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Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds Paperback – 7 Apr 2011
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Emily Dickinson is regarded as one of the greatest poets of all time, but she has come to us as an odd and helpless woman living a life of self imposed seclusion. Lyndall Gordon sees instead a volcanic character living on her own terms and with a steely confidence in her own talent; a woman whose family feuded over a hothouse of adultery and devastating betrayal and a woman who had her own secret. After her death the fight for possession of Emily and her poetry became the feud's focus. 'Lives Like Loaded Guns has cracked one of poetry's most enduring enigmas ...It rescues Dickinson from the image of the passive, heart-broken recluse. It is a worthy monument to a poet even more extraordinary than we realised' Olivia Cole, Financial Times From the acclaimed biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft, T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf and Henry James.
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The book goes on in great details about the two feuding factions of family and friends who battled for years over the ownership and copyright of Emily's impressive body of work. Some readers might be tempted to pass on that but I think it is worth staying with it, if nothing else but for the contrast offered by the pure voice of the poet, compared with the conduct of the contemporaries who survived her and their descendants, who for all their love and admiration of Emily Dickinson and her work, their personal talents and dedication, managed to behave in less than inspiring ways!
Some twenty years before her death, Emily Dickinson wrote:
Publication — is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man —
Poverty — be justifying
For so foul a thing
How vindicated she would have felt in her low opinion of the published state had she seen the vultures fighting over her heart's breath.
namely the American poet, Emily Dickinson. Much of the book is to do with the lives of friends,
family and others rather than the personal and inner life of the poet.
We already know that she was a reclusive person in many ways, and found solace in her writing,
but the biographer appears to be satisfied with her own theories about Emily and her life.
Worth reading for some background information into the world of Emily Dickinson but the book
is very elusive about the poet herself, I learned no more by reading this book than I could have
done from feeling the 'stillness' at Amherst museum.
Perhaps we should just let her poems speak for her.?
From time to time one has the suspicion that the author hangs far too heavy a weight on too slender a thread. This trend is most tedious when it is the result of some critical theory or `analysis' that Gordon indulges on a text or phrase in letter or verse, or some extrapolation of a detail of an event that seems to be wrested out of its natural place or significance.
She seems not to care that her biases for or against various protagonists are wholly undisguised and laboured almost to the point of monotony.
The book's peculiar thesis, its `revelation' - that Emily's reclusiveness was due to `illness' and the illness was epilepsy - is, despite the author's insistence, wholly unconvincing. One wonders why literary critics so often do not listen to the words of the writers they target!
None of the evidence presented for this notion seems to stand up. For example, the idea that Emily absconded in order not to reveal herself as an epileptic or in an epileptic seizure to her visitors does not fit the facts: the fact that she would share the company of visitors when she felt like doing so and the fact that if she did not feel like doing so she would not. If she didn't like the look of a caller she would stay away. If the caller was one whose company she enjoyed she would quickly put herself in their presence.
Again, the idea that the entire family conspired to conceal the nature of the `illness' seems to fit uneasily with the `revelation' Gordon makes that Emily actually records the condition by name and nature as `fitting' (in poem number 1317). But there seems no reason to believe that this poem tells us any more about Emily's `illness' than poem 121, 307, 1540 or any of the numerous other poems in which this little word appears. This is a particularly exasperating instance of the author's imaginative `exegesis' of texts.
Poem 1317 (the one that refers to `fitting') seems to anticipate an expected and hitherto unknown experience. The idea presented is strongly suggestive of an expectation of news of the death of a friend, long feared, now come; the expectation of such news (the poem seems to suggest) maybe harder to endure than the news itself; the choice of terms and capitalization in the last stanza would be typical of the way ED would refer to death: `The Trying on the Utmost/The Morning it is New...'. In these circumstances `a Dismay' and `a Despair' are `Fitting' responses, but the expectation that `it is Due' may be `harder' to endure that the actual occurrence of the event: the `knowing it is Here'. This poem was written in 1874, the year her father died (on the morning of June 16). Its horizon does not fit the circumstances of her father's death but its subject may. (Compare the obvious death theme in poems 1314 and 1315.)
In this connection - of Emily's suggested 'epilepsy' - Gordon makes much of glycerine. It appears that there in no evidence to suppose glycerine had ever been considered an active ingredient in any medicinal treatment for epilepsy. The very idea seems bizarre! The use of glycerine in a medical concoction was and is, almost without exception, is to act as a carrier or vehicle for the active ingredient/s. Be that as it may; conclusively, Emily herself regarded her glycerine-containing medication as a sovereign remedy for a cough!
Emily Dickinson's reclusiveness was her freedom - 'The soul selects her own society/then shuts the door'.
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