By Jerome Charyn
Sunday, July 25, 2010; B07
LIVES LIKE LOADED GUNS
Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
By Lyndall Gordon
Viking. 491 pp. $32.95
"Lives Like Loaded Guns," Lyndall Gordon's book about Emily Dickinson and the fury that surrounded the publication of her poems, reads like a fabulous detective story, replete with hidden treasure, diabolical adversaries and a curse from one generation to the next. Very few of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, and they might have remained closeted forever had it not been for the fevered devotion of her sister and Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother's mistress. There were others involved, too: her volcanic sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson; Susan's daughter; Mabel's daughter; and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of Dickinson's mentors.
Gordon is fair to all these players, revealing their strengths and liabilities, and she corrects some of the inconsistencies of earlier biographies. But she, too, has her biases. Emily's sister-in-law is much more of a victim here and much less of a voluptuous witch who could overpower women and men with one of her stares. And Gordon provides her own speculative key to Emily's self-imposed seclusion: She believes the old maid of Amherst was epileptic, and, as with a female Philoctetes, her "wound" was the real source of her poetic power. She could not have sung to us with so much fervor, Gordon suggests, without her own dark night of epilepsy. I wouldn't want to argue with Gordon. I just don't believe her.
But this is a small price to pay for the profounder truths of "Lives Like Loaded Guns." Gordon is the first critic I know of to understand the strange "twinning" of the poet and Mabel Todd, who was almost like a phantom sister in her attachment to Emily's persona. Mabel was fetching while Emily was plain as a mouse, but that didn't stop either of them from being operatic and great showoffs. As Gordon tells us: "Both were founts of eloquence; both felt like queens; both were strong-willed, controlling; and, above all, both were workers with terrific application. Both amassed vast archives with an eye to the future."
Mabel became the first real decipherer of Emily's poems, almost by accident. After Emily died in 1886, her sister, Lavinia, known as Vinnie, discovered a vast treasure of poems locked away in one of Emily's drawers, some sewn into booklets, some scratched at the bottom of recipes or on narrow strips of paper. This was Emily's secret "Snow." Vinnie was delirious, but she didn't know quite what to do. It seems that none of the Dickinsons -- mother, father, Vinnie or brother Austin -- understood the "Loaded Gun" of Emily's arrhythmic life and lines: her fierce privacy and the heartbreaking ellipses of her poems. Her father had likened Austin's college compositions to Shakespeare and wanted to have them published, but he didn't have a clue that his minuscule daughter in her velvet snood was one of the great "singers" of the 19th century. In fact, none of the men in her life had the least idea of what her poetry was about.
Emily may have "half-found, half-invented" Susan as a reader of her poems, as Gordon suggests, but Susan was still perceptive enough to understand their worth. And yet she stalled when Vinnie asked her to help see the poems into print. She may have had good reasons: her inconsolable grief over the death of her son, Gib, and the anger she felt at the Dickinson sisters for having succored Austin in his adulterous affair with Mabel. In any case, Vinnie turned to Mabel, who worked like a demon transcribing some of the treasure. And when Emily's editor friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson felt that her work was much too chaotic and unsmooth, Mabel sang the poems out loud so that Higginson could comprehend their melody. She was being "operatic" in the very best sense.
This first batch of poems that Mabel deciphered sold 11,000 copies within a year of its publication in 1890. But it opened up a hornet's nest in the town of Amherst. Susan felt betrayed and declared war against Vinnie and Mabel. Vinnie wavered, but soon she was also at war with Mabel, who seemed much too proprietary about the poems. It was a very destructive conflict because Susan, Vinnie and Mabel each had her own stash of Emily's poems that sat and sat, like secretive children, hidden from scholars and readers.
Soon Mabel's daughter, Millicent, with her sad eyes, and Susan's daughter, Martha, the smoldering belle of Amherst, joined the fray. This war between the two daughters is the most compelling portion of Gordon's book. Martha married a European swindler and confidence man named Count Bianchi, who brought her to ruin, while Millicent had a brutal love affair with another woman and later entered into a rather sexless marriage. Through all this, Martha and Millicent fired shots at each other while publishing new editions of Emily's letters and poems and mythologizing the poet as a pathetic creature who pined for love.
Alas, this is the image that remains with us, despite the fact that Emily's letters to Judge Otis Lord, a widower who had once been her father's best friend, reveal him as a man hot to marry his "Jumbo," as he liked to call Emily. Her letters spill over with a kind of teasing sexuality. But we also understand why the poet could never marry him. "In the haunted house of her imagination, a bridegroom would mount her stair at midnight," as Gordon reminds us. Lord could never be this midnight man; he couldn't live within the voluptuous dream of her poetry. No one could.
"Abyss has no biographer," Dickinson warned future readers. But Gordon is not frightened of the pits and traps and the thousand masks that Emily wears. She takes us into that undiscovered territory of the poet's favorite motif -- the dash. "Dickinson's dashes push the language apart to open up the space where we live without language." And it's into this void that Dickinson's very best readers have to go.
Jerome Charyn's most recent novel is "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson."