Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Book Review: Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds, by Lyndall Gordon

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
by Lyndall Gordon
405 pages

"My Life has stood - a Loaded Gun"
Emily Dickinson

One of the (very many) things I loved about Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson was the glimpse it gave into the reclusive poet's life.  I didn't know much about Emily Dickinson beforehand, and it whetted my appetite for indulging in some of her poetry and for learning more. 

At 405 pages, more is certainly what one gets with Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds.  (Comparing the two books is perhaps a bit unfair, but since I read them in such close succession - and Charyn's book is getting much buzz, positive and negative, among bloggers - I can't really help it. They do complement one another well, though, despite their differences, and if you're one of those who came away from The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson wanting more in the way of biography and analysis of her poems, then you will likely enjoy Lives Like Loaded Guns.)

Lives Like Loaded Guns is the story about the Dickinson family's feud, which I admit I never heard of until reading this book but which proved to be as entertaining as any novel or TV show.  (Think "Dynasty" in mid-1800s New England.)  Before we delve into the feud, however, it's necessary to learn the biographical facts of who's who and how everyone is related.  That takes up approximately the first half of the book, and is very interesting reading.  It also supports much of what is in the Charyn book. 

There's also discussion of why Emily was such a recluse, and Gordon believes the clues are within Emily's poems, with lines like "I felt a Cleaving in my Mind."  Epilepsy is presented as a strong possibility and it makes perfect sense.  (It did seem, in some parts, that Gordon was perhaps trying a little too hard to convince her reader of such, which was a little puzzling because she presents her case well and the evidence seems to support it.) 

Halfway through Lives Like Loaded Guns, we begin to see the brewings of the Dickinson family feud. The Dickinsons were closely affiliated with Amherst College; Emily's father was a trustee and the College's treasurer.  Upon his death, Emily's brother Austin assumed the same role.  The College hired David Todd as an astronomy professor (luring him with knowingly false promises of a world-class observatory to be built on campus; nice to see some things in higher education remain constant), and he arrived in Amherst from Washington D.C. with his wife Mabel Loomis Todd. Their lives would become even more intertwined with the Dickinsons when Austin, who was also married, and Mabel began a steamy affair in 1882.

(Note that theirs wasn't exactly a secret affair. Austin and Mabel would rendevous in Emily's home that she and her sister Lavinia shared. Their trysts would be in the middle of the afternoon with the poet right upstairs.  Mabel and David even had a young daughter, Millicent, whom Mabel brought along during these "assignments" and left in the care of the Dickinsons servants.)

All this was fine and well and good (as these sorts of things go), but after awhile Mabel got a little irked that Austin's wife, Sue, wasn't going anywhere. She wished Sue dead, and when that didn't occur, she hoped to become pregnant with a little Dickinson.  No luck in that department, either (although not for lack of trying and calculating fertile times of the month!) so the next avenue was to stake a claim in some way to Emily's poetry.  Most of her poems were written on scraps of paper or on the back of envelopes, and after Emily died in 1886, Mabel saw an opportunity to become Emily's editor by transcribing them - not an easy process both due to the volume (by 1878, Emily had written over 1,400 poems) and the laborious nature of the task itself.

"'No publisher will attempt to read poems in Emily's own peculiar handwriting, much less judge them,' Mabel advised Vinnie [Emily's sister Lavinia, the legal heir to her manuscripts].  'I should have to copy them all.'

Her know-how, her commercial approach to publication, was more to Vinnie's mind than Susan's leaning toward private publication.  The latter option would cost a lot, and Austin was unlikely to contribute ....

In 1888 she [Lavinia] retrieved the manuscripts she had placed in The Evergreens and turned them over to Mabel Todd, who proceeded to translate hundreds of poems.  Mabel worked at first on the borrowed Hammond typewriter, then on a more primitive "World" machine that cost her $15. She had to turn a pointer manually to each letter, and then stamp the letter (capitals only) on to paper through an inked rubber sheet. It was laborious, exhausting."  (pg. 253)

Mabel's work on transcribing the poems became a significant component of the feud (disputed land was also involved) and all this eventually went to trial.  It is a fight that continued even after adversaries Mabel Todd and Sue Dickinson died.  (The last hundred pages of Lives Like Loaded Guns discusses the battles that continued among Millicent Todd Bingham, Mabel and David's daughter, and Mattie Dickinson, daughter of Sue and Austin, and other interested parties. I'll confess to skimming a few of these pages, because after nearly 400 pages of keeping track of who was on whose side, etc., it became a bit confusing to have new people introduced into the mix.)

This wasn't a breezy read, but it was one that I enjoyed.  As I mentioned earlier, I didn't know anything about this whole Dickinson family feud and that was interesting (and entertaining) to me.  Lyndall Gordon's writing made me feel as if I was transported back to that time while at the same time providing some analysis of and thoughts on  Emily Dickinson's poetry. 

"I want to propose that her poems work when a theorem is applied to a reader's life. It's a mistake to spot Dickinson in all her poems; the real challenge is to find our selves. She demands a reciprocal response, a complementary act of introspection.  For the poem to work fully we have to complete it with our own thoughts and feelings. Her dash is not casual; its a prompt, bringing the reader to the brink of words: there is the need to speak, if only to ourselves.  This can be especially effective when we are in touch with feelings as intense as the poet's own: it might be abandonment or grief or fear of losing control.  A Dickinson poem can open out into any number of dramas to fill its compelling spaces."  (pg. 111)

Any number of dramas to fill compelling spaces, indeed.  Who could have guessed how many there really were!

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Elizabeth said...

I have long been a lover of Dickinson and bought this book ages ago but never read it. I am now going to! And did you know -- I have never heard about the epilepsy thing -- but I'm excited to learn more about that. I actually posted a poem over on my blog today --

Bookfool said...

I'm embarrassed to say I've hardly read any Dickinson at all, although I've enjoyed what little I read. I had no idea there was a family feud, nor anything about the possibility that she had epilepsy. Interesting!