Searching for Emily: Biographer Lyndall Gordon has a new slant on Emily Dickinson

First aired on The Sunday Edition (01/23/11)

The first word of the first poem she ever wrote was "awake." Almost two centuries later, Emily Dickinson is still jolting us into consciousness.

The legendary recluse in white, who spent most of her life hidden from the world in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote poetry for 37 years and yet allowed only a handful of her poems to be published in her lifetime. It wasn't until the middle of the 20th century, decades after her death in 1886, that all 1,789 of them were gathered into one book and published in their original, unedited form.

Ever since her work first came to light, Dickinson has never suffered from a shortage of fans and admirers; she is now widely considered one of the United States' greatest poets. But this year, it seems, there is a virtual explosion of interest in the Belle of Amherst.

There are children's books in the works. The New York Botanical Garden recreated her flowerbeds (Dickinson was known to be a passionate gardener). And now a recent book with the gripping title Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds by biographer Lyndall Gordon has set the Dickinson world aflutter with a whole new interpretation of the poet's life and work.

According to Gordon, the myth of the shy, virginal woman in the white dress hidden away in a room in her father's house, writing poems on scraps of paper, is just too simplistic. The truth is much more complicated, and involved scandal, a family feud, a medical mystery and daring.

The Dickinson of this book is naughty — a fiercely passionate poetic pioneer with a withering wit and yearnings that, like a good poem, can lift the top of your head off.

Dickinson's avoidance of public life, Gordon hypothesizes, might have had a less romantic cause: epilepsy. At that time, there was a great stigma attached to the illness. Gordon points to a great deal of circumstantial evidence — prescription records, poetic themes and family history — to support her theory that the reclusive poet suffered from the disease. The safest and most practical way to deal with her condition would have been for Dickinson to simply remain at home.

The feud that lies at the centre of the book, however, has less to do with the particulars of Dickinson's life than it does with her death. Although she published little during her life, Dickinson quickly became famous after her death. A posthumous selection of her work was published four years later, in 1890, and it was followed by writings on her life by those close to her and the publication of letters and memorials. Family gossip and rivalry for her fortune helped create and perpetuate the myth we know today.

Two parties vied to control the poet's literary legacy: the Dickinson family and a woman named Mabel Loomis Todd. A beautiful and talented young faculty wife, Todd had a long affair with Emily's brother, Austin. She edited the first published collection of Dickinson's poetry.

Thus began a bitter feud that would be carried into the next generation by the daughters of both women. It is here, in the description of the two sides' crazed antics, that Lives like Loaded Guns truly sparkles. In fact, comments made to Gordon at a recent event in Amherst have led her to believe the feud might still be alive and well today.

Given that passion is so much a part of Dickinson's work, perhaps it's not surprising that those associated with her legacy feel so strongly about it.

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