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

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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 ...

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

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Overview

"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

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
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021932
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/10/2010
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.32 (h) x 1.59 (d)

Meet the Author


Lyndall Gordon is the author of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a New York Times Notable Book, and Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, winner of the James Tait Black Prize for Biography.

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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Table of Contents

I: A Poet Next Door 1

II: 'A StillVolcanoLife'

1 The First Family 21

2 A Scientific Education 39

3 Sister 61

4 'Wife Without the Sign' 93

5 'Snarl in the Brain' 114

6 Telling 137

7 Romancing Judge Lord 156

8 Split in the Family 169

III: Mabel's Reign

9 Emily's Stand 197

10 Lady Macbeth of Amherst 231

11 Mabel in Excelsis 250

IV: The War Between The Houses

12 Lavinia's Stand 279

13 The Trial 299

14 Defeats of the First Generation 313

15 Two Daughters 326

16 The Battle of the Daughters 345

17 Posthumous Campaigns 369

V: Outliving The Legend 399

Sources 407

Notes 425

Acknowledgements 471

Index 475

Index of First Lines 490

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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 23, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Dry, dry, dry! A Missed Opportunity!

    I selected "Lives Like Loaded Guns" as my first nook purchase after hearing an interview with its author, Lyndall Gordon, on NPR. I had found the subject of the "Belle of Amherst's" family interactions fascinating, particularly as they continue to impact the publication of Emily Dickinson's poems even now. What a poor decision I made in my seminal nook selection!
    Lyndall Gordon relates a highly provocative tale of intertwined passions, loyalties, and social conventions, yet writes with colorless language, in the most detached manner possible. Unfortunately, her ability to immerse the reader into the lives of the Dickinson family and experience (or even imagine) the impassioned conflicts of its members, is meager at best. Perhaps Gordon's writing style in this most recent offering succeeds better in a society characterized by its reserve and propensity to "bite one's lip and carry on". However, it certainly does not translate well to the American temperament and spirit. One can't help but wonder if the Dickinson family's anguish with love relationships might be better captured by an author similarly attuned to such nuances of the heart.

    One can have no quarrel with Ms. Gordon's researching skills; as an academic investigator, she is exemplary. It is easy to recommend "Lives Like Loaded Guns" for those researching the history of Dickinson's era or seeking information on the background of Dickinson's poetic works, and I do so with enthusiasm. Ms. Gordon's knowledge of the minutia pertinent to apparel, gardening, and general social intercourse within the university class system during Dickinson's era is peerless. Her methods of investigation and processing of information cannot be faulted.

    To her credit, Lyndall Gordon has an impressive resume as an author of biographies of highly gifted and emotionally engaged personalities. Unfortunately, in this particular effort, she completely fails to support her literary reputation. Reaching the conclusion of Lives Like Loaded Guns, one is at a loss to understand Penguin's rationale for choosing its publication in paperback form for the U.S.

    For those outside the all too often staid parameters of academia, who wish to be truly impacted and engagaed, I urge direct immersion in the works of the poet herself. Emily Dickinson gives voice to her heart and perspective with imagination and expression in a manner far more moving than that attempted by Gordon's tome. In her poetry, Dickinson captures the uniquely American attitude toward inventiveness in all things. Marinate yourself in her work itself and be so inspired.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    You'll learn a lot about one of America's greatest poets

