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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"With the artistry of a master storyteller Lyndall Gordon parts the curtains on the Garbo of Amherst to lay bare an explosive drama of genius, adultery, deceit and secret sickness as theatrical as Peyton Place. Sizzling from start to finish, Lives Like Loaded Guns is simply biography at its most thrilling."-Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball

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"With the artistry of a master storyteller Lyndall Gordon parts the curtains on the Garbo of Amherst to lay bare an explosive drama of genius, adultery, deceit and secret sickness as theatrical as Peyton Place. Sizzling from start to finish, Lives Like Loaded Guns is simply biography at its most thrilling."-Marion Meade, author of Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney" "Lives Like Loaded Guns is nothing short of splendid. Seasoned Dickinson scholars and novice readers alike will find Gordon's nuanced storytelling deeply informative, engaging, supple, and compelling as she handles some of the most complex aspects of Dickinson family lives deftly, refusing to fall into the too-easy clichTs that often imbue accounts of these internecine struggles."-Martha Nell Smith, professor of English, University of Maryland; author of Emily Dickinson: A User's Guide" "Tell the truth but tell it slant' was Dickinson's advice to herself. In showing how the public image of 'Emily Dickinson' has been built up over the years, alterately embroidered by fantasies and barnacled with lies. Gordon does something much more important. Perhaps for the first time since Dickinson's death, she invites us to meet the poet head-on."-Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Telegraph (UK)" "This biography is not about taking sides, nor does it claim 'truth' in any absolute way. Its quetioning intelligence is a real pleasure and, as always with Gordon, the writing flows. It is a biography that compels without being sensational, quite a feat considering the material, with its twist, curves, lies, deliberate distortions and well-intentioned concealments."-Jeaneet Winterson. The Times (UK)" "For the first time, Lyndall Gordon reveals the whole story behind the enigma of Emily Dickinson and her family's feuds for control of her unpublished manuscripts. Lives Like Loaded Guns is a seasoned literary biographer's brilliant assessment of the archival record, from overlooked medical records and adultery trial manuscripts to Dickinson's predawn volcanic eruptions of powerful verse...The feisty forcefield of Emily Dickinson's true genius greets the reader face-to-face in Gordon's masterpiece. This riveting tour de force doesn't merely add to existing Emily Dickinson scholarship, it blows it apart."-Karen V. Kukil, curator of the Sylvia Plat and Virginia Woolf collections of Smith College; editor of the Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath" "In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother, Austin, began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for more than a century. Award-winning biographer Lyndall Gordon tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons and reveals Emily as a very different woman from the pale, lovelorn recluse who exists in the popular imagination. Thanks to her unprecedented use of letters, diaries and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson and proposes a groundbreaking new solution to the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion, presenting a woman beyond her time who found love, spiritual sustenance and immortality all on her own terms." An enthralling story of creative genius, filled with illicit passion and betrayal, Lives Like Loaded Guns promises to forever change the way we view one of America's most important literary figures.

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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
"Lives Like Loaded Guns...reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next...Gordon is fair to all...revealing their strengths and liabilities, and she corrects some of the inconsistencies of earlier biographies..."Abyss has no biographer," Dickinson warned future readers. But Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into undiscovered territory."
-The Washington Post

"Fascinating...[Gordon] shatters the Dickinson myth, revealing for the first time the twisted tale of how Dickinson came to be revered as "a harmless homebody shut off from live to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love."...Brilliant literary detective work...Uncovering the mystery of why the mischievous, sensible creature who emerges from this biography hid from the world is where Gordon hits her stride...Gordon catches the poet's essence, allowing us the closest, most thrilling insights yet into the volcanic genius of Amherst."
-The Chicago Tribune

"The portrait of Emily Dickinson that emerges from this book is far more intriguing than the one I and no doubt many others have been carrying around in our head. Banished, the wisp of a girl in white flitting through the 19th- century gloom. Gone, the disappointed spinster with some ophthalmic abnormality. Erased, the "harmless homebody...shut off from life." And in their place a strange, seething creature filled with passion whose life was, in some fundamental sense, an exercise in control...It's what Gordon does with the poetry that is most compelling. A sensitive reader and a great admirer of Dickinson's work, Gordon is skillful at harnessing the poet's words in the service of her biography...It's a fascinating exercise in literary detection."
-The Boston Globe

