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

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In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons, In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. 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. Thanks to unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson, to reveal the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion, and presents a woman beyond her time who found love, spiritual sustenance, and immortality all on her own terms. An enthralling story of creative genius, filled with illicit passion and betrayal, "Lives Like Loaded Guns" is sure to cause a stir among Dickinson's many devoted readers and scholars.


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In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. Lyndall Gordon, an award-winning biographer, tells the riveting story of the Dickinsons, In 1882, Emily Dickinson's brother Austin began a passionate love affair with Mabel Todd, a young Amherst faculty wife, setting in motion a series of events that would forever change the lives of the Dickinson family. The feud that erupted as a result has continued for over a century. 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. Thanks to unprecedented use of letters, diaries, and legal documents, Gordon digs deep into the life and work of Emily Dickinson, to reveal the secret behind the poet's insistent seclusion, and presents a woman beyond her time who found love, spiritual sustenance, and immortality all on her own terms. An enthralling story of creative genius, filled with illicit passion and betrayal, "Lives Like Loaded Guns" is sure to cause a stir among Dickinson's many devoted readers and scholars.

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

  1. 5 out of 5

    Jessica

    I don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems... Lyndall Gordon seems to be a trustworthy guide through the Dickinson thicket of mythology and legend...She focuses on the family and the rifts(s) that ensued with brother Austin's fourteen year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (he was married to Dickinson's girlhood friend Susan Gilbert). She also surmises that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which given the I don't believe I need to read any more books about Emily Dickinson. With this and White Heat, I'm satiated. Time to go back to the poems... Lyndall Gordon seems to be a trustworthy guide through the Dickinson thicket of mythology and legend...She focuses on the family and the rifts(s) that ensued with brother Austin's fourteen year affair with Mabel Loomis Todd (he was married to Dickinson's girlhood friend Susan Gilbert). She also surmises that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy, which given the fact that her nephew had it, together with the prescriptions she had filled, a prolonged stay in Boston to visit a physician, as well as her need for seclusion, seems plausible. Well-written and researched.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    This was a really good biography not just of Emily Dickinson, but of the whole Dickinson family. It elucidates how her image and reputation were influenced by those with a personal interest in promoting her poetry after her death. Here she is not quite the wilting violet she was often portrayed as. The extramarital affairs, secret illnesses and love letters, and back stabbing - who knew sleepy 19th century rural MA could be so exciting? My only quibble is that the book could probably have been w This was a really good biography not just of Emily Dickinson, but of the whole Dickinson family. It elucidates how her image and reputation were influenced by those with a personal interest in promoting her poetry after her death. Here she is not quite the wilting violet she was often portrayed as. The extramarital affairs, secret illnesses and love letters, and back stabbing - who knew sleepy 19th century rural MA could be so exciting? My only quibble is that the book could probably have been wrapped up more quickly than it was.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Shawn Mooney (Shawn The Book Maniac)

    If you think a novel about a staid 19th-century New England family—including an sickly maiden poet daughter—torn apart by a swinging couple, its wife seducing the married brother while the spinster poet writes and writes and glowers—the married woman largely responsible in the most vindictive of ways for establishing the poet’s posthumous fame—sounds good, well this literary biography of Emily Dickinson and her feuding family is for you. Completely riveting!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Anne Tommaso

    Two stars is really my fault. I was looking for a book about Emily Dickinson. Instead this is the messy story of her family in her lifetime and far beyond. According to Gordon, the events in the Dickinson/Todd saga don't seem come from love or passion but more from jealousy and what becomes a desire to possess the right to edit and publish Emily Dickinson's work. What began as a passionate affair (AD+MT) seems quickly overshadowed and sullied by petty jealousies over land and rights as the write Two stars is really my fault. I was looking for a book about Emily Dickinson. Instead this is the messy story of her family in her lifetime and far beyond. According to Gordon, the events in the Dickinson/Todd saga don't seem come from love or passion but more from jealousy and what becomes a desire to possess the right to edit and publish Emily Dickinson's work. What began as a passionate affair (AD+MT) seems quickly overshadowed and sullied by petty jealousies over land and rights as the writer tells it here. This isn't a book about how the poems work or even an inquiry of how the external lives of Emily and her family and community shape the poems. Everything is external. There is substantial research about the possibility that Emily was epileptic, which could be a major cause of her reclusiveness. But instead of thinking about how the alleged condition affected the poems, the writer goes the other way: she uses the poems for evidence of the condition. For a lover of Emily Dickinson and someone attracted to the mysteries and shadows in the lives of writers, this book disappoints because it doesn't put the literature first. But that was never the book's goal. Guess I should have known that.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Elaine

