New secrets about Emily Dickinson in Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns. 

Reading between the lines.
June 28 2010 7:13 AM

Emily Dickinson's New Secret

Life in that Amherst house was more exciting than we knew.

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Even as she makes epilepsy a kind of key to Dickinson's mysteries, however—reading lines like "I seek the Dark/ Till I am thorough fit" as coded allusions to epileptic fits—Gordon is clearly uneasy with the very notion of using the poet's life to explain her work. Were the famous "Master Letters," in which Dickinson seems to address a lover, written to the newspaper editor Samuel Bowles, as has been speculated? Yes and no, Gordon replies: Bowles may have provided their occasion, but the letters are mainly rhetorical performances, "fertile imaginings of a potential situation that might have grown out of an initial situation we aren't meant to recover." Even when Dickinson sends Bowles an apparently erotic poem like "Two swimmers wrestled on the spar," Gordon deflects speculation: "to pursue biography is not what this poem asks us to do." True enough; but such interpretive austerity sounds odd in the context of what is, after all, a biography. It is as though Gordon—whose previous book was a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, a major "somebody"—felt slightly ashamed of her trade in the face of Dickinson's immense reserve.

The book shifts into a higher gear once Todd comes onto the scene. She is a biographer's dream, starting with the clandestine affair with Austin Dickinson, which bloomed into a ménage-a-trois involving David Todd (and, at least once, Gordon suggests, a ménage-a-quatre, with another woman taking part). This affair was not only devastating to the Dickinson family; as Gordon shows in the most innovative part of her book, it had major repercussions for the way future generations would understand Emily Dickinson's life and work. In particular, Gordon is writing to rehabilitate the reputation of Susan Gilbert Dickinson, Austin's wife and Mabel's hated rival. Sue was Emily's trusted reader and close friend: "I chose this single star/ From out the wide night's numbers—/ Sue—forevermore!" she wrote in a poem for her sister-in-law's 28th birthday. But after the poet's death, Mabel Todd convinced Lavinia Dickinson—Emily's sister and the heir to her manuscripts—to entrust the unpublished verse to her care. This was a boon for readers, who benefited from what Gordon calls Todd's "rigorous" and "scrupulous" editing of these eccentric texts—as well as her total faith in Dickinson's genius, in the face of skepticism from editors, one of whom rejected the manuscript with the opinion that Dickinson was "generally devoid of the true poetical qualities."

But Mabel Todd's editorial control also allowed her to obliterate Sue's friendship with Emily—sometimes by literally erasing her name from documents—and turn her into a villain for Dickinson biographers, a calculating woman who married into the socially superior Dickinson family and proceeded to make Austin's life a loveless misery. The enmity between Austin's wife and mistress even passed on, like a Biblical feud, to the next generation. As late as the 1930s, Gordon shows, Mabel's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, and Sue's daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, were publishing rival editions of Emily Dickinson's poems and slandering one another's treatment of her life. Martha's Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson created, more or less out of whole cloth, the legend of the poet's doomed love for the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, casting this alleged romance as the key to her aunt's seclusion: "Without stopping to look back, she fled to her own home for refuge—as a wild thing running," she wrote in typically purple prose. Gordon quotes the notes Millicent made in her copy of the book: "Bosh!", "ugh," "Oh yeah?" She got her own back with Ancestors' Brocades, a study in which she suggested that Dickinson's retirement was actually a way of escaping the malevolence of Sue. The all-too-human machinations of the poet's family and friends make for a good, gossipy story. But by the end of Gordon's book, we are more than ready to concede Dickinson's "public" legacy to the croaking frogs and seal ourselves up in the privacy of her poems, as she recommended:

Reverse cannot befall
That fine Prosperity
Whose Sources are interior—
As soon—Adversity

A Diamond—overtake
In far—Bolivian Ground
Misfortune hath no implement
Could mar it—if it found—

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Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic.