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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Paperback – May 31, 2011
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"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."
"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 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."
"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."
"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."
"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 Salon.com
About the Author
Lyndall Gordon is a British writer and academic popular for her literary biographies on notable persons such as Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Brontë, and T. S. Eliot. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Cape Town and later went on to graduate with a doctorate from Columbia University in New York City. Her work has earned her many awards, including the British Academy’s Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Cheltenham Prize for Literature. Gordon is now a Senior Research Fellow at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford.
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The first half of the book is a biography of Emily Dickinson, very smartly written. The gauzy veils of eccentricity are pretty much stripped away, and we see a much more nuanced view of the poet. She was stronger than her reputation allows; her isolation seems to be due to epilepsy, hidden away, like "the madwoman in the attic." But Emily Dickinson wasn't crazy. She was one of the two great American 19th century poets (Whitman being the other). Gordon uses with wisdom the poems themselves, gnomic as they are, to cast light on shadowed parts of Dickinson's life, her affections and her lovers, imagined or not.
The second half of the book follow's Dicknson's works, manuscripts, and reputation, all distorted by a feud of cosmic proportions between The Mistress and The Wife, their families, their descendants, even scholars taking one side or the other. Both sides told enormous whoppers about the other side, and they each constructed a fake "Emily" from behind which Emily and her poetry have struggled to emerge.
Part of Gordon's genius is to be seen in her portrait of the mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd. In addition to being shockingly open about her sexual desires, she also happened to be a very good editor;: her work on the poems prior to publication made Dickinson publishable. Gordon's portrait of Mabel is as rich as her view of Emily.
The book isn't perfect. It is grating to come across Gordon's occasional linguistic infelicities, especially as she is usually a clear and confident writes. There is certainly nothing to be gained by the opinions of Dickinson uttered by such terminal lightweights as Pete Doherty (!) and Joyce Carol Oates.
Still, this is a riveting account of an exceptional life. It's a little like "The Aspern Papers, " but the papers survive; or like Lizzie Borden without the ax. Emily Dickinson's poems draw us inwards; they are sharp and aflame. Now we see why. And how.