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Biography Speculates Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy

Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns explores the family secrets of the reclusive 19th-century poet. Gordon theorizes that Dickinson may have been epileptic, and describes the cult-generational family feud over the posthumous publication of the poet's work.


Other segments from the episode on July 6, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 6, 2010: Interview with Billy Collins; Interview with Lyndall Gordon.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
New Biography Claims Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In a new book about Emily Dickinson, Lyndall Gordon writes: Dickinson is
now recognized as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, yet her life
remains a mystery. Gordon tries to solve some of that mystery in her new
book, "Lives Like Loaded Guns," in which she speculates that Dickinson
had epilepsy.

The book is also about Dickinson's brother's long-term adulterous
affair, which led to a feud within the family that carried over into a
fight over Emily Dickinson's poems and her legacy after her death. We'll
hear from Lyndall Gordon later.

But first, we invited former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins to read
some Dickinson poems. He wrote the introduction to the Modern Library
collection of her poems. He's a distinguished professor of English at
Lehman College of the City University of New York. His latest collection
of poems is called "Ballistics."

Billy Collins, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'm going to ask you to start
by reading a favorite Emily Dickinson poem, and introduce it to us. Tell
us why you love this poem.

Mr. BILLY COLLINS (Former U.S. Poet Laureate; Distinguished Professor of
English, Lehman College, City University of New York): Well, the poem –
of course, she didn't have titles in her poems. I think she would think
titles are immodest. So she just jumps in at the beginning. So the first
line is "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass."

It's basically a poem about a snake and about our kind of fear of
snakes. She never uses the word snake or serpent, but she is talking
about literally a snake in the grass. But she wants to avoid all those
negative connotations.

And I must say, her poems read very well, but there's – the one thing
you miss when you hear an Emily Dickinson poem on some occasions is the
visual shock of seeing some of her words. And I think the very last line
of this poem contains one of those unexpected verbal surprises.

(Reading): A narrow fellow in the grass occasionally rides; You may have
met him - did you not, his notice sudden is, the grass divides as with a
comb, a spotted shaft is seen, and then it closes at your feet and opens
further on.

He likes a boggy acre, a floor too cool for corn. Yet when a child, and
barefoot, I more than once, at morn, have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
unbraiding in the sun, when, stooping to secure it, it wrinkled, and was

Several of nature's people I know, and they know me; I feel for them a
transport of cordiality; but never met this fellow, attended or alone,
without a tighter breathing, and zero at the bone.

GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned that last line, zero at the bone.

Mr. COLLINS: I just think it's – I mean, she's really - she's trying to
get at the idea of a shiver of fear, a frisson, you know, when you see a
snake. But the word zero actually seems to create a shiver in the
reader. It's a very unexpected and imaginative way to say that.

GROSS: Would you read another poem that you think really gets to what
makes her distinctive for her period and still important today?

Mr. COLLINS: Sure. I think one feature of her poems is a kind of
combination of a very cordial, polite tone. These poems are small,
they're well-dressed. They're nicely organized. They run according to
this lovely meter. But the content is often frightening.

And this poem is called "I Died for Beauty."

(Reading) I died for beauty but was scarce adjusted in the tomb when one
who died for truth was lain in an adjoining room. He questioned softly
why I failed. For beauty, I replied. And I for truth, - the two are one;
we brethren are, he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night, we talked between our rooms until the
moths had reached our lips, and covered up our names.

GROSS: What does that poem say to you?

Mr. COLLINS: Well, she's fascinated with – I mean, death is the subject
matter of poetry. I tell college students, if they're majoring in
English, they're basically majoring in death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: That's what you're getting for your tuition. But Emily
Dickinson is particularly fascinated with not just death but the
circumstances of death, the funerals and tombstones and graves. And she
often kind of domesticates the grave.

In one poem, she is kind of preparing the grave for a guest and as if to
serve tea. But here, you know, the poem is kind of conventional in the
beginning, you know, one person died for beauty, and another died for
truth. So you have the aesthetic quest for beauty and the kind of
philosophical quest for truth.

And then they agree, as they lie in adjoining rooms under the ground
that they're both the same. So there you just have the Keatsian
equivalent of, you know, beauty is truth, truth beauty.

But the last four lines are a shocker. I mean, she says she's – just the
way kinsmen might meet on a night, we talked between the rooms until the
moths had reached our lips and covered up our names.

So there, it ends with the grim realities of suffocation and oblivion
when the moths not only shuts them up by reaching their lips, but it
even covers up their names on the tombstones and obliterates their
earthly renown.

GROSS: Okay, I want to make a confession here. When I started reading
Emily Dickinson, it was at a time when modern poetry, for the most part,
was not rhyming but greeting cards were.

