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

3.81 of 5 stars 3.81  ·  rating details  ·  546 ratings  ·  152 reviews
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 a ...more
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Published June 29th 2010 by Tantor Media (first published November 1st 2009)
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I don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems...

Lyndall Gordon seems to be a trustworthy guide through the Dickinson thicket of mythology and legend...She focuses on the family and the rifts(s) that ensued with brother Austin's fourteen year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (he was married to Dickinson's girlhood friend Susan Gilbert). She also surmises that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which given the
...just finished reading the Emily Dickinson biography —and will never think of the dash — in the same way again!
Idiosyncratic punctuation aside, what vile people! From what I've read about the artists I greatly admire, I wouldn't want to meet most of them; I'd rather stick to their work. Emily, with her long-standing reputation as the white dress clad virginal recluse, is here portrayed as a killer of kittens who leaves their putrefying corpses in a bucket, who is too self absorbed to stray fr
Even if you have never read a line of Emily Dickinson and have no intention of doing so, this is an important and engrossing, if not a salacious read. If you have read her, this is a must in order to understand what her amazing poems are saying. And, I say this believing fully that I understood many of her poems beforehand.

Any images you've imbibed of Emily as a chaste, sexless, recluse will be shattered by Gordon, who bases her conclusions not only on an exhaustive study of Emily's poetry, but
James Murphy
Lyndall Gordon is a terrific biographer. She consistently brings fresh ways of seeing to her subjects. Previously I'd read her biographies of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and because I knew her study of Emily Dickinson would be informative I began Lives Like Loaded Guns with an avid, keen eye. Gordon doesn't disappoint, but it's not exactly biography. Though the seminal biographical events of Dickinson's life are touched on, the book is first a deep character analysis of her, and second the d ...more
This is a great, great book. I suggest stopping what you are doing now and reading it instead.

I had not the slightest interest in Emily Dickinson until a few years ago, around the age of 50, or perhaps, this year at the age of 53. Until then I read her, and shrugged. Then, suddenly, I was ready, and she began to speak to me. Go figure.

It was on NPR that I heard Lyndall Gordon's thesis that Dickinson may have had epilepsy. As the father of a young man with epilepsy I found the evidence of Dickins
Jenny McPhee
At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “...a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, ...more
Anne Tommaso
Two stars is really my fault. I was looking for a book about Emily Dickinson. Instead this is the messy story of her family in her lifetime and far beyond. According to Gordon, the events in the Dickinson/Todd saga don't seem come from love or passion but more from jealousy and what becomes a desire to possess the right to edit and publish Emily Dickinson's work. What began as a passionate affair (AD+MT) seems quickly overshadowed and sullied by petty jealousies over land and rights as the write ...more
I'm rather surprised by some of the low ratings regarding this book. I'd read the Guardian's rave review of it when the hardcover was published and was anticipating the paperback, which was released right about the time when I realised that the A level English Lit exam specification was changing and that I'd be teaching Dickinson next year -- for the first time since the '90s when I was still in the US teaching American literature. This book was a must read.

It's quite impressive. Gordon's resear
A comprehensive and riveting biography of Emily Dickinson, though she dies midway through the book. Gordon is primarily concerned with how the tangled relationships of the Dickinson family , namely Austin Dickinson's adulterous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,affected the legacy and myth of the poet, the consequences of which are still felt today. Gordon chronicles the family feud which began in E.D's lifetime, resulting in two camps: the Todds, supported by Austin Dickinson, and Austin's wife Sus ...more
Jee Koh
This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and a book about who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous ...more
Emily Dickinson's poetic genius is hardly in dispute, but for anyone with patience wanting to read a whole lot more detail about Dickinson's life and times, this might be the book for you. Its strength and weakness is that it is really two books in one. Much of this book leaves Emily herself lost in the background as the focus shifts to family and others -- and what happens once Emily is dead. Some of that story is fascinating in a soap opera style way and hovers around the poems Emily has left ...more
Katharine Holden
Most of the information in this book was new to me. It was interesting to read of the falling-out between two families who then continued their feud through generations of fighting over control of Emily Dickinson's fame and life story. However, Gordon seems to be channeling Dickinson's poetry style in writing this biography, especially in the first half, and it makes for some annoying and choppy prose. At times the author verges on sappy New Age-y type prose. After a while I started skimming.
Laura C.
After reading this book, by the scholarly Lyndall Gordon, who in her other life is a senior research fellow at St. Hilda’s college in Oxford, England, I realized I was still reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry like the Jr High kid I was when I was first introduced to her works. Ms Gordon gives us a much more complicated portrait of her than the one I had imagined of a shy recluse hidden away in frustration at the limitations of 19th century women. Most interesting to me is Gordon’s advocacy of epil ...more
To borrow some 19th Century phrasing, this book was not impassioned. Worse, this book reads like the writings of someone who has had a stroke: repeatedly, the author starts with a whisper of an idea, gains a bit of momentum, and then suddenly trails off again into a multitude of disparate thoughts, all as ephemeral as a spider's webbing

There are many valuable scholarly contributions hidden within this maddening biography: for the first time, we see what truly went on behind the closed doors of t
This is a slow, slow book--so much detail to digest; apparently the author researched thoroughly. The digressions and asides along with the author's writing style make me rate the book lower. The book seems aimed at those studying Dickinson, not those who just want to know more about her.