    Even if you have never read a line of Emily Dickinson and have no intention of doing so, this is an important and engrossing, if not a salacious read. If you have read her, this is a must in order to understand what her amazing poems are saying. And, I say this believing fully that I understood many of her poems beforehand. Any images you've imbibed of Emily as a chaste, sexless, recluse will be shattered by Gordon, who bases her conclusions not only on an exhaustive study of Emily's poetry, but Even if you have never read a line of Emily Dickinson and have no intention of doing so, this is an important and engrossing, if not a salacious read. If you have read her, this is a must in order to understand what her amazing poems are saying. And, I say this believing fully that I understood many of her poems beforehand. Any images you've imbibed of Emily as a chaste, sexless, recluse will be shattered by Gordon, who bases her conclusions not only on an exhaustive study of Emily's poetry, but also on her and others' letters, newspaper accounts of the family, and even a sensational trial. The corollary of this erroneous view of Emily, is the pretty much accepted view of her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson as a heartless fount of evil. As the avalanche of letters and poems Emily wrote to Susan show, Susan was her dear Sister and nurtured Emily and her poetry. Likewise, Emily's sister Lavinia has been portrayed as a dull person with no life or mind of her own beyond taking care of Emily. Lavinia's performance at the trial instituted by her brother Austin Dickinson's paramour puts paid to that notion, as do contemporary references to her. At the heart of the book is the tale of Masachusetts Brahmins descended from Puritans who think that whatever they do is right. Their covenant with God extends to committing blatant adultery, engaging in lurid sex, lying, hiding, and deceiving. Austin Dickenson, a forbidding icon of rectitude is the main actor in this scenario, with Mabel Todd, a highly sexed amoral, conniving, but intelligent woman as his partner. His wife Susan does what Puritan wives are supposed to do and 19th cenury wives had to do: endure. There is no record, even by Austin himself of her proactively responding to his years of involvement with Mabel. As for Emily, she left Mt. Holyoke College rather than be saved by Jesus. She belonged to no religion in particular, but, as her poems show, did believe in immortality of some sort. Gordon gives definitive proof from the poetry itself and also from medical records that Emily remained confined to her own house and her brother's, which adjoined hers and Lavinia's, not because of some romance gone bad. Rather, it was her uncontrolled and uncontrollable physical illness that kept her so close to home as an adult. That, and the fact that she didn't suffer fools gladly limited her socializing, but never completely. As a scholar, I was especially infuriated by the last third of the book which covers the years after Emily's premature death (probably from the arsenic and strychnine administered to her as medicines), and the resulting high drama of how her poetry was edited and published. Ironically, this was first done by the conniving Emily who had been careful to befriend Lavinia during the years of her sexual relations with Austin. Mabel had actually been introduced to Emily's poetry by Susan Dickinson, who, unsuspecting what a viper she had nourished in her breast, who helped Mabel to see what a genius Emily was. Emily herself consistently refused to meet face-to-face with Mabel, despite the latter's attempts to get to know her. In any event, Lavinia was the heir to Emily's poems, which had not been published in her lifetime, with a couple of exceptions, because editors wanted to correct her idiosyncratic punctuation and rhyme. Emily would have none of that. Rather, she made fair copies of much of her work and distributed them to friends and relatives, with Susan being the prime recipient. Lavinia herself gave Mabel hundreds of Emily's poems after the latter's death, and, to give her credit, Mabel got a newfangled typewriter and decoded Emily's difficult handwriting, both transcribing and dating both poems and letters. Mabel alone got them published. Unfortunately, because Mabel so desperately wanted to become Austin's wife (although she was also married), she hated Susan irrationally and bruted about stories of Susan's evil nature. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that Mabel's version of Emily's life and Susan's persona became accepted by many. Indeed, Yale University's Dickinson papers were all donated by Mabel's daughter, so that scholars from that venerable institution have perpetuated the unfounded lies in Mabel's accounts. Harvard's Dickinson Collection as well as Amherst's come directly from the Dickinson family, which is not to say that no fiction about Emily is lacking in their accounts. Fortunately, her poetry, journals, and letters, incredibly copious material, seem to lead to the truth. Indeed, Gordon's conclusions from these sources not only make sense, but are in many instances are verified by Emily's own words. The biggest object lesson of this book is that you should beware of what you think about a famous person's life. You have to consider the sources used, and the proclivities of the main players in building reputations. Finally, as in her biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndall Gordon proves herself to be a great writer. Even people who don't usually read biography will probably enjoy this. It's making my list of the 100 Best Books I've ever read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    James Murphy

    Lyndall Gordon is a terrific biographer. She consistently brings fresh ways of seeing to her subjects. Previously I'd read her biographies of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and because I knew her study of Emily Dickinson would be informative I began Lives Like Loaded Guns with an avid, keen eye. Gordon doesn't disappoint, but it's not exactly biography. Though the seminal biographical events of Dickinson's life are touched on, the book is first a deep character analysis of her, and second the d Lyndall Gordon is a terrific biographer. She consistently brings fresh ways of seeing to her subjects. Previously I'd read her biographies of Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot, and because I knew her study of Emily Dickinson would be informative I began Lives Like Loaded Guns with an avid, keen eye. Gordon doesn't disappoint, but it's not exactly biography. Though the seminal biographical events of Dickinson's life are touched on, the book is first a deep character analysis of her, and second the detailed story of the dispute within the immediate family and close friends over the rights to the poet after her death, who would get to publish her work and get to say who she was. This is a fascinating book. I've read several biographies of Dickinson and those around her but still was spellbound by Gordon's telling. In the first place, it's so detailed. I was given new fact on top of something new to think about on top of interesting idea, almost on every page. Gordon has dug deep into that Massachusetts earth. When you do that you can't help turning over fresh dirt. At the heart of the story are 2 women: Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Emily was the reclusive poet of Amherst who left a treasure of almost 2000 poems and letters when she died, a body of work now considered among the finest poetry in the language. Mabel Todd came to Amherst late in Dickinson's life and was close to the family members but never met the poet herself. Her importance is that she almost immediately began an intense affair with Dickinson's brother, Austin, causing a rift in the tightly-knit family, and in the fact that she took an interest in the poetry and after Emily's death used her relationship with the brother and Vinnie, the sister, to usurp a great number of the poems and letters, to begin transcribing them, and to take it upon herself to edit the first published volumes. The row over wills and copyrights that resulted went on for a hundred years, carried on by the daughters of Susan Dickinson and Mabel Todd. That's the arc of the book. However, Gordon has a few new facets of the gem to polish. It's her theory that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy and that the fact of it explains her reculsiveness rather than a disappointment in love or any other reason. She thinks her condition is reflected in the poetry and offers analysis to support her idea. Her treatment is convincing and fascinating, the depth of her research impressive. Dickinson, she writes, understood all this clearly. She used the analogy of the loaded gun to describe the effect of the onset of epileptic attacks. "My Life has stood--a Loaded Gun--" is also used to describe the similarities of character shared with her grandmother, Lucretia Gunn. And Gordon herself uses the phrase in many ways throughout the book. The affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Todd is well known. But Gordon's reasearch digs deeper than any I'm familiar with. She provides dates, locations and rather interesting details of this affair, even the fact that Mabel's husband apparently often participated in some way. Gordon writes the words "group sex" and "voyeur." In the end she concludes that Emily and Mabel were similar in personality. Both lived lives like loaded guns, she says. Emily the poet ahead of he time, Mabel the opportunist who at the same time possessed the editorial skills to successfully launch her into the world. We can never really know these 2 women or their family members. I believe, though, that Gordon has brought us closer than anyone else. In my opinion this is one of the best and most important books on Dickinson and her family.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Katharine Holden