And so I kind of made the equation since modern poetry isn't rhyming,
and greeting cards are - and Emily Dickinson is rhyming, she's shallow,
and it's kind of like a greeting card. How arrogant that? But putting
that aside...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know, I was really kind of put off by the rhymes and
everything. So I want to ask you to talk about her rhymes and where you
think they fit in in American poetry.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, your reaction is understandable and probably not
uncommon. I mean, it was Whitman who was the – you know, he is the
second pillar that holds up 19th-century American poetry. And he was
really the first poet in English to abandon both end rhyme and regular

And for me and you, probably, reading poetry in school, he became more
popular because he was more of a radical in terms of form. And – but
Emily Dickinson seems rather tame because she uses this, pretty much the
same meter every time.

It's called common meter. It's a line of four beats that's followed by a
line of three beats. So a typical one would be: Because I could not stop
for death, he kindly stopped for me. And there's actually kind of a
pause at the end of the first line, a sort of silent fifth beat.

This is the meter of a lot of ballads. It's the meter of Protestant
hymns: Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
It's the rhythm of many nursery rhymes: Old King Cole was a merry old
soul, and a merry old soul was he.

So you have a very conventional cadence in most of these poems. It's
widely known that almost every one of her poems can be sung, whether you
like it or not, to the tune of "A Yellow Rose of Texas."

GROSS: I'm going to stop you right there. I read that in the
introduction that you wrote for the Modern Library edition of Emily
Dickinson poems, and that just kind of shattered me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: I know, I'm sorry.

GROSS: No, I mean, I grew up with that Mitch Miller(ph), that horrible
Mitch Miller recording of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and sadly, I'm
going to play that now so our listeners will hear...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I feel guilty doing this, but I'm going to do it anyway. So
here's Mitch Miller leading a sing-a-long for "The Yellow Rose of
Texas." Okay, bear with me.

(Soundbite of song, "The Yellow Rose of Texas")

Mr. MITCH MILLER and Unidentified Group: (Singing) There's a yellow rose
in Texas, that I am going to see. Nobody else could miss her, not half
as much as me. She cried so when I left her, it's like to broke my
heart, and if I ever find her, we never more will part.

GROSS: Now, that's exactly what you don't want going through your mind
when you read an Emily Dickinson poem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: Well, thanks a lot, Terry.

GROSS: I can't help myself.

Mr. COLLINS: Really helpful.

GROSS: And I can't help myself here asking you to now read a poem that
shows that meter but at the same time is so reflective and touching on
very extreme issues or states of mind.

Mr. COLLINS: I mean, this poem is not quite an extreme state of mind,
but it certainly, kind of in terms of conventional religious belief,
very radical, and we'll try to get – I'm trying to get Mitch Miller out
of my mind.

GROSS: You see. I'm sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah, thousands of your listeners will be walking around
all day with that song in their heads.

This is a poem which is quite radical in its abandonment or disdain for
conventional religious behavior on Sundays. She says the word surplice,
which is here spelled s-u-r-p-l-i-c-e, like a religious garment, not U-

(Reading) Some keep the Sabbath going to Church. I keep it, staying at
home with a bobolink for a chorister and an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice. I just wear my wings, and instead of
tolling the bell for church, our little Sexton - sings.

God preaches, a noted clergyman, and the sermon is never long, so
instead of getting to Heaven, at last, I'm going, all along!

Mr. COLLINS: And the poem ends with an exclamation point, as if she's
surprised herself with that ending.

GROSS: Billy, what does this poem say about Emily Dickinson's sense of

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's very radical. I mean, considering that she lived
in a small, New England, mid-19th-century town, it's a rejection of
traditional religious behavior and substituting that for the natural
surroundings of her backyard.

The bobolink is a songbird, and so it provides the music. The orchard is
her dome. So the trees replace the church. Instead of wearing a surplice
or a religious garment, she just wears wings. It's interesting that she
just invests herself with wings. And instead of the bell tolling for
church, she listens to the bird.

And then the declaration at the end is very radical, I think. Instead of
getting to heaven at last, I'm going all along.

GROSS: So what does it say to you that that poem and many of her poems
basically have the same meter, that basically she's singing the same
song with different lyrics each time she (unintelligible)...?

Mr. COLLINS: She does. She sings the same little song over and over
again, but we don't want her to change. You know, we want her to keep
singing that song.

Well, I think it creates a tension in the poem because there's the
familiarity of the song, you know, the reliable dependability of this
da-da-da-da-da-da-da-duh, da-da-da-da-da-duh. That just goes on and on.
But then there – within that, there are these counter-rhythms that are
created by, you know, her obsessive dashes and these sudden jumps of

GROSS: And talk about those obsessive dashes.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, you find these in her letters, too. I think she just
liked that form of punctuation. I mean, to me, there are dashes often
between a subject and a verb, you know, there are kind of interruptive
and strange dashes that don't seem to do anything more than just reveal
her love of the dash.

But then there are other dashes to me that are indications of a leap of
thought, you know, whereas a comma or a semicolon just doesn't get the
sudden transition that – as she's moving from one word to another. So
it's sort of zigzag type of logic.

