Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds

by Lyndall Gordon
     
 

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"Lives Like Loaded Guns...reads like a fabulous detective story...[Gordon] takes us into undiscovered territory." —The Washington Post

In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, began an adulterous love affair with the accomplished and ravishing Mabel Todd, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of

Overview

"Lives Like Loaded Guns...reads like a fabulous detective story...[Gordon] takes us into undiscovered territory." —The Washington Post

In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, began an adulterous love affair with the accomplished and ravishing Mabel Todd, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. Award-winning biographer Lyndall Gordon tells the story of the feud that erupted-and that still continues today. Making unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon proposes a groundbreaking new solution to the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion, presenting a woman beyond her time who found love, spirituality, and immortality all on her own terms.

The first major biography of Dickinson in nearly ten years, Lives Like Loaded Guns is a highly acclaimed story of creative genius, illicit passion, and betrayal that will forever change the way we view one of America's most important literary figures.

Editorial Reviews

In the one hundred and twenty years that have elapsed since the first publication of Emily Dickinson's poems, no description of their effect has yet bested the exclamation of an early reader who found them to be "a shaft of light sunk instantaneously into the dark abysm." Sly and diamond-brilliant in their capacity for revealing the human condition in the fewest words, the nearly two thousand poems Dickinson wrote in her upstairs bedroom in Amherst, Massachusetts remain shocking in their incisiveness even now. Her life, in marked contrast, has always been shrouded in silence, misinformation, and speculation. As one mourner recorded in her journal upon Dickinson's death in 1896, "Rare Emily Dickinson died -- went back into a little deeper mystery than that she has always lived in."

The writer of these words was Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of a philandering, ambitious Amherst astrology professor, long-time mistress to Dickinson's brother Austin, future Dickinson editor and, as Lyndall Gordon argues in her new book, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, a pivotal figure in both Dickinson's life and after-life. She came onto the scene in 1881 with a generous sense of her own destiny and immediately swept the upright, much older Austin, long married with children, off his feet. That Austin's son, Ned, had loved her first would prove to be just the first battle involving Mabel that eventually led Ned to describe her as "a woman who has brought nothing but a sword into the family." There was also her struggle with Austin's wife Susan, a dear friend of Emily's and the recipient of many of her poems, over his loyalties. Later, after Emily's death and after it became clear Mabel would never wrest her lover away from his wife, there were stand-offs -- first with Susan and then with Emily's sister Lavinia -- for the rights, both moral and legal, to Dickinson's poems and her reputation.

Amid all the triangulation was Emily herself, who managed -- in an awesome feat of control that belies the popular image of her as a neurotic dreamer -- never once to meet Mabel in spite of the fact that the lovers had their trysts in the poet's library. Freed from the constraints of marriage, children, and household duties by what Gordon posits, with a fair amount of back-up, was epilepsy (rather than the broken heart usually cited as the cause for her seclusion), Dickinson "saved herself from the anarchy of her condition and put it to use."

There is more than enough drama to go around in Gordon's book -- jealousies, deceit, the agonized shredding of wallpaper, even evidence of a ménage à trois -- and she often renders it in the plush detail of a pot-boiler. But beneath the operatic swell is an admirable amount of new information about Dickinson's world and the choices she made in the service of what she recognized as her magnificent gift. She was far more fierce than we've been led to believe, which makes perfect sense given the work she left behind. Writing to Ned at a particularly difficult moment, she closed her letter with a command no less forceful for its affection: "And ever be sure of me, Lad" -- a characteristically straight shot that echoes in every one of her poems.

--Melanie Rehak

Publishers Weekly
This biography is informed by two revelations: first, a bombshell that is likely to be debated as long as there are inquiring readers of Emily Dickinson; and second, the effect of a family love affair on the poet's long and complex publishing history. When Dickinson writes “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” and punctuates her work in a spasmodic style, Gordon maintains we are privy to the neuronal misfiring of epilepsy. Gordon unearths compelling evidence: the glycerine Dickinson was prescribed, then a common treatment for epilepsy; her photosensitivity; and a family history of epilepsy. The stigma-packed condition, says Gordon, is at least one source of Dickinson's celebrated isolation. Gordon, biographer of Virginia Woolf and Mary Wollstonecraft, also recounts the fallout from the affair between the poet's straitlaced, married brother, Austin, and the far younger, also married Mabel Loomis Todd. In a literary land grab, descendants of the families of Dickinson and Todd (who edited many of Emily's papers) squared off in a fight to control the poet's work and myth. Although deciphering Emily Dickinson's mysterious personality is like trying to catch a ghost, this startling biography explains quite a lot. 16 pages of b&w photos; 2 maps. (June 14)
Jerome Charyn
Lives Like Loaded Guns, Lyndall Gordon's book about Emily Dickinson and the fury that surrounded the publication of her poems, reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"A jolting and utterly intriguing watershed achievement." —Booklist Starred Review
Library Journal
Acclaimed biographer Gordon's (www.lyndallgordon.net) last title was the New York Times Notable Book Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft (2005). Here, she draws on letters, diaries, and legal documents to reveal two previously unexplored impacts on the life of poet Emily Dickinson: one involving her brother's scandalous affair with a married woman; the other, her own epilepsy. This audio production opens with a recitation of characters—a useful reference tool in print, though not so much in this format. Indeed, it is occasionally difficult to differentiate among the myriad characters, all voiced by veteran narrator Wanda McCaddon, who struggles to add drama to the small bits of assembled quotes. While the print edition contains significant bibliographic citations and photos, the audiobook does not. Of interest as an audio only to Dickinson enthusiasts. [The Viking hc received a starred review, LJ 7/10.—Ed.]—Johannah Genett, Hennepin Cty. Libs., Minneapolis

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670021932
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
06/10/2010
Pages:
512
Product dimensions:
6.56(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.59(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"A jolting and utterly intriguing watershed achievement." —-Booklist Starred Review

Meet the Author

Wanda McCaddon has narrated well over six hundred titles for major audio publishers and has earned more than twenty-five Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine. She has also won a coveted Audie Award, and AudioFile has named her one of recording's Golden Voices.

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