    Most of the information in this book was new to me. It was interesting to read of the falling-out between two families who then continued their feud through generations of fighting over control of Emily Dickinson's fame and life story. However, Gordon seems to be channeling Dickinson's poetry style in writing this biography, especially in the first half, and it makes for some annoying and choppy prose. At times the author verges on sappy New Age-y type prose. After a while I started skimming. Most of the information in this book was new to me. It was interesting to read of the falling-out between two families who then continued their feud through generations of fighting over control of Emily Dickinson's fame and life story. However, Gordon seems to be channeling Dickinson's poetry style in writing this biography, especially in the first half, and it makes for some annoying and choppy prose. At times the author verges on sappy New Age-y type prose. After a while I started skimming.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Gini

    ...just finished reading the Emily Dickinson biography —and will never think of the dash — in the same way again! Idiosyncratic punctuation aside, what vile people! From what I've read about the artists I greatly admire, I wouldn't want to meet most of them; I'd rather stick to their work. Emily, with her long-standing reputation as the white dress clad virginal recluse, is here portrayed as a killer of kittens who leaves their putrefying corpses in a bucket, who is too self absorbed to stray fr ...just finished reading the Emily Dickinson biography —and will never think of the dash — in the same way again! Idiosyncratic punctuation aside, what vile people! From what I've read about the artists I greatly admire, I wouldn't want to meet most of them; I'd rather stick to their work. Emily, with her long-standing reputation as the white dress clad virginal recluse, is here portrayed as a killer of kittens who leaves their putrefying corpses in a bucket, who is too self absorbed to stray from the subject of herself when she writes a friend whose father has just died, who haughtily tells a woman what name to give her child, after the woman has found a "love letter" from Emily to her husband. And Emily is among the least odious of this brood! Brother Austin is an egomaniacal despot whose lover, the brilliant, beautiful usurper Mabel Todd, sets out to captivate him and destroy the lives of Austin's wife Sue (and Emily's best friend) and his children, with his approval. Smug and self righteous, Mabel beguiles everyone she meets to view her as the victim, deserving Dickinson property and acclaim. After Emily's death, Mabel makes a career out of explaining the poet to the public — a woman she never saw, except for a glimpse of a white dress disappearing around a corner. The book's title comes from the Dickenson poem Lives Like Loaded Guns. Indeed. I was left longing for a loaded gun to end these people's vindictive misery. But then, who knows whether this biography is the "true" version of these people's lives? Long thought to be the villain, perhaps Austin's wife Sue really is. The book is fascinating, a poetical Rashomon.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Miles

