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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Paperback – May 31, 2011
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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.Read more ›
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...?Read more ›
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
Most Recent Customer Reviews
There's a very long 3-star review here that will give you a good idea of what's in this book. Do yourself and Emily Dickinson a favor and just go back and read her poetry.Published 3 months ago by Robert Slocum
A bio of one of my favorite poets, but kind of a downer. Now that there is more information about her life, I know some things I wish I didn't. All in all, it was well written.Published 8 months ago by Dee
Lyndall Gordon has written several biographies, and the ones I've read are lively narratives. "Lives Like Loaded Guns" is the liveliest, largely because Gordon goes beyond... Read morePublished 9 months ago by Empress Cindy
This is one of the best author biographies that I have ever read. Emily Dickinson is fascinating, and the story of her family is equally so. Read morePublished 10 months ago by Liz DeOrnellas
Gordon's biography of Emily Dickinson is brilliant. It scores Five stars in all areas: research, analysis, and writing. Read morePublished 14 months ago by Ms. Helpful
For anyone who loves Emily Dickinson but is somewhat mystified by many of her poems, this book is a must read. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Ingrid Stocking
Liked it very much. I have a feeling as more information about Emily re-surfaces or is re-evaluated there may be still more to write about.Published 20 months ago by Jane Pronko
Gordon’s extended biographical work “Lives Like Loaded Guns” is certainly an engrossing read, at least while her core protagonists are still in play. Read morePublished 23 months ago by jcappy