Monday, January 24, 2011

Lives Like Loaded Guns by Lyndall Gordon

Until I read this book, I knew virtually nothing about Emily Dickinson other than the fact that she was a reclusive, 19th century poet whose work was highly acclaimed. Now - thanks to Gordon - I know a lot more.

Like most biographers of long dead subjects - especially one so reclusive - there is much supposition and detective work involved in the biography. Curiosity aroused by the book led me to research Dickinson on Wikipedia where I found a very lengthy essay about her life and poetry. Much of it correlated with Gordon’s work, naming people & incidences familiar from the book.

Some salient facts: Emily Dickinson was plagued by unnamed periods of ill health throughout her life. Gordon makes a good case for epilepsy - which would have qualified as a reason for her mysterious withdrawal from society, especially if the seizures became more frequent. Her family largely recognized her genius early on and did not discourage her. I suppose poetry was deemed a satisfactory pursuit for a genteel Victorian lady.

It is about half way through the book, after Emily’s death, that things take a dramatic and quite lurid turn. It seems that the entire family 'took a viper to its bosom' in the lovely form of one Mable Loomis Todd, who proceeded to seduce the entire family with her charm and finally – literally – seduce Emily's brother. The feud between the brother’s wife and children and her brother and his mistress and her family was long and bitter and its effects proceeded well into the twentieth century. What is amazing is that Emily’s work survived. It had been parceled out into caches in the custody of the various warring factions - some of it unavailable until decades after her death. I would assume that only the hope of great financial rewards kept it from destruction. Most of the poems that did come to light were heavily edited to conform to prevailing notions of proper form and the poet’s intentions were circumvented till much later editions published from the original copies. This would have been a formidable project since the poet wrote her poems on any scraps of paper she happened to pick up. Only a few had any form of organization.

Gordon’s scholarly treatment and research are thorough but two things make it a bit of a dense ‘read’. In the early portions of the book, the author seemed to frequently lapse into language that would be used by educated mid-19th century women. Perhaps she experienced what I call the ‘Immersion Syndrome’. It may have been a total immersion in the era that inspired the author’s language, particularly since she often quotes lines from Dickinson's poems and letters. Toward the end of the book, the account of the machinations of the many various competing factions seeking control of Dickinson’s papers tends to become repetitious. Certainly, by its nature, it was complicated - many different groups and personalities were involved.

As an account of the manners and mores of the era and in its account of Emily Dickinson’s life, I found the book interesting and thought provoking and would recommend Lives Like Loaded Guns.