    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, 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 Dickins 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, 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.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    A comprehensive and riveting biography of Emily Dickinson, though she dies midway through the book. Gordon is primarily concerned with how the tangled relationships of the Dickinson family , namely Austin Dickinson's adulterous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,affected the legacy and myth of the poet, the consequences of which are still felt today. Gordon chronicles the family feud which began in E.D's lifetime, resulting in two camps: the Todds, supported by Austin Dickinson, and Austin's wife Sus A comprehensive and riveting biography of Emily Dickinson, though she dies midway through the book. Gordon is primarily concerned with how the tangled relationships of the Dickinson family , namely Austin Dickinson's adulterous affair with Mabel Loomis Todd,affected the legacy and myth of the poet, the consequences of which are still felt today. Gordon chronicles the family feud which began in E.D's lifetime, resulting in two camps: the Todds, supported by Austin Dickinson, and Austin's wife Susan and their children. E.D's sister Lavinia shifts her loyalties between the two camps which was partly responsible for the poet's letters and poems being divided, published separately and eventually residing at two different institutions: Harvard and Amherst College. There ensued a battle through publication, Susan Dickinson and her daughter Mattie after her on one side, Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent on the other. The battle was partly for the rights to define the Dickinson myth and legacy but, the underlying battle, it seems to me, revolved around ownership of Austin Dickinson. I don't know how a reader could come away from this book and not view Mabel Loomis Todd as a power hungry parasite. Not only did she seduce Austin Dickinson and carry on a not-so-clandestine affair in staid Amherst that would last the rest of his life, she vilified Susan in her own lifetime, attempted (and succeeded to a great extent) to erase Emily's affection for her and reached beyond her time to define Susan's legacy to a greater extent than she defined E.D's. It's reprehensible how this woman acted and that she succeeded. One would think that stealing Austin's affections and turning him against his own children would be enough, but Todd wanted to obliterate Susan, going so far as to erase her name from poems E.D addressed and intended for her. I found this the greatest tragedy of the book, more fascinating than Gordon's controversial theory about E.D's lifelong illness. Todd succeeded in vilifying Susan and made her fictions part of the historic record, the echoes of which are heard today. There are still two camps, though not so embroiled in conflict. On a recent visit to the Dickinson museum in Amherst, I was told by a guide that Emily and Susan had a very close but 'strained' relationship. There was an implication that Susan was ambitious, an accusation originally made by Todd which described the accuser to a T. Letters and diaries don't support the "strained" relationship theory. Todd was an avaricious woman who wanted what Susan had, including Sue's relationship with Emily. Though Austin and Mabel met for trysts in the Homestead parlor while the poet was upstairs, Mabel never met Emily face to face (she saw her for the first time in her casket) and the poet made it rather clear, in her way, that she was no friend to the interloper. I'm sure Gordon will be relegated, by some, to Susan Dickinson's camp with the publication of this book, but readers can't ignore the extensive research and the use of voluminous primary resources. Todd's diary entries and letters to Austin pretty much lay the situation bare. I think Gordon has written a real history of the Dickinson's tangled affairs that transcends both camps.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jee Koh

    This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and a book about who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous This is a biography of Emily Dickinson and a book about who gets to say who she was after her death. On the Life, Gordon is at pains to dispel the legend of a retiring and reticent poet, an image so at odds with the poetry. Gordon shows that Dickinson used her correspondence as so many "lassoes" to grapple kindred spirits to her. A chapter is devoted to her love affair with Lord Judge, to whom Emily wrote expressively, even passionately, of her feelings. Regarding her brother Austin's adulterous relationship with Mabel Loomis Todd, Dickinson was prevented by her dependency on her brother from attacking the affair directly, but she wrote many subtly barbed letters to Mabel Todd and refused to see her at all, despite approaches by the latter. Emily, in Gordon's hands, appears as a fierce and uncompromising spirit. Her seclusion, Gordon argues persuasively, was not due to disappointed love, as legend would have it, but the stigma of epilepsy. The Fit, as coded in many of the poems, gave Dickinson the sense of being among the Emersonian Elect. The second half of the book looks at the war between the houses over the control of Dickinson. The battle started by Sue Dickinson, Austin's wife, and Mabel Todd, Austin's mistress, was taken up by their respective daughters, Mattie Dickinson and Millie Todd. Lavinia Dickinson, the sister of Austin and Emily, took Austin's side against Sue at first, but went over to the other side decisively when she fought with Mabel Todd over Austin's promise of family land to his mistress. It is a testament to Gordon's skill at narration and characterization that the story of disputed contracts and legal battles retains high interest. She does not lose sight of how such prosaic matters have shaped, and distorted, a poetic legacy. If she has restored Emily to the original that she was, she has also recovered the real Sue Dickinson, the intelligent and sympathetic reader whom Emily held to her heart as her "Sister."

  12. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    I'm rather surprised by some of the low ratings regarding this book. I'd read the Guardian's rave review of it when the hardcover was published and was anticipating the paperback, which was released right about the time when I realised that the A level English Lit exam specification was changing and that I'd be teaching Dickinson next year -- for the first time since the '90s when I was still in the US teaching American literature. This book was a must read. It's quite impressive. Gordon's resear I'm rather surprised by some of the low ratings regarding this book. I'd read the Guardian's rave review of it when the hardcover was published and was anticipating the paperback, which was released right about the time when I realised that the A level English Lit exam specification was changing and that I'd be teaching Dickinson next year -- for the first time since the '90s when I was still in the US teaching American literature. This book was a must read. It's quite impressive. Gordon's research is immense and well done. It's less a biography of Dickinson, although it does accomplish that task neatly, as it is an exploration of Dickinson's family and the feud surrounding her work, its publication and its ownership posthumously. Gordon does delve into literary criticism, though, bringing in relevant biographical and historical context as necessary. This book is a welcome relief to so many older texts perpetuating the 'Belle of Amherst' myth, no matter how much I admired that play back in the '70s. It works well with texts such as 'Open Me Carefully', although it clearly shows more of both sides of the feud. Considering that context is weighed heavily on the specification I'll be teaching, this book will be very useful. It's an excellent addition to Dickinson scholarship.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Danielle

    When Mabel Todd entered the Dickinson's lives no one could know how she would impact the family for years to come, even after all their deaths. Mabel--a married woman--began an affair with her husband's blessing with Austin Dickinson and it tore their family apart. Once Emily died her papers ended up divided between Mabel (the other woman) and Sue (Emily's best friend and Austin's wife). From that point on a struggle over who had the rights to publish and "own" Emily's work ensued that continues When Mabel Todd entered the Dickinson's lives no one could know how she would impact the family for years to come, even after all their deaths. Mabel--a married woman--began an affair with her husband's blessing with Austin Dickinson and it tore their family apart. Once Emily died her papers ended up divided between Mabel (the other woman) and Sue (Emily's best friend and Austin's wife). From that point on a struggle over who had the rights to publish and "own" Emily's work ensued that continues to this very day. The author also makes the case that Emily suffered from epilepsy and withdrew from society for that reason, not disappointed love like has been the long standing mythology. A very fascinating story about how the "myth" of Emily Dickinson began and how both sides contributed to it. The book is sometimes dense and I had a hard time getting into it initially. The writer sometimes is a "flowery" writer. However, it was so interesting about how bias can erase truth.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Aubrey

