William Austin Dickinson

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William Austin Dickinson

Birthplace: Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States
Death: Died in Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts, USA
Cause of death: heart failure
Immediate Family:

Son of Edward Dickinson and Emily Dickinson (Norcross)
Husband of Susan Huntington Dickinson
Father of Edward "Ned" Austin Dickinson; Martha "Mattie" Gilbert Bianchi and Thomas "Gib" Gilbert Dickinson
Brother of Emily Dickinson and Lavinia "Vinnie" Norcross Dickinson

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About William Austin Dickinson

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Source for the following: Downloaded 2010 from http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/austin_dickinson

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895) was the brother of poet Emily Dickinson.

“There was always such a Hurrah wherever you was”

- Emily Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, April 18, 1842 (L1)

The world of the close-knit Dickinson family revolved around Austin. The oldest of the three Dickinson children, William Austin Dickinson was born on April 16, 1829, about a year and half before his sister Emily. Educated at Amherst Academy and at Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, Austin graduated from Amherst College with the class of 1850. After a short-lived career as a teacher, Austin turned his full attention to law, the profession that both grandfather Fowler and father Edward pursued.

Upon graduation from Harvard Law School and in anticipation of a new life with his fiancée, Susan Gilbert, Austin considered a move west, to Chicago. Edward's offer to make his son a partner in his Amherst law firm and to build a house (The Evergreens) for Austin and Susan changed such plans. Like the other members of his family, Austin remained an Amherst resident until the end of his life.

Austin's law practice, his home and family (he and Susan had three children), numerous civic obligations, a fascination with landscape architecture, and a "passion" for pictures, particularly landscape paintings, consumed him. He succeeded his father as treasurer of Amherst College in 1873; served as Town Moderator from 1881 until his death in 1895; was president of Amherst's Village Improvement Society; and was a founder of Wildwood Cemetery, the town's private cemetery (where he and his family are buried). Through his activities he befriended numerous notables, including the landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and newspaper editor Samuel Bowles. A friend once told him: “I suppose nobody in the town could be born or married or buried, or make an investment, or buy a house-lot, or a cemetery-lot, or sell a newspaper, or build a house, or choose a profession, without you close at hand” (Longsworth, p. 117).

Emily Dickinson was especially close to her brother in their youth. Her letters to him when he was away from home reveal their shared interests in intellectual pursuits, nature, and local affairs, as well as Emily's--indeed the entire household's--deep affection for him: "Our apples are ripening fast—I am fully convinced that with your approbation they will not only pick themselves, but arrange one another in baskets, and present themselves to be eaten" (L48).

After Austin settled into The Evergreens, his relationship with Emily changed. With his attention pulled in other directions, he had less time for sisterly concerns. Once, when Austin stayed at the Homestead while his wife and children were out of town, Emily noted: "It seemed peculiar — pathetic — and Antediluvian. We missed him while he was with us and missed him when he was gone" (L432). Yet Austin did care for his sisters, especially after their parents' deaths, and he was by Emily's side when she died.

Austin's personal life was complicated. Despite the joy that their children brought to the household, Susan and Austin did not maintain that joy in their own relationship. In 1882 Austin met Mabel Loomis Todd, an accomplished young woman twenty-seven years his junior and the wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor. The two fell in love and were involved in a deeply committed relationship for almost thirteen years, although each remained married and the affair was known to their spouses.

While Austin was not directly involved in the posthumous editing of his sister's poetry, his affair with Todd, who served as a principal editor of Dickinson's work, created additional tensions with his wife and surviving sister. Austin died from heart failure on August 16, 1895. He was 66.

Further Reading:

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984. 67-124.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1974. 91-127.

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Austin had an affair with neighbor and Amherst faculty wife Mabel Loomis Todd, an affair conducted fairly openly in each of their homes, with only the most superficial attempts to hide what was going on.

Todd's daughter, Millicent, a child of eight or nine, witnessed Austin and her mother going into her parents' bedroom on numerous occasions, and was neglected while the two were behind closed doors, pacified with a pat on the head then left to fend for herself. Curiously, despite all this, Millicent defended her mother's activities years later. Lavinia, Emily's sister, allowed her brother and Mabel to meet in the Dickinson home.

Austin Dickinson held a leadership position at Amherst College.

Mabel Todd's husband David taught at the college, which made his position all the more problematic. To further his scientific research, David wanted to get an observatory built. David apparently never voiced an objection to his wife's affair with Austin Dickinson. David's relationship with his wife appears not to have been very happy, but it was not ended by by the affair.

Austin's wife, Susan Dickinson, was well aware what was going on and fumed. She held onto the marriage nevertheless, opting to avoid the scandal of divorce. Their relationship was highly compromised, but Austin always came home to her, even though Mabel Todd repeatedly begged Austin to marry her, but Susan never let go.

Amidst all this, Emily Dickinson continued to write her poetry, living the life of a reclusive artist. Apparently everyone in her little community adored Emily, her reputation never sullied. She was interested in a married man herself, and clearly told him of her attraction to him, though this relationship was apparently never consummated.

After Emily's death, Mabel Loomis Todd, a professional writer and speaker, became engaged with T. W. Higginson in editing the first compilation of Emily's poetry, which was published in 1890.

Through all the mayhem, it seems Susan Dickinson was most concerned with protecting the family's reputation, at least until Austin's death in 1895. Following that all hell broke loose when Emily's sister, Lavinia, got into a land battle with the Todds when she refused to comply with Austin's wish to leave the Todds a parcel of land between their two homes.

He hadn't actually written this directive into his will, but had discretely arranged with Lavinia to carry out this transaction after his death. Austin had deluded himself that Lavinia would comply. A nasty court battle ensued. The Dickinson family's good name was dragged through the mud, with Mabel Todd revealed as the adulteress she was.

Source: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Lyndall Gordon, "Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds," 512 pages, Viking Adult, 2010, ISBN-10: 0670021938

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William Austin Dickinson's Timeline

April 16, 1829
Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts, United States
Age 20
Age 30
Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts
June 19, 1861
Age 32
November 30, 1866
Age 37
August 1, 1875
Age 46
Amherst, MA, USA
August 16, 1895
Age 66
Amherst, Hampshire, Massachusetts, USA