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  • Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
  • Martha Nell Smith (bio)
Gordon, Lyndall. Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. New York: Viking, 2010. $32.95.

Lyndall Gordon's splendid biography of Emily Dickinson, one that portrays a figure who "breathe[s]" (L260 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson), tells a story that includes a possible explanation for Dickinson's supposedly exceptional seclusion, for her not choosing the route most of her contemporaries took to wifehood and that so many women writers of the time took to public readings and lectures. Gordon's theory—that Dickinson was epileptic and that it was common for those so afflicted to decline to wed—is certainly plausible. But for this reviewer the conjecture about Dickinson's state of health is not the most exciting feature of this deftly written, highly readable, complex biography, which is movingly perspicacious regarding the human condition and all of the players in the immediate Dickinson family dramas. Although I find Gordon's biography wonderfully engaging, I would not give the reasons that the biographer gives for its being so:

Something in her life has so far remained sealed. The poems tease the reader about "it" and her almost overwhelming temptation to "tell". I want to open up the possibility of an unsentimental answer. If true, it would explain the conditions of her life: her seclusion and refusal to marry. Once we know what "it" is, it will be obvious why "it" was buried and why its lava jolts out from time to [End Page 107] time through the crater of her "buckled lips".

("A Bomb in Her Bosom: Emily Dickinson's Secret Life," The Guardian)

Gordon's explanation for the "it" that compelled Dickinson to control conventional public access to her person and her poems is really two-fold: there is her theory about epilepsy, which has gotten so much media attention, and then there is Gordon's perceptive and convincing depiction of an Emily Dickinson who is decided, willful, determined, strategic, and, as Adrienne Rich noted thirty-five years ago when she wrote "genius knows itself" in "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson" (1979), aware of her extraordinary talent and devoted to cultivating her poetic art.

Refreshing are Gordon's acute insights about Dickinson's performances throughout her life and her careful cultivation of a self-protecting persona: "Elements of the Dickinson legend appear" early in the 1850s in her letters. To Abiah Root, Dickinson writes, "I'm so old fashioned, Darling, that all your friends would stare" (L166). Gordon proceeds to highlight what is usually read right over: "In place of the tart young woman she was, Emily constructed this caricature complete with spectacles, work basket, and pussycat. Already, at twenty-three, she was rehearsing the part of retiring quaintness, beloved by posterity" (77). This controlled, self-conscious woman makes quite some contrast with the more desperate, tentative figure that still too often prevails, even after four decades of feminist criticism.

At its best, biography is the most humane art of writing, and Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns, the most literary Dickinson biography to date, is certainly that. Gordon's storytelling is literary not only because it attends to Dickinson's writing life, but also because it is rife with well-chosen allusions to novels, poems, and dramas that richly imbue the two overarching stories on which the narrative is framed. Gordon's is both a biography of the writer who worked at her eighteen-inch square writing table to produce three thousand or more poems, letters, and letter-poems, as well as a biography of the author, the poet constructed through editions, biographies, literary criticism, popular culture depictions, the imagined figure who haunts our reading. Since any biographer of Dickinson must contend not only with a life documented in remnants of tales told and hinted, facts documentable and "facts" declared, legends of heartbreak and near-pathological seclusion that long ago affixed themselves to the now iconic "Emily Dickinson," Gordon's decision to tell a story of the author as well as of the flesh-and-blood writer is monumentally important. By doing so, she...


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