    3.5/5 This book has been on my physical shelves for some time and my digital shelves for even longer, and after reading and loving to the point of declaring a favorite The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, it's almost like coming home to delve into a nonfictional piece that comes closer to the truth than so many that came before it. I say almost because, much like what happened with Comfort Woman, the sensational almost became too much by the end, exacerbated by an escalation as well as the sim 3.5/5 This book has been on my physical shelves for some time and my digital shelves for even longer, and after reading and loving to the point of declaring a favorite The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, it's almost like coming home to delve into a nonfictional piece that comes closer to the truth than so many that came before it. I say almost because, much like what happened with Comfort Woman, the sensational almost became too much by the end, exacerbated by an escalation as well as the simple fact that, while I don't mind a bit of creative undertaking in the treatment of history (see Alice James for a wonderfully humanizing display of such), I expect to read rapturous interpretations of another's words in book reviews and the like, not in complicated narratives of family feuds spanning over near two centuries of closeted behavior, hiding away everything from sexuality to illness and rendering an already mysterious figure downright drowned in contentious interpretation and reinterpretation. As such, Gordon escaped with a four star by the skin of her teeth, as while I do favor her for being a fellow admirer of Dickinson, if I had paid the full $30+ price on the book jacket, I would be less complacent about less than credible statements getting in the way of facts and figures. Still, I now have a great deal of valuable information stuck in my head, and for that, reading this was well worth the time it took to acquire a copy. In my view she was susceptible to both sexes[.] Annoyed as I am at overextension of an authorial presence in a work of supposed nonfiction, there were choice moments where Gordon's thinking was intriguing enough to pursue, if only for a short while. For example, if someone has an alternative explanation for Emily's seclusion other than epilepsy, I'd love to hear it, because this work ties together everything so well that the fact that I hadn't heard of the theory previously is rather pitiful, but that's public education for you. Less grounded but even closer to my own interests is Dickinson's writerly pursuit of both women and men, and I know, I know, cult of female friendship and lack of terminology (the fact that heterosexuality as concept wasn't invented till mid-nineteenth century doesn't stop people from slapping it on earlier times, surprise surprise) and blah de blah de blah, but if Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America exists, so can other theoretical pursuits. All in all, things were very interesting up until the point that Emily died, upon which the story became more convoluted and less engaging as the pages kept on turning. As the relatives both legal and otherwise piled on the legal battles, I became more and more fatigued with keeping track of it all, and while I was glad the story managed to make its way to the near modernity, I was even gladder that it ended sooner rather than later. This is my last book for 2018, which is not a bad way of going out. As said, this book has been on my digital shelf for ages (almost eight years to be precise), and it's always good to clear out the old right before entering the new. This wasn't the best work of biography I've encountered (paling in comparison to Secrets of the Flesh, Painted Shadow, and even Virginia Woolf), but its information is more than necessary in these times that still take on the puritanical when it suits the authoritarians in every culture, marginalized or otherwise. I've a number of nonfiction lined up in challenges and even more that I can indulge in between bouts of work and more work and even some more, but it'd be interesting to delve into Dickinson scholarship even further than what's found here. I know to avoid the older works, but I can imagine there are other ones not covered by this particular text with their own theories and mantras and occasional quibble, and until some other treasure trove of papers is discovered, this is likely all the material any Dickinson scholar has to work with. Sad, in a way, but in this privacy-violating age, who doesn't understand a woman way back when wanting to keep her lovers close and her enemies even closer? This was a girl who could tell the difference between the page that perishes and the page that endures.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Jenny McPhee

    At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “...a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, At the end of Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, the biographer describes the source of the poet’s genius as: “...a hidden life like a ‘Bomb’ in her bosom. The poetry it fueled,” she advises, “must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance which in its fullest bloom eludes classification. It’s more radical and quirky than anything in Europe, more awkward and less loveable than English eccentricity; in fact, dangerous.” It gives me enormous pleasure to inaugurate my Bookslut column, which I have entitled The Bombshell (bomb-shell: a shattering or devastating act, event, etc.; a fair-haired person, esp. a woman, of startling vitality or physique. -OED), with Gordon’s bombshell of a book about one of literature’s greatest bombshells, who also happened to be a flaming redhead. “Dangerous” is hardly how I would have described the “Belle of Amherst.” “Demure,” “quaint,” “virtuous,” “retreating” come more readily to mind. The publication of Lives Like Loaded Guns (a title taken from the poem: “My Life has stood—a Loaded Gun”) blows apart the persistent myth of the meek, fragile spinster of odd rhymes. Gordon shows us that Dickinson was a rebel who defied convention, her poetry volcanic, her lines thunderbolts from Vulcan’s forge. At Mount Holyoke, Dickinson refused to declare herself a Christian. (“‘Faith’ is a fine invention/When Gentlemen can see—/But Microscopes are prudent/In an Emergency.”) At eighteen, she deplored housework assignments: “...so many wants–and me so very handy–and my time of so little account – and my writing so very needless.” She trumpeted gender issues: “Amputate my freckled Bosom!/Make me bearded like a man!” And though Emily fell in love several times, once seriously, she depicts marriage as “Born— Bridalled— Shrouded— /In a day— .” Dickinson’s confidence in her poetic ability was supreme: “It was given to me by the Gods—/When I was a little Girl—.” She knew her work placed her ahead of her time, made her prophetic. Indeed, Gordon points out how the lines: “Perception of an Object costs/Precise the Object’s loss— ” (1865), anticipate Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. A ferociously ambitious writer, Dickinson took great pains to ensure her work would one day reach the universal audience she knew it deserved. In selecting her friends she considered their worthiness as readers of her work -- in 1863 she sent 295 poems to her friends and family. Read the rest of the review here at Bookslut: http://www.bookslut.com/the_bombshell...

