Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reading Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
Lyndall Gordon
Paperback, 512 pages
June 2010
Penguin Group
(originally published by Virago Press in England)
ISBN13: 9780670021932

I loved this book precisely because it delves into what happened after her death concerning her work. I had no idea! The fact that the family completely perpetuated the legend of Dickinson, part of which a generation removed continued with their parents' crusades, took it to another level of truthfulness and revenge.

Mabel Loomis Todd (who had her own husband) was the life-long mistress of Austin Dickinson, Jr. (Emily's brother). It seems as if she attached herself to the family because they were affluent and held heavy influence in Amherst. Some would say she was parasitic in her quest, for lack of a better word, for fame and recognition. Mabel openly (privately) lambasted and vilified Mrs. Austin Dickinson and made her life miserable. Although, it probably went both ways.

She (and eventually her daughter, Millicent) played a huge part in E.D.'s literary legacy. E.D.'s sister, Lavinia, was the literary executor after her brother Austin died.  Mabel squeezed her way in with her excellent copywriting and editing skills by transcribing E.D.'s poems, publishing them in a book with the insistence of her name being on it.  The feud went on between Lavinia and Mabel to their deaths and their daughters continued it. After Lavinia's death, Mabel became the sole executor through her involvements with E.D.'s work.  The whole ordeal (lawsuits, courts, petty feuds) lasted well into the 1950's-a century after E.D.'s death, the two families bitter rivalries to the end.

Lydall makes the conclusion that she had Epilepsy based on medications that were given throughout her life as well as a possible explanation for her reclusiveness. She also points to a nephew, Ned, who also had the affliction, suggesting that it may have been congenital. It's possible, though many seem to dispute that.

Another thing I found interesting was the way the family "doctored" her picture throughout the latter half of the 1800s and beyond, according to the times, with different hairstyles, different clothing. This was probably publicity related because, at that point, a small museum was erected in the house she lived along with the publication of the collected poems. The family was already enjoying receiving curious visitors to The Recluse's room in hopes of understanding this unknown woman. This only added to the mystery of the poet.

Very little has been written about E.D.'s actual life. She has always been shrouded in mystery-the Lady in White, recluse. Recently, a photo surfaced of an older Dickinson, a rare find since no other daguerreotype was known to have existed. The literary world and authorized experts were ecstatic. She was in the news again with the discovery of her "envelope poems", gathered together in the book The Gorgeous Nothings. A fair amount of press for such a private person.

It was kind of slow-going and it took me longer than usual to finish. Considering it was 512 pages, it was a haul. But, it was well worth it.The scope of this book is thorough, and this particular review only covers a small part. If you haven't read enough Dickinson, this is a great place to start. Another great book is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He plays a pretty significant role in Lives Like Loaded Guns.

Today is Emily Dickinson's birthday. The internet is buzzing with tributes, articles (both scholarly and general literary). The Writer's Almanac had a piece on her today in celebration. I suppose this review is a bit of a celebration as well.

As an aside, The Daily Beast published an article, The Revelatory Paper Trails of Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath. 

Lyndall Gordon has written many other books about classic authors including T.S. Eliot, Henry James and Virginia Woolf. Lives Like Loaded Guns was a Duff Cooper Prize Finalist, a British prize for nonfiction.

You can see more of my reviews at Goodreads.

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