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

by Lyndall Gordon

Hardcover, 2010




Viking (2010), Edition: 1, 512 pages


Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons, and reveals Emily as a very different woman from the pale, lovelorn recluse that exists in the popular imagination.


½ (58 ratings; 3.9)

User reviews

LibraryThing member labwriter
I just finished the biog about Emily Dickinson by Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. I'm calling this book "uneven" and giving it 4 stars.

For whatever reason, the first half of the book seems to be better written, as if the two halves of the book were
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written by two different people. My guess is that Gordon simply gave the first half more attention--why is anybody's guess. The second half diverges from the smooth narrative found in the first half, often reading like a draft that needed more work.

The author, Lyndall Gordon, is an English biographer, and (thankfully!) she evidently feels no constraints about presenting Emily Dickinson as a real human being, instead of the ethereal myth of so many of the biographies. Frankly, from Emily's letters, some of which are quoted at greater length than in other biogs, we learn that Emily was not always a very nice person. She definitely had trouble with social conventions and "boundaries," particularly when it came to married men and their wives. Gordon believes the reason for Dickinson's reclusiveness was physical--she had epilepsy, a sickness that determined a homebound life. Gordon also goes into great detail about the adulterous relationship between Emily's brother, Austin Dickinson, and his married lover, Mabel Loomis Todd. Her details are frank rather than lurid, showing how the relationship affected the lives of both families, including the next generation.

Dickinson dies about halfway through the book, and the second half covers her literary heirs and the feuds between the houses over the papers Dickinson leaves behind: Emily's sister Lavinia and Mabel Todd (first editor of the poems and letters) at the Homestead vs. Sue Dickinson at The Evergreens. The feud is continued into the next generation by the daughters: Millicent, daughter of Mabel Loomis Todd and Mattie Dickinson, Sue's daughter.

English majors everywhere studying Dickinson will be fascinated to follow the story of how Dickinson's papers and other artifacts ended up at both Harvard and at Amherst College, plus Todd's papers at Yale. She makes clear how Richard Sewall, the writer of the first major biography of Dickinson, The Life of Emily Dickinson, came to be Millicent's literary executor and how he was influenced by Millicent's campaign to "set the whole network of Dickinson tensions in proper perspective" (394). Gordon shows how Sewall's biography is colored by Millicent's agenda, presenting the affair "from the lovers' point of view. What appears as corroborating evidence is the archive that mother and daughter had constructed and preserved over the course of ninety years" (394). Gordon asserts how in every instance during her taped interviews with Sewall, Millicent comes across as objective and informed, while at every turn making the Todds into victims of the Dickinsons. "To hear the tapes is to understand her impact on a biographer," writes Gordon; she believes that Sewall got a lot of things wrong in his 1974 biography, based on Millicent Todd's influence. "As the standard biography it was a long-term victory for the Todd camp, shaping opinion for decades to come" (395).

I'm not sure how much patience the general reader is going to have with the details of the paper trail that make up the second half of the book, but I found Gordon's book to be fascinating and her conclusions compelling--an important addition to the Dickinson bookshelf.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
If you're looking for a book about Emily Dickinson's life, this may not be it: she dies about halfway through, and the rest of the book focuses on the bickering over who should edit her works and letters, who owns the copyrights, who should get the royalties, who knew her best and is therefore
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entitled to do lecture tours about her, where the archives should be housed, etc. Some of this is very interesting, some not so much.

Most of the quarrels and lawsuits involve Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited the first selection of Emily's work. This is not surprising, since Mabel was also the mistress of Emily's married brother, Austin Dickinson, and had never met or even seen Emily, although they did correspond. After Austin's death, Mabel and his widow, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, engaged in a series of legal and social battles. Susan had been a true friend to Emily, who had written many of her poems specifically for Sue's perusal and comments, and she contested Todd's right to edit (and profit from) the collected poems and letters. After Sue's death, Emily's sister Lavinia, who initially sided with Mabel, picked up the fight.

The feuds continued until the 1940s, eventually involving Emily's niece and great nephew and Mabel's legitimate daughter, Millicent Todd (who had a breakdown of sorts when she found letters that revealed the true nature of her mother's "friendship" with Austin Dickinson).

If you know nothing about Emily Dickinson's life (i.e., you haven't read one of the more authoritative biographies), you might find the first half of the book interesting--although much of it sets up the 'characters' in the family's feuds over her work. If you've read a good biography and are a Dickinson afficiando or scholar, you may find some intriguing information about the history of the promotion and publication of her work and letters and the creation of the image of the ethereal recluse in a white dress. I fall somehere in between.
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LibraryThing member Linda_22003
Who knew that a book about reclusive Emily Dickinson and her terribly proper New England family could be a potboiler, a bodice-ripper? Lyndall Gordon gives us a completely different Emily than the one we thought we knew, with her unsuspected, and ultimately unfulfilled, passions. Add to that her
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brother's late-life, all-consuming affair with a young Amherst faculty wife, and his willingness to split his family over it. After Emily's death, the hated mistress actually becomes her literary executor. The only thing that keeps this book from all five stars, for me, is the convoluted tale of the later trials over the literary rights to Emily's work, but this is more of a page-turner overall than I would have thought possible, given the subject matter.
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LibraryThing member hereandthere
This is a great, great book. I suggest stopping what you are doing now and reading it instead.