  16. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    To borrow some 19th Century phrasing, this book was not impassioned. Worse, this book reads like the writings of someone who has had a stroke: repeatedly, the author starts with a whisper of an idea, gains a bit of momentum, and then suddenly trails off again into a multitude of disparate thoughts, all as ephemeral as a spider's webbing There are many valuable scholarly contributions hidden within this maddening biography: for the first time, we see what truly went on behind the closed doors of t To borrow some 19th Century phrasing, this book was not impassioned. Worse, this book reads like the writings of someone who has had a stroke: repeatedly, the author starts with a whisper of an idea, gains a bit of momentum, and then suddenly trails off again into a multitude of disparate thoughts, all as ephemeral as a spider's webbing There are many valuable scholarly contributions hidden within this maddening biography: for the first time, we see what truly went on behind the closed doors of the Dickinson clan. "Clan" is indeed the operative word, for one cannot imagine any other family group more "shut into itself": secretive, ironically uncommunicative and taciturn, to the point of furtiveness. It is a fascinating entree into a bewitching world and a good biographer would have rendered a spellbinding offering. Instead, we chase shadows down obscured passageways, never arriving at anything solid -- not even a door to escape this madness. It occurred to me at one point that it was like the author was channelling the worst of the Dickinson "spirits" who, even beyond the grave, remain circumspect and guileful. Recommended only for those who want to challenge their own sanity.

  17. 4 out of 5

    BookSweetie

    Emily Dickinson's poetic genius is hardly in dispute, but for anyone with patience wanting to read a whole lot more detail about Dickinson's life and times, this might be the book for you. Its strength and weakness is that it is really two books in one. Much of this book leaves Emily herself lost in the background as the focus shifts to family and others -- and what happens once Emily is dead. Some of that story is fascinating in a soap opera style way and hovers around the poems Emily has left Emily Dickinson's poetic genius is hardly in dispute, but for anyone with patience wanting to read a whole lot more detail about Dickinson's life and times, this might be the book for you. Its strength and weakness is that it is really two books in one. Much of this book leaves Emily herself lost in the background as the focus shifts to family and others -- and what happens once Emily is dead. Some of that story is fascinating in a soap opera style way and hovers around the poems Emily has left behind on scraps of paper, in letters, and in carefully hand-sewn booklets. Sister Vinnie, brother Austin, Austin's wife Susan Gilbert, and the Todds, particularly the controversial Mabel, become entangled in emotionally charged long-term relationships filled with secrets and betrayals that move scandalously public in two legal battles.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sarai Walker

    This is one of the best biographies I've read. It reads like a thrilling novel. Lyndall Gordon is a master of the form. Now that I'm finished I miss being immersed in the world of Emily Dickinson's Amherst, despite the death, drama and back-stabbing. (Poor Emily!) This is one of the best biographies I've read. It reads like a thrilling novel. Lyndall Gordon is a master of the form. Now that I'm finished I miss being immersed in the world of Emily Dickinson's Amherst, despite the death, drama and back-stabbing. (Poor Emily!)

  19. 5 out of 5

    Laura Gembolis

    My favorite sentence: She enjoyed writing her love poems more than she enjoyed the man.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lou Last

    "...I should like to have you kill some [Irish boys] - there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans, and I can't think of a death that would be more after my mind than scientific destruction ... Won't you please state the name of the boy that turned the faintest, as I like to get such facts to set down in my journal ... I don't think deaths or murders can ever come amiss in a young woman's journal." ~ letter from Emily to brother Austin "What Emily's letters recall of their confiden "...I should like to have you kill some [Irish boys] - there are so many now, there is no room for the Americans, and I can't think of a death that would be more after my mind than scientific destruction ... Won't you please state the name of the boy that turned the faintest, as I like to get such facts to set down in my journal ... I don't think deaths or murders can ever come amiss in a young woman's journal." ~ letter from Emily to brother Austin "What Emily's letters recall of their confidences as they sat on the door stone was, in fact, stone: two young women of twenty-one left cold by gallantries. 'I guess I'm made with nothing but a hard heart of stone,' Emily had said, 'for it don't break any, and dear Susie - if mine is stony, yours is stone, upon stone, for you never yield ... Are we going to ossify always, say, Susie - how will it be?' In a lowered voice Emily had proposed a different dream, 'a big future waiting for me and you'. This is what the grasses growing at the corner of the door stone had heard, trusty grasses who would not tell. In April 1852 Emily sent Sue 'a sad and pensive grassie', not quite so glad and green as when they used to sit there. She imagined some spruce plantain leaf won its young heart away and then proved false. In her herbarium she had crossed a tall plantain leaf with a frail stalk of a flower, arranging the two to resemble a courting couple: the leaf upright and dominant; the flower bent. The flower's small triangular head is so pliant it's about to drop. It's like a nineteenth-century lady's head with flowerets on either side and furry filaments, exquisitely delicate." *

  21. 4 out of 5

    Sally

    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 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 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 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 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!