The most important development in the book is the author's suppositions that Dickinson's reclusiveness was not a personality quirk but rather a family attempt to hide her frequent seizures resulting from epilep
WHEW. This book was a long, hard SLOG. I don't know if I was simply easily distracted while I read this book, but it really felt like WORK to make it through to the end. As ever, it is impossible to write a solid biography of Emily Dickinson, so by necessity, any book about her actually becomes a biography of the people around her. The story of her brother's infidelity is thoroughly examined and discussed, and actually that part of the book was quite fascinating--Gordon has definitely done her r ...more
Gayla Bassham
An odd and not entirely successful book. There are really two books here: one a biography of Emily Dickinson, featuring a provocative thesis that she suffered from epilepsy; another an account of what happened to Dickinson's literary estate and legacy after her death, featuring the machinations of Mabel Loomis Todd. Gordon might have done better to pick one of those topics and expand it rather than try to fit both into the same book. As it is, both feel underdeveloped and in the second half, as ...more
Bookmarks Magazine
Despite a host of books about Dickinson and her work, Lives Like Loaded Guns is full of surprises regarding the poet's life and influences. Although Gordon reaches for conclusions to some of the bigger questions--among them Dickinson's possible epilepsy, her love life, and the complicated relationship she had with her brother, Austin, his wife, and his mistress (who aspired to edit the poet's work)--the author's research into Dickinson's medical records and correspondence breathes fresh air into ...more
If you like Emily Dickinson, this book is a must. Throw away all the stuff you've heard about her before, and see the Dickinson family as one more dysfunctional mess where adultery, avarice, blind ambition, and debilitating illnesses play against a backdrop of puritanical beliefs falling apart as women begin to emerge as more than mere property of husbands. One more piece must be thrown in--Emily's sheer genius and how she revealed it to friends, family, and others. The result is a spider web of ...more
Interesting book delving into the family dynamics of Emily Dickinson, her sister Lavinia, brother Austin and his wife Sue, and Austin's mistress Mabel. The author claims to have delved deeper into their relationships, and came to different conclusions than previous biographers. Gordon claims Emily had epilepsy, which is what kept her housebound, and that she did have lovers but didn't marry because of her epilepsy. Gordon also differs from others in her analysis of Sue, Austin's wife, and Mabel, ...more
I would give this book a 3.5. It's hard to drop into an Emily Dickinson controversy without having read other books about it, but I think this author does a great job of presenting all the sides of the family feud. The reason I gave it a 3 instead of a 4 is that it took me about 150 pages to get used to her writing style, which is to drop chunks of Emily's poems and letters into the middle of the author's sentences making for a very disjointed prose. I was constantly rereading sections for meani ...more
Absolutely fascinating. I never knew that so much popular knowledge about Emily Dickinson is false and that her family feud over ownership of her writing continues to this day. The most enlightening part of the book was the author's theory about Dickinson's chronic illness and the family dynamics surrounding her father's home while Dickinson was alive. My only criticism is the author's writing style. Her ideas twist and turn in some strange ways that make them difficult to follow at times. It se ...more
This book would be sensational if it weren't so complex and academic. The author shows no hesitation in voicing her opinions, premises, guesses, etc. as she delves deeply and bravely into the morass of Dickinson lore. I walked away feeling thankful that this was not MY family, and liking ED just a little less, as the author portrays her as sort of a passive aggressive character who bound others to her and manipulated those she cared for. Who knows what the truth is, but this book certainly provi ...more
Al Bità
I enjoyed reading this rather hefty tome, mostly because I knew very little about the background relating to Emily Dickinson, and I wanted to know more. Lyndall Gordon’s work more than makes up for my lack… and on that level I found this book very satisfying. At the same time, however, I can understand how some readers might find it a little off-putting. Discussing why might give the impression that it might be more trouble than it is worth to read it; and I certainly do not wish to convey that ...more
Another used bookstore find! This biography of Emily Dickinson was a revelation. It gives not only an interesting look at the poet but a look at her very odd family.

The author makes a good case for the possibility that the poet was reclusive because she had epilepsy. The disease was not understood in the 19th century and sometimes seen as a sign of weakness. If Emily Dickinson suffered from it, it would account for her seclusion.

The center of the book (besides the poetry) is the affair Emily Dic
Enjoyed this exploration of the private life of reclusive poet Emily Dickinson - especially the examination of her writing in terms of her illness, family behaviour/personality traits.

Found the (forced?) complicity in the "affair" distasteful - the fact that Emily and her sister supported their brother, despite their love of their sister-in-law, out of fear for their future. As unmarried women they relied on him to support them financially. Emily's confinement due to illness prevented her possib
An amazing story. The protagonist is a woman even more remarkable than Emily Dickinson (my favorite poet), Mabel Loomis Todd, Emily's brother's mistress for the last 12 years of his life. The characters in this story are vivid & memorable. Although some of the writing is wincingly bad--was there an editor on this book?--the story is highly dramatic & entertaining. If you have any interest in Dickinson's poetry, this book is essential.

I loved certain chapters of this nonfiction story of the Dickinson
family of Amherst. Another player in the drama Mabel Loomis, who became the editor of Emily's poems after her death, and the mistress of her
brother Austin is thoroughly studied. One chapter about Emily's possible epilepsy and how it figures in her poems is stunning. This is a book for those who love Dickinson's works.
I opened this book knowing very little of Emily Dickinson or her family. My knowledge was that of primary school history: a reclusive poet whose feminine sex, New England residence in late victorian America and the content of her work all contributed to an appreciation that has grown exponentially in the 100+ years since her death. However, I was unaware of the conflict over the ownership of her work that was seeded in the complicated relations of her siblings and is reflective of a contemporary ...more
Who knew Emily Dickinson was a redhead? Or that her family life was so laden with illicit sex on the sofa? I have read many biographies and literary studies of Dickinson, but this book went in a fresh and unexpected direction, while still taking a scholarly path. Fascinating read, and a testament to how artistic expression is often shaped by life and family experiences.
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