Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (book #106)

Lyndall Gordon, 2010.

Author’s website.

This for me was one of the books one lives in – barely able to think of anything else until I finished it, Ancient Marinering people about it. It’s not just Gordon’s retelling of Dickinson’s life, though there are insights and subtleties in that, but the story of the battle to claim Dickinson, the way it takes over lives, including some pretty remote from Dickinson herself (her niece’s husband’s second wife; her editor’s daughter’s husband). Literary battles as life-changing, even possibly literally deadly in some cases.

There’s an article by Gordon here in wch she talks about her theory that Dickinson had epilepsy and also about the feud. The epilepsy theory is seductive given the language of some of the poems, as Gordon describes – the spasms and fits in thought. I was surprised Gordon didn’t mention non-epileptic seizures, though of course at the time there could not have been a distinction between epilepsy and NES.

There’s a decent review here.

For such a powerful book there’s very little I want to quote specifically. I liked this quotation from Alice James’s diary: “I suppose one has a greater sense of intellectual degradation after an interview with a doctor than from any human experience”.

I’m surprised I can’t find online Helen Hunt Jackson’s anti-suffrage article from 1870, “Good-by, Leather Stockings!”.

I like this exchange:

When Higginson came face to face with Dickinson for the second and last time, in 1873, he asked her how she coped with lack of occupation, day by day within the same walls. She was astonished and gave him to understand that such a question had never occurred to her. Thuogh by then Higginson had corresponded with her for 12 years and read a good many of her poems, he was unaware that her inward life was so active, and her attention to events of nature so constantm that she felt no lack of occupation. She gardened, kept a flourishing conservatory, made the household bread since her father preferred hers and, then too, she added rather dreamily, ‘people must have puddings … ‘.

Because the internet is a wonderful thing, here is a picture of a crocheted shawl belonging to Dickinson that may have been the one she wore when she met Higginson:

Emily Dickinson crocheted shawl

This is from the Harvard archive and the catalogue entry reads

Shawl or cape; blue/green crochet with tasseled drawstring at neck; well worn at back. Probably Louisa Norcross; circa 1860. Wool yarn; front edge length 56 cm., neck edge length 39 cm., lower edge length 190 cm.
This is possibly the cape referred to in a letter from Emily to Louise and Frances Norcross, dated mid-September 1860, beginning “Bravo, Loo, the cape is a beauty . . .”.
This shawl came in an envelope with a note in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s hand reading: “Emily’s crocheted cape made by her cousin Loo Norcross. Probably worn when she met Col Higginson.” The note likely refers to Emily Dickinson’s first meeting with Thomas Wentworth Higginson in August of 1870. In a letter written to his wife following his visit, Higginson described Emily as wearing “a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue net worsted shawl.”

On the subject of shawls, here’s Dickinson’s poem 443:

I tie my Hat—I crease my Shawl—
Life’s little duties do—precisely—
As the very least
Were infinite—to me—

I put new Blossoms in the Glass—
And throw the old—away—
I push a petal from my gown
That anchored there—I weigh
The time ’twill be till six o’clock
I have so much to do—
And yet—Existence—some way back—
Stopped—struck—my tickling—through—
We cannot put Ourself away
As a completed Man
Or Woman—When the Errand’s done
We came to Flesh—upon—
There may be—Miles on Miles of Nought—
Of Action—sicker far—
To simulate—is stinging work—
To cover what we are
From Science—and from Surgery—
Too Telescopic Eyes
To bear on us unshaded—
For their—sake—not for Ours—
Twould start them—
We—could tremble—
But since we got a Bomb—
And held it in our Bosom—
Nay—Hold it—it is calm—

Therefore—we do life’s labor—
Though life’s Reward—be done—
With scrupulous exactness—
To hold our Senses—on—

And another poem below – I hadn’t come across this one, wch Gordon reads as a response to the recently published Goblin Market. The introduction here is from this article.

The prose portion of the letter explains the impetus for her correspondence: she wrote to wish Bowles well as he recovered from an illness. Writing on behalf of her sister Lavinia, her sister-in-law Susan, and herself, Dickinson reminds Bowles of a time in the previous year when they had all been together and then, in the final prose paragraph that breaks into verse, offers him religious and natural metaphoric gifts:

We pray for your new health – the prayer that goes not down – when they shut the church – We offer you our cups – stintless – as to the Bee – the Lily, her new Liquors-

Would you like Summer? Taste of our’s –
Spices? Buy, here!
Ill! We have Berries, for the parching!
Weary! Furloughs of Down!
Perplexed! Estates of Violet – Trouble ne’er looked on!
Captive! We bring Reprieve of Roses!
Fainting! Flasks of Air!
Even for Death – a Fairy Medicine –
But, which is it – Sir?


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