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Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds

A-Lives Like Loaded GunsLyndall Gordon, a senior research fellow at Oxford, has written six biographies, including volumes on T. S. Eliot, Henry James, Charlotte Brontë, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Virginia Woolf, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography. Lives Like Loaded Guns takes on the life of poet Emily Dickinson.

The Topic: When Emily Dickinson died at the age of 56 in 1886, she had published fewer than a dozen poems, keeping the work--and her life--largely hidden from prying eyes. But the nearly 1,800 pieces she left behind have been the stuff of literary legend--and wild speculation--ever since. As interesting as the source of the poems are the details of Dickinson’s life in Amherst. A daughter of relative privilege, Dickinson’s hermitlike existence might have been the result of epilepsy, which ran in the family. And perhaps her hours weren’t as chaste as literature professors would lead us to believe. Dickinson was likely involved in at least one affair of the heart, and a long-running dispute with her brother’s mistress belied the family’s decorous façade and shaped the poet’s legacy for generations to come.
Viking. 512 pages. $32.95. ISBN: 9780670021932

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"A sensitive reader and a great admirer of Dickinson’s work, Gordon is skillful at harnessing the poet’s words in the service of her biography. ... It’s a strangely mesmerizing story, not least because of the gap it suggests between what was known to be true and what could be admitted in polite 19th-century society." Christina Thompson

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"[Gordon] shatters the Dickinson myth, revealing for the first time the twisted tale of how Dickinson came to be revered as ‘a harmless homebody shut off from life to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love.’ ... By showing how Emily Dickinson’s myth was carefully crafted to ensure that her disease was never mentioned and brother’s posthumous reputation remained unsullied, Gordon catches the poet’s essence, allowing us the closest, most thrilling insights yet into the volcanic genius of Amherst." Conan Putnam

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Ms. Gordon’s extensively researched account synthesizes a century of scholarship and adds a stunning revelation or two for those who think they already know the story. ... Lives Like Loaded Guns is a fascinating book on so many different levels." Sherri Hallgren

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Gordon] is fascinated both by the poet’s life and by the ripples created by her death--which grew to the size of vast waves. ... You wonder what this woman might have made of the lawyers and court trials and furor that continued for decades over her poems, found after her death locked in a cherrywood chest in her room." Moira Macdonald

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[The book] reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next. ... Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears." Jerome Charyn

Charlotte Observer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[An] impressively researched and yet highly speculative biography. By situating Dickinson among the politics of family and of literary history, Gordon brings a remarkable range of characters to life while doing justice to her subject’s inimitable nature and private concerns." Carl Rollyson

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[The author] seems willing to risk the wrath of those who, like John Updike, dismiss biographies as ‘novels with indexes,’ with informed speculation about the poet’s seclusion. While her guesses are several inches short of a slam dunk, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds will keep Dickinson devotees busy for decades." Glenn C. Altschuler

Critical Summary

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."