Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds
By Lyndall Gordon
Hardcover, 512 pages
List price: $32.95
There was no paving on the Dickinsons' side of Main Street. Townsfolk had to walk farther off on the other side of the road. A hemlock hedge, planted in the sixties, linked the two houses and protected their privacy. Behind the hedge, and invisible to curious eyes, was a home-trod path between The Evergreens and Austin's sisters next door in 'the paternal mansion'. Cross this path and enter the Homestead, an older house built of brown brick in the handsome Federal style. Climb its well-swept stairs and along the top landing turn right into a bright room with four windows. The front two look out across hedge and street at the snowy sweep of the Dickinson meadow and the Pelham hills in the distance. The side windows look at The Evergreens. Here is another, and sicker, invalid who has lain in her bed since October. Her hair flames against the pillow, for though she is fifty-four there's no sign of grey. This is Emily Dickinson, reclusive, unknown to the reading public in 1885 but soon to burst into fame as a poet. She expects fame and more: nothing less than immortality, and sometimes she can't sleep at night for thinking of immortality. 'Exterior — to Time — ', she shuns intruders. Shutting her door on distractions, for thirty years she has honed her genius in the privacy of this room:
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing—
At her low Gate—
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Opon her Mat —
I've known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
Who is the One with her? Another poem, addressed to 'Sue' (Susan next door) and signed 'Emily', confides the answer in no uncertain terms. A divine 'Guest' keeps her company. She wants no other:
The Soul that hath a Guest
Doth seldom go abroad —
Diviner Crowd at Home —
Obliterate the need —
Against the wall stands a locked cherrywood chest, two of its drawers packed with forty handmade booklets into which she has copied many of her earlier poems, together with a huge assortment of loose manuscripts, a lifetime's unpublished oeuvre. Here is her secret 'Fortune'. Nearby is a small cherrywood table where she writes poems and letters. This year, though increasingly weak, she will write often to Susan Dickinson, her long-time neighbour and friend of her youth, the woman who had married her brother. Their attachment lies behind their lives, deep and not quite fathomed.
To another correspondent, the poet conceals her condition. 'I do not know the Names of Sicknesses', she waves the question away, but the present ill was said to be different from a recurring illness since her youth.
Emily Dickinson is now recognised as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, yet her life remains a mystery. She continues to be encased in claims put out by opposed camps fighting for possession of her greatness. These camps originated in the clash between Austin Dickinson and his wife, who had been the poet's intimate and her keenest reader. Out of this clash a lasting feud developed, and it was the opponents in this feud, their allies and warring descendants, who devised the image of the poet as her fame grew and endured. What began as a split over adultery turned into a feud over who was to own the poet: in the first instance, who was to have the right to publish her works; in the second, whose legend would imprint itself on the public mind.
A fixed image has separated Emily Dickinson from family dissension, setting her apart to make art alone like the Lady of Shalott. Yet given her compassion for those in distress and the closeness of her attachment to members of family caught up in the feud — her brother, her sister Lavinia (who sided with Austin), and the fraught children of Austin's marriage (who sided with Sue) — it simply cannot be so. Austin and Emily both had an eruptive vein, which Emily channelled into poetry. Her letters show that she cultivated adulterous emotions, if only in fantasy, for a married 'Master'. Did this affect her response to her brother's active adultery? And how did the ensuing feud strike the poet, who died at the height of its impact on her family? She did live long enough to know that what had happened could not heal.
To approach Emily Dickinson through the feud, to search out why it happened and to follow its consequences to the present day, is one of many possible stories. A feud, at least, is verifiable. People who knew the poet, then their daughters, heirs, and followers, did fire at one another, and went on firing when positioned to do so. But what is the link, if any, with a poet who said, twenty years before the feud began, 'My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — '?
There are other explosions, if we turn our eyes from her tame visible life, flitting about the Homestead, or kneeling on a blanket outside while she tended her plants, or sending timely notes, flowers and goodies to friends and neighbours. What she termed 'Existence' was something else. Of that there are only hints and guesses. An unseen but decisive event, a 'bolt' or 'Bomb' that she had to 'Hold' and 'calm', vetoed a life she might have led outside her home, while it opened up the secret life she devised as a poet. There is the velocity of letters aimed at correspondents she marked out for her own, a gunman's 'yellow eye' narrowing at the target. There is the explosive image-cluster in her poetry: the earthquakes, the rumbling volcanoes, Vesuvius, Etna and the poet's voice like lava, coming in spurts through the 'buckled lips' of a crater.
'Abyss has no biographer —', Emily Dickinson said. Truth is bottomless, and she herself almost invisible. After her death, letters from correspondents were burnt according to her instructions and soon legend replaced living fact. The public learnt to revere a harmless homebody who shut off from life to suffer and contemplate a disappointment in love. Who, then, is there if we pare away the sentimental story that sees the poet through one or other man in her life, or the counter-story that cuts out men in favour of sister-love? Only the poet herself can tell.
Excerpt from Lives Like Loaded Guns Copyright Lyndall Gordon 2010. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.