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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Lives Like Loaded Guns’

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2010

LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS: EMILY DICKINSON AND HER FAMILY'S FEUDS
By Lyndall Gordon
Viking, $27.95, 472 pages, illustrated

Emily Dickinson dies halfway through Lyndall Gordon's mesmerizing "Lives Like Loaded Guns," but this is only right. The story that preoccupies Ms. Gordon, one of illicit love and intellectual property rights, gathers steam after the poet's death in 1886 and evolves over the next century. Through its reconstruction, Ms. Gordon introduces readers to an Emily Dickinson they may not know and a cast of players marked by uncommon privilege, tenacity, possessiveness and jealousy. Few portraits of Emily Dickinson are as vivid, few explorations of a family feud more riveting.

The book opens with intrigue. "In 1882 [Emily's brother] Austin Dickinson, in his fifties, fell in love with a young faculty wife. Twenty-six years before, Austin had married Susan Gilbert, the friend of his sister. The Evergreens was built to accommodate the married pair next door to the family home on Main Street in the country town of Amherst in western Massachusetts. By the 1880s Austin was the leading figure in the community; townsfolk called him 'the Squire,' a standing he inherited from his father. ... A devout member of the church, he reproved laughter on Sundays; of late he had turned his considerable taste to improving the graveyard. In every particular, Austin Dickinson appeared an unlikely candidate for the folly of passion."

That "folly of passion" was the affair Austin began with the musically gifted, "dressy enchantress" Mabel Todd, and their assignations took place over many years in the house next door where the famously reclusive poet lived. 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. In practical terms, it was a battle for her unpublished papers, but as Ms. Gordon points out, "The issue was not so much money as the right to own the poet - the right to say who she was. Each side claimed to know, and fought to promote its legend. These legends still guard the entrance to the Abyss, for the feud persists even now."

The "Abyss" that Ms. Gordon refers to is a playful reference, for as she notes, Emily Dickinson had said, "Abyss has no biographer." But as Ms. Gordon adds, "Truth is bottomless and she herself almost invisible. After her death, letters were burnt according to her instructions and soon legend replaced living fact."

Nevertheless, enough of the record remains for the reader to learn about the poet's tastes: She loved the Brontes and Shakespeare. "She was drawn early to Jane Eyre, and Maggie Tulliver, George Eliot's provincial girl 'whose eyes were full of unsatisfied intelligence and unsatisfied, beseeching affection,' " Ms. Gordon writes.

Her childhood in the constricted household where her father "was never seen to smile" led the poet to compose the following poem: It would have starved a Gnat - / To live so small as I -/ And yet I was a living Child -/ With - Food's necessity ...

Emily's room in the house the family lived in until the poet was 25 overlooked a graveyard and those early years were marked by the death of a young friend, Sophia Holland, and by the 4-year-old daughter of her Aunt Lavinia from scarlet fever. Emily attended South Hadley Seminary - as Mount Holyoke was then known - and went on to Amherst Academy, where she studied sciences that supported her lifelong passion for plants. Early friendship with Jane Humphrey and the letters that attended it brought forward her boldness of spirit. When her brother Austin married Susan Gilbert, Emily found a new friend, a "Sister" with whom her habitual correspondence would extend. Ms. Gordon writes, "In 1858, the year the poet began to save selected poems in home-made booklets, she celebrates a sister-poem and sent it to her, most likely on Sue's twenty-eighth birthday. It was amongst the first of the 276 poems that would follow across the grass between the two houses."

In her thirties, between 1860 and 1863, Emily Dickinson wrote 663 poems. But what lurked behind this prodigious output? In a chapter titled "Snarl in the Brain," Ms. Gordon writes that a good case can be made that Emily suffered from epilepsy. She notes that "When biographer Mark Bostridge identified Florence Nightingale's chronic illness, he warns that 'posthumous diagnoses are rarely successful in establishing with any degree of certainty the nature of an illness experienced by a person long dead.' The same caution is necessary in naming the 'sickness' in Dickinson's letters and poems."

But if epilepsy explains some of Emily's secretiveness regarding how she coped with "the gunshots from the brain into her body," it does not explain the poet's resolve or her moral clarity. Once the liaison between Mabel Todd and Austin became known, the feud and court cases began. There was a feud over land and, before her death, and against her brother's wishes, Emily did not sign over a deed to Austin and Mabel. The land feud and the even more consequential feud over Emily's papers continues up through the first half of the 20th century. Shifting alliances, contradictions, lawyers, large universities with a stake all play a role in the protracted fight so ably detailed in this book.

Ms. Gordon leaves no stone unturned in weighing the grievances of both sides. But always, it is the poet's words that hover above all else, and Ms. Gordon is a powerful interpreter of the volcanic words. Of Emily she writes, "Her claim on her readers does not evoke a fragile creature shut off from the world. She invited, even demanded attention, passing on her 'bolts' to correspondents."

Carol Herman is books editor at The Washington Times.

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