I had not the slightest interest in Emily Dickinson until a few years ago, around the age of 50, or perhaps, this year at the age of 53. Until then I read her, and shrugged. Then, suddenly, I was ready,
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and she began to speak to me. Go figure.

It was on NPR that I heard Lyndall Gordon's thesis that Dickinson may have had epilepsy. As the father of a young man with epilepsy I found the evidence of Dickinson's epilepsy to be strikingly plausible. Gordon acknowledges that the case cannot be proven, but evidence certainly extends beyond poetry. There are medicines purchased (glycerin, a 19th century epilepsy treatment) and specialists visited (in faraway Boston, by a woman who preferred not to venture abroad.) There is the fact of several other family members with the condition. There is the choice of non-marriage and seclusion, consistent with the sense of shame that 19th century society associated with the loss of control. There is also, allusively and suggestively, when framed by this external evidence, her poetry itself. I cannot do the epilepsy argument full justice, but as one who knows epilepsy, trust me when I say there is a ring of truth here. It's not impossible, not by a long shot.

The epilepsy discussion is however only one chapter among many, and hardly the author's most central argument. Gordon places Dickinson in her full historical and social context to better illuminate the "volcanic" dynamics of her family, including her brother Austin's affair with Mabel Todd, her "sister" (in law) Susan's fears of marriage to Austin and Emily's passionate devotion to her, and the acid personalities of the Dickinson clan. Gordon uses the subsequent century long feud between the two factions of the family and their descendants to help us understand, retrospectively, who the people who surrounded the poet were. She uses their conflicts as a way of chipping away at the falsehoods and myths that, until very recently, have dominated interpretations of Emily Dickinson's life, and poetry.

One facet among many that Gordon describes is Emily's sexuality or passion. We learn that she had a passionate physical (if "unconsummated", we presume) relationship with a man (Judge Lord) in later life. (Did you know that? I did not.) We learn that the family lived with the reality of her brother Austin's affair with Mabel Todd, a truth that could never be spoken out loud. And we witness her own expressions of passion for various women which, in typical 19th century fashion, leave open the question of physicality. When combined with the possibility of epilepsy ( a shameful force that took over the body and caused it to shake and lose control, possibly associated with "hysteria" or "masturbation" in the 19th century mind) a portrait emerges not of an ethereal recluse afraid to be in the physical world, but of a woman with body awareness and body experience, an embodied mind.

Gordon's book is a revisionist history, attacking what appears to be the predominant view of the Todd camp, in which Austin Dickinson's wife Susan is made out to be a villain. Gordon makes a persuasive case "against" Mabel Todd and "in favor" of Sue Dickinson, but the book is more than that - in illuminating Todd's self-aggrandizing power play to be the true inheritor of Emily Dickinson's legacy, she describes a conniver and a climber and a liar, yes, but also a woman who is fascinating in her own right.

As the first Dickinson biography that I've ever read, I can't tell you whether this effort to set the record straight has got it right. I can only say that I found it enormously persuasive, meticulously scholarly, and deeply in touch with Emily Dickinson. This "in touchness" stems from the author's use of the surround to comprehend the focus. Dickinson is but half real if we imagine her only through her writings and poems. But the act of examining every life around her, every facet of her world that can still be known, from economics, to law, to sex, to social relationships, and every conflict that flowed forward through history, creates an astonishing clarity about who she, the hidden poet, really was.

I am reminded of the empty corpse forms of Pompeii, spaces in the volcanic ash, whose reality was a negative space, that had to be filled with plaster to be revealed. Emily Dickinson is all but vanished in a biographical sense - only the bones of her poetry and letters remain - but when the shape of everything that touched her is understood, the space that she occupied, the shape of her form, is wonderfully illuminated.

I recommend this book as an act of scholarly conjuring and a gripping literary detective story.
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LibraryThing member starbox
I knew next to nothing about Emily Dickinson, when I came across this fascinating-looking work in a charity shop!
An extremely erudite and well-researched account (the author is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford); the book takes us back to Emily Dickinson's young life, living in Amherstwith her
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correct parents and an unmarried sister; next door lives upright brother Austin and his wife, Sue. We see a very different Emily from the simple recluse of popular mythology; Gordon describes a flirtation with a married man, and a meaningful entanglement with another. But her life is beset by some unspecified and secret illness; Gordon conincingly posits the theory that it was epilepsy: the doctors seen, the prescriptions filled, the lines in her poems...and her subsequent withdrawing from the world. Emily's life centred on her writing, much of which she shaed with her sister-in-law next door.

