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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Paperback – May 31, 2011
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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." --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top customer reviews
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.
In the past many ED biographers based their biographical information on heresay, or on the false testimony of so-called witnesses. Several factions within the family and on the periphery of the family wanted to own Emily Dickinson or to be a part of her fame. One feels that there was certainly something very special and attractive about her, for so many to want to make their claim. This author exposes many falsehoods, their origins and consequences.
There were so many dramas unfolding within the drama of Emily Dickinson's supposedly quiet, tranquil life, that the shock waves have lasted for generations.
I particularly liked ED's simple clear insightful responses to Mabel Loomis Todd's intrusions and her comments to/about other members of Mrs Todd's family. Emily Dickenson insights about people were very clear and perceptive. And in the case of Mrs Todd, her insights showed great prescience.
Whether the authors speculation that ED had some form of epilepsy is true or not, may be in question. But it did propose an interesting theory. And the quotes related to this hypothesis brought out interesting information. I never knew that ED spent the times between 3AM and Noon awake every night.(As many mystics throughout the ages have) Some of her experiences of so called "fits" were spiritual experiences. It reminds me of the experiences of seizures that St. Teresa of Avila had...uncomfortable and yet spiritually transforming.