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

Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon
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Dec 23, 2012

it was amazing
Read in December, 2012

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 Dickinson's epilepsy to be strikingly plausible. Gordon acknowledges that the case cannot be proven, but evidence certainly extends beyond poetry. There are medicines purchased (glycerin, a 19th century epilepsy treatment) and specialists visited (in faraway Boston, by a woman who preferred not to venture abroad.) There is the fact of several other family members with the condition. There is the choice of non-marriage and seclusion, consistent with the sense of shame that 19th century society associated with the loss of control. There is also, allusively and suggestively, when framed by this external evidence, her poetry itself. I cannot do the epilepsy argument full justice, but as one who knows epilepsy, trust me when I say there is a ring of truth here. It's not impossible, not by a long shot.

The epilepsy discussion is however only one chapter among many, and hardly the author's most central argument. Gordon places Dickinson in her full historical and social context to better illuminate the "volcanic" dynamics of her family, including her brother Austin's affair with Mabel Todd, her "sister" (in law) Susan's fears of marriage to Austin and Emily's passionate devotion to her, and the acid personalities of the Dickinson clan. Gordon uses the subsequent century long feud between the two factions of the family and their descendants to help us understand, retrospectively, who the people who surrounded the poet were. She uses their conflicts as a way of chipping away at the falsehoods and myths that, until very recently, have dominated interpretations of Emily Dickinson's life, and poetry.

One facet among many that Gordon describes is Emily's sexuality or passion. We learn that she had a passionate physical (if "unconsummated", we presume) relationship with a man (Judge Lord) in later life. (Did you know that? I did not.) We learn that the family lived with the reality of her brother Austin's affair with Mabel Todd, a truth that could never be spoken out loud. And we witness her own expressions of passion for various women which, in typical 19th century fashion, leave open the question of physicality. When combined with the possibility of epilepsy ( a shameful force that took over the body and caused it to shake and lose control, possibly associated with "hysteria" or "masturbation" in the 19th century mind) a portrait emerges not of an ethereal recluse afraid to be in the physical world, but of a woman with body awareness and body experience, an embodied mind.

Gordon's book is a revisionist history, attacking what appears to be the predominant view of the Todd camp, in which Austin Dickinson's wife Susan is made out to be a villain. Gordon makes a persuasive case "against" Mabel Todd and "in favor" of Sue Dickinson, but the book is more than that - in illuminating Todd's self-aggrandizing power play to be the true inheritor of Emily Dickinson's legacy, she describes a conniver and a climber and a liar, yes, but also a woman who is fascinating in her own right.

As the first Dickinson biography that I've ever read, I can't tell you whether this effort to set the record straight has got it right. I can only say that I found it enormously persuasive, meticulously scholarly, and deeply in touch with Emily Dickinson. This "in touchness" stems from the author's use of the surround to comprehend the focus. Dickinson is but half real if we imagine her only through her writings and poems. But the act of examining every life around her, every facet of her world that can still be known, from economics, to law, to sex, to social relationships, and every conflict that flowed forward through history, creates an astonishing clarity about who she, the hidden poet, really was.

I am reminded of the empty corpse forms of Pompeii, spaces in the volcanic ash, whose reality was a negative space, that had to be filled with plaster to be revealed. Emily Dickinson is all but vanished in a biographical sense - only the bones of her poetry and letters remain - but when the shape of everything that touched her is understood, the space that she occupied, the shape of her form, is wonderfully illuminated.

I recommend this book as an act of scholarly conjuring and a gripping literary detective story.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Katherine (new) - added it

Katherine I liked this review and agree with a lot of her assessment of the interesting nature of the material in this book. However, I found the style of writing of the author, Lyndall Gordon, melodramatic and obfuscating certain facts. (At least once she writes of someone dying of broken heart.) At times her prose reads like a parody of Dickinson's spare and symbolic style of poetry. Still, I am glad to have read the book and learned more about this interesting family.


message 2: by Janis (new)

Janis Mills Wow I love your review and am going to pick up this book. I only had a passing interest in Emily Dickinson until I moved back to Massachusetts and put a visit to her home in Amherst on my bucket list. I have travelled extensively and visited many sites but this visit was pure gold and the tour guide was absolutely mesmerizing. I had no idea that Ms Dickinson was so reclusive until I visited this spot. I even ventured to ask if anyone had tried to extract DNA from her chamberpot for evidence of what ailed her. I was alone on this tour so there was no friend to ask me if I was crazy to ask such a question.Sounds absolutely crazy to ask such a question but I guess her secrets died with her. I am going to try to find this book and also read her poetry with a new appreciation.


Miles Thanks so much Janis!

Janis wrote: "Wow I love your review and am going to pick up this book. I only had a passing interest in Emily Dickinson until I moved back to Massachusetts and put a visit to her home in Amherst on my bucket li..."


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