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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Hardcover – June 10, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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)
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From 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 otherwise settled literary history. In the end, no one disputes that Dickinson lived largely in a world of her own making. So much the better, Gordon ably points out, as it was a place where she could practice art "made at the interface of abandon and decorum."

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 1 edition (June 10, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670021938
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670021932
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.5 x 1.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,262,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Her detective work uncovers many interesting details.
My highest recommendation goes to any fan of Emily's, interest in the Dickinson family or the already notorious affair between Austin and Mabel Todd.
Bluestalking Reader
Before I read this book I knew little about her and her background.
William Tell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

113 of 126 people found the following review helpful By rctnyc VINE VOICE on June 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Reading the reviews below reminds me that there are no feuds as acrimonious and petty as academic ones. Apparently, a disagreement between Lyndall Gordon and other Dickinson biographers regarding whether Dickinson had epilepsy has inspired those dissenting biographers to trash her book on Did Gordon have the temerity to disregard their advice? Well, we'll have none of that; in the interests of scholarship (yeah, sure) we'll make sure that the world knows how right we were, and how wrong she was to ignore our criticism.

Now -- the book. Lyndall Gordon has written a fascinating account of the feud between the Dickinsons and Mabel Loomis Todd, the extramarital lover of Dickinson's brother, that delayed the publication of much of Dickinson's work for over 50 years. Extending through two generations, and possibly a contributing factor in the deaths of some of the players, the feud began when Dickinson's brother, Austin, embarked on a mid-life, adulterous romance with Todd, the young wife of an Amherst science professor. As Dickinson's poems and letters lay hidden away in the pages of books, locked trunks, and dust-filled boxes, the protagonists of this extraordinary tale battled for recognition and vindication and -- not incidentally -- to destroy one another's claims to Emily Dickinson's affections

Gordon describes, not merely the feud, but also the way in which the competing narratives spun by the adversaries -- including the putative "editors" of Dickinson's work, her betrayed sister-in-law, Susan and her sister, Lavinia, and the actual editor, Mabel Todd -- misrepresented their own characters and motives, and also those of the poet herself, who had an emotional vitality and network of relationship that belied the myth of the frail recluse of Amherst.
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71 of 85 people found the following review helpful By Polly Longsworth on June 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As a Dickinson biographer of fifty years, one oft parahrased in Lyndall Gordon's sensational take on Dickinson's life, I would add to Hirschhorn's authoritative report on epilepsy that Gordon misrepresents another "epileptic" in her book. Identifying the illness in Zebina Montague, second cousin to Dickinson's father, strengthens her argument that the disease ran in the Dickinson family. However, Montague was a paralytic, not an epileptic. Having suffered a crippling stroke in his early thirties, he remained partially paralyzed the rest of his long, far-from-reclusive, life. In nineteenth century Amherst epilepsy wasn't the dread secret Ms Gordon would have us believe. Dickinson family records mention that Emily's nephew Ned suffered from the disease, as did another child in town, yet nowhere is there evidence the poet was afflicted until this new biography, where the condition serves to reinterpret poems and explain why Emily Dickinson never married. Gordon has written a number of fine biographies, but may have overexerted herself in this one.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Boo Radley on December 1, 2011
Format: Hardcover
There is no shortage of Dickinson biographies in the world, but I was attracted to this because it is new and because it has a pretty cover, with a coloured - coloured! - daguerreotype of Emily on the front. When a publisher goes to the trouble of colouring the only known portrait of an enigmatic poet, I assume it's because the writer has something colourful, and possibly new, to say about her. This book fulfils in some ways and frustrates in others.

Gordon does contribute some new and controversial ideas about Emily Dickinson (which I'll address later), but the image on the cover is somewhat misleading. This is not exactly a biography. The subject is the ownership of Dickinson's poems - the publishing rights, the profits, the original copies. Gordon's text follows the poems, not the poet, which leads us down some tangential - and sometimes terrifically boring - paths.

The book focuses almost exclusively, though not chronologically, on Emily (and to some extent her brother, sister and sister-in-law). Her childhood is barely touched on - Gordon is interested in her early adulthood, the point when she went into seclusion, and the point when she began to write poetry, in no particular order. In fact, this first third of the book is a confusion of biographical detail interspersed with critique of the poetry, not always seamlessly. Gordon's writing is sometimes lovely, sometimes awkward, and occasionally pretentious and affected. I think she has unconsciously absorbed some of the idiosyncratic habits of her subject, so Gordon's prose sometimes sounds, ineffectively, like Dickinson's poetry. Some examples:

"Dickinson myth posits a wraith who is singular, but what if we tracked `the bolt' into the plurality of family...?
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88 of 107 people found the following review helpful By Norbert Hirschhorn on June 14, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Lyndall Gordon's biography of Emily Dickinson is operatic in scope (John Adams, take note). But equally dramatic is her diagnosis of epilepsy, based almost entirely on a misunderstanding of Nineteenth Century pharmacotherapy -- a subject I am well versed in. Gordon found an 1874 formula for epilepsy that contained chloral hydrate, glycerine and peppermint. Since Dickinson took glycerine in 1851-54, Gordon assumed that glycerine was the active ingredient, and used the diagnosis to `explain' Dickinson's reclusion, and to reinterpret many of Dickinson's poems and relationships.

In fact, the active ingredient in the formula was chloral hydrate, an anti-convulsant first used in 1870, which Dickinson, to anyone's knowledge, never took. In no pharmacopoeia, textbook of medicine or specialty text on epilepsy written in the 19th century was glycerine ever mentioned for epilepsy; neither in a book by the physician who treated her. Glycerine was used externally as a lotion; internally to disguise the taste of acrid drugs (like chloral hydrate); and -- in Dickinson's case -- as a supposed nutritive against tuberculosis (consumption), which Dickinson's doctor may have suspected (see my website for the essay, "Was it Tuberculosis?"). Dickinson even recommended the medicine to her brother for his cough.

I shared my new research on this matter with Lyndall Gordon, which she acknowledged receiving, when the book first came out in Great Britain; I hoped she would correct the error in time for the US edition. I regret to say she hasn't. There have been too many potted theories about Dickinson that trivialize the poet and her remarkable -- if still mysterious -- persona to allow this one to go by without complaint.

Norbert Hirschhorn MD
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