  22. 5 out of 5

    Steve

    This wonderful and absorbing book traces the origin of Emily Dickinson's eccentric poetic universe, the people who inspired it and brought it to a larger audience, and the changes in the way we define the poet in her milieu. It will disappoint those who only want a Dickinson bio or an examination of her poetry. However, her words and personality inhabit every page of this book. According to Gordon, we know a lot about the supposedly reclusive Dickinson because of her voluminous correspondence. Ho This wonderful and absorbing book traces the origin of Emily Dickinson's eccentric poetic universe, the people who inspired it and brought it to a larger audience, and the changes in the way we define the poet in her milieu. It will disappoint those who only want a Dickinson bio or an examination of her poetry. However, her words and personality inhabit every page of this book. According to Gordon, we know a lot about the supposedly reclusive Dickinson because of her voluminous correspondence. However, our conception of the poet's life and personality have changed over the decades with every new batch of letters and poems published, and the subsequent attempts to present her work as she initially composed it. The feuds among the people who curated Dickinson's legacy has caused a lot of distortion and misunderstanding of the poet's life and work, and Gordon does her best to steer a reasonable course through the minefield of myth and misrepresentation. If anyone comes out of this looking like a villain, it's the poet's brother Austin. While basically dismissive of Emily's talents, his mendacity and philandering created the divisions that would make the poet's posthumous publishing history such a mess of competition and confusion.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Linden

    After I saw the film about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, I decided to read about her life. This book did have some information about her, but was more focused on the scandalous affair her brother had with a much younger woman. After Emily's death, the focus is on lawsuits, scandals, bitter rivalries, jealousy, and animosity about who would edit Emily's work. It was surprising that despite the fact that both Mr. Dickinson senior and junior were well-respected attorneys, so many seemed to die After I saw the film about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, I decided to read about her life. This book did have some information about her, but was more focused on the scandalous affair her brother had with a much younger woman. After Emily's death, the focus is on lawsuits, scandals, bitter rivalries, jealousy, and animosity about who would edit Emily's work. It was surprising that despite the fact that both Mr. Dickinson senior and junior were well-respected attorneys, so many seemed to die intestate.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Laura C.

    After reading this book, by the scholarly Lyndall Gordon, who in her other life is a senior research fellow at St. Hilda’s college in Oxford, England, I realized I was still reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry like the Jr High kid I was when I was first introduced to her works. Ms Gordon gives us a much more complicated portrait of her than the one I had imagined of a shy recluse hidden away in frustration at the limitations of 19th century women. Most interesting to me is Gordon’s advocacy of epil After reading this book, by the scholarly Lyndall Gordon, who in her other life is a senior research fellow at St. Hilda’s college in Oxford, England, I realized I was still reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry like the Jr High kid I was when I was first introduced to her works. Ms Gordon gives us a much more complicated portrait of her than the one I had imagined of a shy recluse hidden away in frustration at the limitations of 19th century women. Most interesting to me is Gordon’s advocacy of epilepsy as the condition that both defined and confined Emily. Its burning visions and unpredictability, she postulates, were at the core of Emily’s brilliance. Confined as she was by her condition and the constraints of a woman’s life, family was everything to Emily. Her life long friendship with her sister-in- law Susan, was a tremendous influence for her. So loyal was she that when her brother began an adulterous affair with Mabel Todd in Emily’s kitchen that was to last the rest of her life, Emily refused to ever meet her. The book tells us about Emily Dickinson, but also about ownership of her legacy by the two completing sides of her family, Mabel Loomis, who was the first to put them into typewritten form, and Susan Dickinson who truly knew the poet and understood her enigmatic poetry better than anyone. On many levels this was a fascinating book. And may I just say once again, that human nature really hasn’t changed at all in 150 years. Get this book and read all about it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    This is a slow, slow book--so much detail to digest; apparently the author researched thoroughly. The digressions and asides along with the author's writing style make me rate the book lower. The book seems aimed at those studying Dickinson, not those who just want to know more about her. The most important development in the book is the author's suppositions that Dickinson's reclusiveness was not a personality quirk but rather a family attempt to hide her frequent seizures resulting from epilep This is a slow, slow book--so much detail to digest; apparently the author researched thoroughly. The digressions and asides along with the author's writing style make me rate the book lower. The book seems aimed at those studying Dickinson, not those who just want to know more about her. The most important development in the book is the author's suppositions that Dickinson's reclusiveness was not a personality quirk but rather a family attempt to hide her frequent seizures resulting from epilepsy and that the white dress was for sanitary reasons. Epilepsy also makes perfect sense for the various visits to specialists and their resulting treatments--rather than the eye problems that other biographers have assumed. Also, the book deals in detail with the affair between Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd and with the various strong personalities in Emily Dickinson's life, especially the attempts to discredit Sue and Lavinia's ambivalence. So much detail about the feuding over Dickinson's papers between Sue/Lavinia and Mabel and later Millicent and Mattie make the book tedious. (So it isn't suprising that it "killed" Millicent's husband.) This is not a biography of Dickinson but rather a detailed account of "her family's feuds." Just goes to show that dysfunctional families and family secrets & skeletons have been around a long, long time. After reading all of this, readers may think E. Dickinson the most level headed of the bunch.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Gayla Bassham