    English biographer Lyndall Gordon, who is famous for her biographies of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and Charlotte Brontë, has explored the Dickinson family through letters to and from numerous family members and friends plus Emily¿s poetry. Lives Like Loaded Guns opens with a paragraph worthy of a daytime soap: "In 1882 Austin Dickinson, in his fifties, fell in love with a young faculty wife. Twenty-six years before, Austin had married Susan Gilbert, the friend of his sister..." (pg.3) Austin had courted both his wife Susan and Susan¿s sister. So had Austin¿s sister Emily. (The author tells us that it was common in the 19th century for women to write letters to each other using the most passionate terms. The letters sounded like love letters. Emily was ¿courting¿ Sue to become her ¿sister.¿) Mabel Loomis Todd was the wife of a philandering astronomer. After she seduced Austin, they conducted daily ¿visits¿ in the house where Emily was living upstairs. Meanwhile, the poet herself was living a hidden life not because, as Gordon discovered using primary and secondary sources, she was disappointed in love¿she was, like other members of the family¿an epileptic. But epilepsy was as shameful as mental disease in the 19th century. Convulsions had to be hidden. And Emily¿s famous white dresses? She wore them to preserve her physical cleanliness and moral purity. And was she a spurned woman? Gordon found evidence that, yes, while she did correspond with prominent men, she also found comfort in the arms of a retired judge. Mabel Loomis Todd tried to become friends with the poet but apparently never met her face to face, even though she (Mabel) had a valiant coconspirator in Lavinia, the sister of Emily and Austin. Before the book¿s half done, the Dickenson family begins to sound like Desperate Intellectuals/Puritans of Amherst. Their story, plus the feud between them and Mabel Loomis Todd, turns an episode of American literature into a compelling soap opera. After Emily died, Mabel managed to get some of the poet¿s work, which she edited and published. All along, Mabel (and Lavinia) had slandered Susan Dickinson. Their daughters carried on the feud into the 20th century, when various parties were searching the Dickinson houses and finding more and more of Emily¿s poems and letters. It¿s a fascinating literary detective story. Features of Lives Like Loaded Guns include a map of the town center of Amherst, showing where Emily lived, where the Todds lived, and other locations. Next is a dramatis personae that is very useful as complications in the lives of these people arise and tangle up. The illustrations include photos of the Dickinson family members, their friends and enemies and correspondents, and their homes. Especially interesting is a series of photos of Emily that transforms her from a plain Jane to our familiar fragile poetess. (Gee, Photoshopping isn¿t new.) Quill says: Toss the supermarket tabloids and read Lives Like Loaded Guns. You¿ll learn a lot more about one of America¿s greatest poets than your English teachers ever said. Or knew until now.

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  • Posted August 29, 2011

    Get the inside story

    The modern persona of poet Emily Dickinson is of a lone writer closed off from the world. Failed love and a commitment to her work kept this homely woman a mystery.
    Now in the first work in ten years Lyndall Gordon brings a reexamination of Emily Dickenson's life in Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feud. Based on new research from diaries, archives, and never before seen information, Gordon paints a better detailed picture of the famed poet. The verbose book pastes together the internal gossip and intrigue from her brother's salacious affair to the conclusion that she had epilepsy.
    Gordon does a good job of connecting the dots between Dickinson's work and the dynamic forces within her world. The author delves into the legal battles that ensued of the legacy of Emily Dickinson's work and how her legacy continues today.
    Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feud by Lyndall Gordon writes a fascinating portrayal of the life and times of Emily Dickinson.

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  • Posted December 31, 2010

    A Great Read

    I loved this book. It reads like a novel and presents the aftermath of Emily's death and the fight over who would control her legacy. This book is a very worthwhile addition to other biographies about this elusive poet. Read "My Wars are Laid Away in Books" as well as the Richard Sewall biography. All these books give a valuable understanding of Emily Dickinson the person. This book goes a long way in repairing the damage done to Sue Dickinson's reputation by Mabel Loomis Todd.

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  • Posted September 29, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Took an interesting topic and made it a snooze.

    If you love Dickinson's poetry, you may be tempted to read this book....I was. If you have a life, forget it. This author took the story of a highly interesting poet and her family and turned the whole thing into boring, pedantic prose. I persevered, but after the first hundred pages, I began to question my sanity. I found myself skipping whole paragraphs, then skimming pages, then throwing in the proverbial towel. I'm so glad I borrowed it from the library before I bought it. Now I can spend my money on something more entertaining....like another volume of Emily's poetry.

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  • Posted July 15, 2010

    Interesting but verbose

    Thanks to Ms. Gordon, I now know more about Emily Dickinson. The research and strength of material was excellent. However, the book could have been condensed by eliminating repitition. The quirk of inserting lines from the poems as part of the sentence structure became tedious.
    Dickinson fans --love this book--ultimately!

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