"The tale that Lyndall Gordon unveils in Lives Like Loaded Guns is so lurid, so fraught with forbidden passions, that readers may be disappointed to find that no actual gun goes off in this feverish account of the Dickinson family "feuds." ... Gordon's suggestion that Dickinson may have been epileptic has already inspired debate among scholars...A vivid account."
-The New York Times Book Review

"Emily Dickinson, the seemingly demure and buttoned-up American poet, comes wonderfully to life in Lyndall Gordon's telling biography. In Lives Like Loaded Guns, she entertains fresh interpretations of the poet's life...Viewing the poet through the lens of 19th-century spin doctors is fresh and provocative."
-USA Today

"This astonishing book, written with common sense and compassion, will do nothing less than revolutionise the way in which Dickinson is read for years to come."
-The Economist

"The great virtue of Gordon's biography is that it makes Dickinson the person- sister, friend, seducer, adversary-seem as scary her poems...Gordon is the author of biographies...that are distinguished by their sharpness of focus and economy of scale. Rather than competing for our attention with the author in question, Gordon tells the whole life by concentrating on what she judges to be the most potent aspect of it."
-The Nation

"Mesmerizing...You wonder what this woman [Emily Dickinson] might have made of the lawyers and court trials and furor that continued for decades over her poems, found after her death locked in a cherrywood chest in her room. Other truths were locked there, too; Gordon, admiringly and wisely, hands us a key."
-The Seattle Times

"Lives Like Loaded Guns is a remarkable achievement that deconstructs the image of Dickinson so entrenched in literary history. Gordon, a gifted storyteller, charts the ugly family dramas not to exploit them, but to prove how truly damaging they were to the poet's legacy . . . This fascinating biography will inspire readers to return to Dickinson's vastly rich poems and letters - and it's her work for which she should be remembered, after all."
-Newsday

"The story that preoccupies Ms. Gordon, [is] one of illicit love and intellectual property rights... Few portraits of Emily Dickinson are as vivid, few explorations of a family feud more riveting...Through the use of letters, diaries and legal documents, Ms. Gordon sheds light on the Emily Dickinson of public perception ("a harmless homebody") and its fallacies, the secret she most likely carried and the costs of families split over possession."
-The Washington Times

"Lives Like Loaded Guns reads like page-turning fiction, but is grounded in Gordon's masterful use of historical archives. It utterly revises our notion of dour 19th century New Englanders, turning them into flesh and blood people driven by the same urges as us. Gordon is one of the best biographers writing today, and this volume a superlative example of how the genre can both entertain and instruct."
-Sacramento Book Review

"Gordon's thoroughly absorbing new biography gives one of the fullest accounts yet of both Emily Dickinsons-the woman herself and the poet, a creation fought over by warring factions in a literary struggle that lasted through two generations and continues to influence the way we understand this elusive poet. Ms. Gordon's extensively researched account synthesizes a century of scholarship and adds a stunning revelation or two for those who think they already know the story...Lives Like Loaded Guns is a fascinating book on so many different levels. If you thought you knew the whole story of Emily Dickinson, you probably don't. And if you don't, you really should. In all its twists and turns through generations spanning an American century, it remains an explosive story."
-Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A very different take on Emily Dickinson...Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds will keep Dickinson devotees busy for decades... Gordon sets Emily Dickinson's life and legacy in the context of an adulterous affair that split her family — and offers a splendidly speculative challenge to portraits of the poet as a withdrawn eccentric."
-Minneapolis Star Tribune

"A fascinating account of [Mabel] Todd's contentious role in Dickinson's afterlife...[Gordon] puts forward one major new claim: based on medical records and family history, and...on the evidence of the poems themselves, she suggests that Dickinson was epileptic...Innovative."
-Slate Magazine

"Lyndall Gordon's new biography of Emily Dickinson's family, Lives Like Loaded Guns, is a tour de force. Meticulously researched and keenly argued, it transforms the conventional image of Dickinson-and reveals how that image came to be."
-Bookpage (Top Pick)

"There is more than enough drama to go around in Gordon's book-jealousies, deceit, the agonized shredding of wallpaper, even evidence of a mTnage a trios- 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."
-The Barnes & Noble Review, reprinted in Salon.com

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

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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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