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  • To Market:The Dickinson Copyright Wars
  • Elizabeth Horan (bio)

Property is robbery, but then, we are all robbers or would-be robbers together, and have found it essential to organize our thieving."

Samuel Butler, Erewhon1

Superficially a war between women, the Todd-Dickinson feud began and ended in property battles.2 The feud was fueled by the interests of the book trade: publishers, critics, and lawyers who cared less about the provenance of manuscripts than about how to organize and profit from their publication. At stake was the right to control, limit, and profit from publication of Emily Dickinson texts. Of the two sides, the Todds' more tenuous entitlement to materials made them keen to legal ambiguities and forced them to document quite extensively their work. Scholarship has been more sympathetic to the Todds. Relatively little attention has been paid to the Dickinson side of the publication disputes.

Most striking in the feud is that the rival claimants were tied together by a hatred based on a few differences amid vast, multiple similarities. Like Susan Gilbert Dickinson, who married Austin Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, his mistress for the last thirteen years of his life, took pleasure in the cachet that the association with the Dickinsons brought. Competition between the two women was stalemated as long as their struggle was confined to Amherst. That situation palpably changed once public acclaim for Emily Dickinson [End Page 88] brought recognition to Mabel Todd well beyond the New England village.

For seven years Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson worked without pay to bring the first two, most profitable, Dickinson texts to press. Higginson left to Todd the task of editing the Letters of Emily Dickinson (1895) and a third volume of poems. Ostensibly at Austin's request, Susan Dickinson's name was entirely omitted from the published Letters, and altered in the original materials. When Mabel demanded a share of the copyrights in the Letters, Austin managed to negotiate with his sister, Lavinia, who was Emily Dickinson's indisputable heir. Following Austin's death in 1896 the editor and heir quarreled; the details of how Lavinia successfully sued for the return of land she had deeded the Todds are well known.3 From the Todd perspective, the suit originated in Lavinia's failure to fulfill a promise to Austin, that Mabel would be compensated. On the Dickinson side, Susan Dickinson's daughter Martha never tired of pointing out that "the former editor" was "a fraud, convicted in open court." Mabel Todd reacted to her humiliating defeat "by locking away the poems in her possession" (Maun 71).

Lavinia's death in 1899 made her niece Martha (1866-1943) the new owner of all literary rights in the Dickinson estate. Initially ambivalent about the Dickinson legacy, Martha's pleasure in society, her passion for European travel, her lengthy verses and the novels with cosmopolitan settings all present a character quite different from her reclusive aunt's. In outer event Martha's life had much in common with that of her later rival, Millicent Todd Bingham (1880-1968). Each woman had a full, first career, was childless, and married relatively late in life: Martha, at thirty-six; Millicent, at forty. Like her later rival Martha, Millicent fell in love, in her thirties, with a man who turned out to be an impostor (Longsworth, "Millicent" 5). After caring for their elderly mothers, first Martha, then Millicent took up a Dickinson legacy that was for each woman deeply intertwined with pride and consciousness of being the "last" of old New England family lines. Each woman entered into that legacy much motivated to restore, quite literally, her mother's name.

Just as Mabel Todd's editing had altered and removed Susan Dickinson's name, so did Martha Dickinson Bianchi's editing and memoirs restore Susan's name and remove Mabel Todd's. While [End Page 89] Martha's first intention had been to create a memorial, the immense profits and subsequent controversies of the Dickinson revival led her to seek justification in sales. The market, which Emily Dickinson had compared to a slave auction (P709), became for her niece a source of vindication, a means for avenging...


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