    An odd and not entirely successful book. There are really two books here: one a biography of Emily Dickinson, featuring a provocative thesis that she suffered from epilepsy; another an account of what happened to Dickinson's literary estate and legacy after her death, featuring the machinations of Mabel Loomis Todd. Gordon might have done better to pick one of those topics and expand it rather than try to fit both into the same book. As it is, both feel underdeveloped and in the second half, as An odd and not entirely successful book. There are really two books here: one a biography of Emily Dickinson, featuring a provocative thesis that she suffered from epilepsy; another an account of what happened to Dickinson's literary estate and legacy after her death, featuring the machinations of Mabel Loomis Todd. Gordon might have done better to pick one of those topics and expand it rather than try to fit both into the same book. As it is, both feel underdeveloped and in the second half, as the reader follows the life of Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter Millicent (who never met Emily Dickinson herself, mind), reading the book becomes something of a chore. For a really excellent one-volume biography of Emily Dickinson, try Alfred Habegger's My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. (There is of course also a two-volume biography of her, in which she is famously not born until the second volume. But Habegger is well-written, fascinating, and features less back-story.)

  27. 4 out of 5

    Jessie

    Lives Like Loaded Guns Essentially, what I am getting from this multi-person biography is that if you are a writer, publish your own works or else family members, and people who think they know you as a family member, will cause a stir, deface and change your work, and cost your family a lot of money. Focusing on the lives of the people around Emily Dickinson, primarily her brother, sister, sister in law and brother’s mistress, Lives Like Loaded Guns is like a non-fictional soap opera, complete wi Lives Like Loaded Guns Essentially, what I am getting from this multi-person biography is that if you are a writer, publish your own works or else family members, and people who think they know you as a family member, will cause a stir, deface and change your work, and cost your family a lot of money. Focusing on the lives of the people around Emily Dickinson, primarily her brother, sister, sister in law and brother’s mistress, Lives Like Loaded Guns is like a non-fictional soap opera, complete with bad acting. The author does tend to take a bias towards the sister in law, and the sister, rather than the mistress which is absolutely fantastic because the whole book would have been horrible and ruined if it sided with Mabel and her daughter. There are a lot of beautiful quotations in the book from Emily’s poems, which do seem to fit each occasion perfectly and are a delight to read. However, the family’s story is too frustrating for my tastes, especially because it’s so real and seems to go on and on. It’s hard to believe that people were that petty. I’d recommend this book to anyone who thinks that ‘old-fashioned’ family values are better than those today. 4/10.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Connie

    I managed to finish this because of interest in the subject. There was information and opinions about Emily Dickinson that I was not aware. A family that I really knew nothing of and a feud concerning her papers after death. I hope someday soon some one else decides to write this side of the story in something beside a flat monologue. If you are an fan of Emily Dickinson's life work, this book will be informative. Otherwise I would just read and enjoy her letters and poems. Leave this biography o I managed to finish this because of interest in the subject. There was information and opinions about Emily Dickinson that I was not aware. A family that I really knew nothing of and a feud concerning her papers after death. I hope someday soon some one else decides to write this side of the story in something beside a flat monologue. If you are an fan of Emily Dickinson's life work, this book will be informative. Otherwise I would just read and enjoy her letters and poems. Leave this biography on the shelf.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kallie

    This unusually well-researched and -written biography gave me so much about Emily Dickinson and her work. I knew from reading E's poetry that she was no posy-holding wallflower, but Gordon rounds Emily out, into a three-dimensional woman who is a passionate, wily, genius. The condition that allowed her privacy is also well evidenced, and explains a lot -- as do the descriptions of all other family members and characters. Gordon's interpretations of their behavior are based on analysis of documen This unusually well-researched and -written biography gave me so much about Emily Dickinson and her work. I knew from reading E's poetry that she was no posy-holding wallflower, but Gordon rounds Emily out, into a three-dimensional woman who is a passionate, wily, genius. The condition that allowed her privacy is also well evidenced, and explains a lot -- as do the descriptions of all other family members and characters. Gordon's interpretations of their behavior are based on analysis of documents (correspondence, court records, etc.) and very convincing. And it is fascinating to read how terribly far slander and distortion took people in their greed to 'own' Dickinson's writing. That some behaved in a destructive way seems impossible to forgive -- yet their behavior ensured that we would one day reap the literary benefit. I will definitely read Gordon's book about Charlotte Bronte. This is impressive work.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bookmarks Magazine

    Despite a host of books about Dickinson and her work, Lives Like Loaded Guns is full of surprises regarding the poet's life and influences. Although Gordon reaches for conclusions to some of the bigger questions--among them Dickinson's possible epilepsy, her love life, and the complicated relationship she had with her brother, Austin, his wife, and his mistress (who aspired to edit the poet's work)--the author's research into Dickinson's medical records and correspondence breathes fresh air into Despite a host of books about Dickinson and her work, Lives Like Loaded Guns is full of surprises regarding the poet's life and influences. Although Gordon reaches for conclusions to some of the bigger questions--among them Dickinson's possible epilepsy, her love life, and the complicated relationship she had with her brother, Austin, his wife, and his mistress (who aspired to edit the poet's work)--the author's research into Dickinson's medical records and correspondence breathes fresh air into otherwise settled literary history. In the end, no one disputes that Dickinson lived largely in a world of her own making. So much the better, Gordon ably points out, as it was a place where she could practice art "made at the interface of abandon and decorum." This is an excerpt from a review published in Bookmarks magazine.

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