful;” the dromedaries and palm trees and the great desert “so vast and foreboding, and yet so beautiful.”7

On the way back the Todds traveled through the Bavarian regions of Austria and Germany – “the rarest, quaintest, most beautiful, most impressive place I ever saw”8 Mabel wrote, and spent time in France and in England before sailing back home.

But they weren’t in Amherst very long. In 1901 David organized another Amherst expedition to what was known at the time as the Dutch East Indies. And in March of that year, Mabel, Millicent (who had somehow managed to convince the administration at Vassar College, where she was a student, to allow her to complete her term via correspondence) and David sailed aboard the SS Glengarry bound for Singapore. Along the way Mabel wrote rapturous passages in her journals about the ancient cities of Cairo and Alexandria, of their journey through the Suez Canal and of a sailor who died and was given an elaborate burial at sea.

The Todds traveled to Tripoli, Libya twice for astronomical expeditions, in 1900 and 1905. These expeditions involved assembling a team of astronomers, a local support team, shipping heavy equipment by rail, sea and overland by any means available and reassembling the equipment in some remote location. In addition to trying to photograph the eclipses, the Todds also took many photos of the people, buildings and environments so different from what they experienced in Amherst.

They went on to Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and then Sumatra before arriving in Singapore. There, Mabel reveled in both the British gentility, going to formal gardens and polo matches, and also the unusual blend of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures.  She was also very impressed by the natural beauty of the place:  “flowers, animals, fish, dragons, birds – it was really a fairy scene. I believe no other city could do it,”9 she wrote.

From Singapore they traveled on to Singkep (Indonesia), where once again, David Todd’s plans to photograph the perfect eclipse were thwarted by cloudy weather.

The Todds took the long way back home, stopping in Siam (modern day Thailand) to go to spectacular temples and Buddhist monuments; to Manila in the Philippines, where they met Governor General William Howard Taft, who so impressed Mabel that she wrote in her journal “I know one day he shall be President of the United States!”10; and to Shanghai and Peking (Beijing) in China, where Mabel commented in her journal, “It looks as if they will in time own the whole Orient.”11  From there the Todds traveled to Nagasaki in Japan, and sailed back to San Francisco, where they boarded the first of a series of trains that would eventually take them back home to Amherst.

In 1903 Mabel’s travels were domestic. At this time she was giving as many as 60 talks a year on an astonishing variety of topics. She traveled throughout New England, the mid Atlantic, Midwest, south as far as Florida and New Orleans and the far west to California. She spoke at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in Los Angeles that year. She used some of her time in California to travel to Yosemite, which had been declared a National Park in 1890 but was enlarged and unified with additional lands lobbied for by John Muir and the Sierra Club earlier in the same year Mabel visited. “It was not WHAT I saw but the greatness of beauty to the effect that it stunned me to silence”12 she wrote of this spectacular wilderness, the first American national park.

1905 brought Mabel once more to Tripoli. But before arriving in Africa, the Todds paused in Italy to see the ruins at Pompeii and the museums in Capri. When they got to Tripoli Mabel wrote in her journal, “Once more in this dream city, with its strangeness, sordid dirt, whitewash, radiant sky and air, palms and Arabs, domes and minarets, eye diseases, splendid desert, health-giving sunshine, degenerate beauty.” 13 And this time, for once, David’s efforts to photograph the eclipse were successful.

On the way back home, the Todds traveled to France and to England. This trip was marked by more travel articles Mabel published, and by her publication of Tripoli the Mysterious in 1912.

In 1907 Mabel and David set off for yet another astronomical expedition, but this time they went south. They set sail and stopped briefly in Cuba and Haiti before going through the Panama Canal on their way to Peru.  Mabel’s journals from this trip are filled with descriptions of having gone on the “highest railway in the world,” of horseback riding high in the Andes and of a talk she gave before the Geographical Society of Peru, making her the first woman ever to address this organization.

The Todds traveled on through parts of Chile before heading north, going on through Panama and sections of Mexico before returning to the United States.

Starting in about 1909, David began experimenting with ascents in hot air balloons as another way to launch astronomical experiments and photography of celestial entities. Mabel, ever adventurous, accompanied him on a number of these flights, most of which took place around New England.

On a hot summer day in 1913, Mabel was on her way to go for a swim and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. The stroke left her paralyzed on her right side and temporarily halted her travels. But with her determined spirit and incredible resilience, she learned to walk and even to write with her right hand again. And remarkably, just months after having the stroke, she was well enough to travel with David and Millicent on what would be her last international voyage, an eclipse expedition to Russia.

The Todds used this trip to see parts of Europe they’d not previously seen – Holland, Belgium, what was then called Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic) – before entering Russia. As they traveled from Kiev to Moscow, the winds of World War I were already blowing across Europe. And as the Todds entered Russia, so did the Germans. When the Eastern Front of the war began, Mabel, David and Millicent found that they needed to abandon any thought of an astronomical expedition in Russia. They made a hasty and treacherous departure from that country, into Sweden and Denmark before returning to America.

For Mabel Loomis Todd, her travels around the United States and around the world provided a platform from which to launch her ambitions as a writer, as a speaker and as a rare 19th century female public intellectual. But her travels also gave her a perspective on different cultures, the natural world and history that was unusual among people of her era. Though Mabel was often apt to overstate her own role, she was also capable of insight in her personal writings. She had a sense that what she was doing was unique. And she was determined to record her observations, as well as her own legacy.

When she was sailing en route to the 1905 Tripoli expedition Mabel reflected, “At Eashai, at Tripoli, at Singkep I was a pioneer – our expeditions were the first to penetrate the region and unfold an absolutely new country. Inspiration was in the thought.”14

Julie Dobrow is the Director of the Communications & Media Studies Program and a faculty member in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University. She is currently writing Outside Emily’s Door:  Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham and the Making of America’s Greatest Poet, a mother/daughter biography. See