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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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 over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the…  See more details below


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 over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons, and reveals Emily as a very different woman from the pale, lovelorn recluse that exists in the popular imagination. Thanks to unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson, to reveal the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion, and presents 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 is sure to cause a stir among Dickinson's many devoted readers and scholars.

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Editorial Reviews

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
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)
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."

"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

Library Journal
Acclaimed biographer Gordon's ( 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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Penguin Publishing Group
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Age Range:
18 Years

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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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