Into this world comes pretty young faculty wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, and nothing will ever be the same again, as Austin falls prey to her charms...more secrecy, assignations (how will Emily and her sister react?) And this whole lengthy scenario continues after the poet's death with rival factions trying to get possession of her works. Money, power, emotion, fame, resentment...all play their part in the lengthy struggle between Ms Todd, Emily's surviving sister and the family of poor wronged wife Sue, who owned so much of the work. And indeed into the next generation...

For me, the machinations over who owned what, the competing books brought out by separate camps, went on a tad, but I found the poet's life quite unputdownable!
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LibraryThing member PeskyLibrary
Most biographies of Emily Dickinson portray her as a quite recluse, a type of spectral figure wandering her Amherst home in a white dress surrounded by cats. Lives Like Loaded Guns paints a very different picture of the famous American poet. Gordon doesn’t simply focus on the poet herself but
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rather on the ins and out of her family life. Lives Like Loaded Guns has all the makings of a soap opera. There is betrayal, love, lust, adultery, death, feuds and a little poetry. Though Emily doesn’t make it all the way through the book and the second half seems to focus mostly on Mabel Loomis Todd this book is a very interesting read.
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LibraryThing member missgreen
Lives Like Loaded Guns was an insigtful biography around Emily Dickinson and her family. It explores what happened to her estate and how her poems were eventually collated and published. It makes sense about a mysterious author who has seemed different, yet when you read this biography you realise
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she made the choices that made sense for her familial context
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LibraryThing member readyreader
This book was a challenge for me because I am not "good" with poetry. The first part of the book has many references to poems which I couldn't really appreciate because I didn't understand what Miss Dickinson was saying. That must have been true for those who worked on publishing her work as they
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wanted to correct and reword to make things clearer. I also felt the author was determined to find words that no one has ever read and heard before so I had a dictionary at hand. This said, I did finally "get into" the story, and especially enjoyed the last part of the book dealing with the family feud over publication issues concerning Miss Dickinson's many, many poems. It was a sad fate for Emily to suffer from an illness (probably epilepsy) that was not fully understood or treated correctly because it affected her entire life which makes one ask "Did the illness push her to be the poet she was or would she have lived a wholly different existence if she had been healthy?" No way to know, I guess.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
I don't have it in me anymore to read into the wee hours of the night, but this title kept me reading past midnight. It's partially a biography of the poet, but more completely about the "war between the houses" that affected both the publication of the poems and the public perception of Emily
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Dickinson as artist and woman. The "war" began between Mabel Loomis Todd, the first editor of the poems and the mistress of Dickinson's brother Austin, and Susan Gilbert, Austin's wife. Dickinson's sister Lavinia, who facilitated Austin's affair by delivering letters and allowing the lovers to meet in her house, later turned against Mabel in a dispute over land and the ownership of the poems. The daughters of the two principles, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham, carried the feud into the next generation. Those familiar with Dickinson's biography know all these names, but I imagine a casual reader might be overwhelmed at times.

Gordon attempts to be objective and fair in recounting these battles. She acknowledges Todd's indispensable role in editing the poems, but presents her as both petty and selfish in her treatment of Sue and Sue's children. Gordon claims that even the "definitive" biography by Richard Sewall is seeded with distortions about Sue Gilbert fed him by the Todd camp.

Lavinia is depicted as an unexpectedly stubborn protector of the family's literary legacy, but also as a blatant perjurer in the lawsuit over land.

The early chapters of the book, focusing on Dickinson herself, are a shade less interesting, if only because the material is so well-worn. Every new biographer invents her own Emily to a degree, and every one of them has to speculate. Gordon's contribution to the speculation-fest is that Dickinson might have suffered from epilepsy. As an explanation for her life of seclusion, I find epilepsy more credible than romantic disappointment: outside of novels, who really shuts herself away for life because of a lost love?

She spends little time on the "Master letters" - drafts of letters to an unnamed male correspondent that have sparked endless speculation about Dickinson's supposed Tragic Love; indeed, she proposes that these letters may have been mostly fantasy or literary exercise. Instead of wallowing in romance, Gordon presents some intriguing evidence that the poet who claimed "Publication -- is the Auction Of the Mind of Man" may have made a few tentative attempts to publish, and gave up when she was rebuffed. She suggests that Dickinson's attachment to Samuel Bowles may have had as much to do with his position as an editor than his charms as a lover. I appreciated Gordon's focus on Dickinson the serious, ambitious artist who expected her words to give her immortality.
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LibraryThing member amberluscious
Though I have not read other biographies of Emily Dickinson, I feel this one must be definitive. Gordon clearly has painstakingly researched the entirety of the Dickinson archives and has presented an nearly unbiased recording of Emily Dickinson's life and the incredible drama that surrounded her
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and her work. I say nearly unbiased because it seems as though Gordon's only bias is towards the poet, Emily Dickinson, who's whole entire legacy has been wanting and waiting to be told honestly and free from agendas. Gordon has satisfied this want.
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Physical description

512 p.; 6.25 inches


0670021938 / 9780670021932
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