So the tension in her poems is, I think – there's a feeling of
reliability about the meter, which is a common meter, there's a kind of
polite vocabulary that's going on, and then there's very radical,
audacious and daring content and a completely original use of language.

Her metaphors are quite amazing. And they often stop us in our tracks.
She did draw on so many areas of things like sailing and geography and
chemistry and the Bible to create what I call a kind of – I called in
this introduction a kind of New England surrealism.

I mean, just to give you a few examples, in her poems, the sun is all
dressed up in a satin vest, thought wears a hood, the Alps wear bonnets.
A book is called a frigate. Angels have hats made out of snow. The
bottom of the mind is lined with stones.

I mean, these are rather bedazzling, amazing metaphors, but they're all
packed into this little song she's singing, as you said, this little
song that she's singing over and over again.

GROSS: My guest is former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. We'll talk more
about Emily Dickinson and hear from the author of a new book about her
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. We're talking
about Emily Dickinson. He wrote the introduction to the Modern Library
edition of Dickinson poems.

There are many theories about why Emily Dickinson was reclusive, and
we're about to hear from the author of a new book about her who says
that she's found evidence that Dickinson may have been – may have been –
epileptic and that that would explain both her reclusiveness and some of
the images in her poetry.

And since you've studied and taught Emily Dickinson poems, I'm wondering
– I know you haven't read this book yet, but I'm wondering what you
think about the idea of, like, a new version of the story of her life
coming out, a new way of interpreting what we know of her life. Are you
open to that or do you want to just kind of accept her as you've known

Mr. COLLINS: Well, I prefer the poems to the life. We have to remember
that this kind of biographical curiosity would not exist if it were not
for the poems themselves. And I find that the poems are pulling us into
themselves and not directing us away into the life of the author. I find
the poems are magnets of attraction.

So there are many speculations about her, but I think the poems are
self-sufficient. And I really, I guess I grew up in an age where - of
literary criticism where biographical criticism was frowned upon as a
kind of, you know, area of something in addition to the poems.

I mean, I actually at one point, when there were so many books out about
speculating particularly on Emily Dickinson's sexuality, you know, was
she lesbian, was she celibate, did she have an affair, I was driven
actually by all of that curiosity and speculation to write a poem called
"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," in which I attempted, in a kind
of playful way, to put the matter at rest by having sex with her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: This was my approach.

GROSS: Would you read some of the poem for us? Maybe you can read an
excerpt of it.

Mr. COLLINS: Okay, well, it starts by – I start undressing her by
mentioning the garments that she was wearing when death took her in her
carriage. She says in that poem that only gossamer my gown, my tippet
only tulle. Taking off Emily Dickinson's Clothes:

(Reading) First, her tippet made of tulle, easily lifted off her
shoulders and laid on the back of a wooden chair. And her bonnet, the
bow undone with a light forward pull.

You will want to know she was standing by an open window in an upstairs
bedroom, motionless, a little wide-eyed, looking out at the orchard
below, the white dress puddled at her feet on the wide-board, hardwood

Later, I wrote in a notebook it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything, the way she closed her
eyes to the orchard, how her hair tumbled free of its pins, how there
were sudden dashes whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is it was terribly quiet in Amherst that Sabbath
morning, nothing but a carriage passing the house, a fly buzzing in a
windowpane. So I could plainly hear her inhale when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset.

And I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed, the way some
readers sigh when they realize that hope has feathers, that reason is a
plank, that life is a loaded gun that looks right at you with a yellow

GROSS: Yeah, and so many lines that you have in there are directly from
Emily Dickinson's own poems.

Mr. COLLINS: Right. I try to, you know, kind of make up for this, you
know, indecent act by ending with a sort of tribute to her, some of her
great lines. But this poem was not as, you know, universally popular, as
you can imagine. More than one female wrote a poem called "Taking Off
Billy Collins' Clothes," in which that was described as a disappointing

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's really funny.

Mr. COLLINS: Even unpleasant.

GROSS: Now, Billy, much as I like you, I'm going to disagree with you on
one thing. I am actually very interested in hearing more about her life.

Maybe it's because I'm an interviewer, and what I do is try to – in
speaking biographically to someone, understand what created their
sensibility. I'm interested in what created her sensibility to the
extent that we're capable of knowing that and understanding that.

So I guess I'm interested in what her new biographer has to say, though
I really respect your point of view that it's all in the work, that it's
the work, it's the poems that we need to know.

Mr. COLLINS: There are two – you don't have to have one or the other
position. I mean, I've read Richard Sewall's, you know, kind of then-
definitive two-volume biography. And Brenda Wineapple has a wonderful
book called "White Heat" about Dickinson's relationship with Thomas
Higginson. And I'm looking forward to reading this Lyndall Gordon book.

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. COLLINS: But I like the little poems. I mean, you know, the – I just
– one of the things I like about poetry is that the poets make – they're
like apparitional figures. The – her poems are so short, it's like she
appears, then she disappears and rather than, you know, a 300-, 400-page
biography, I love the fact of a poet just opening the door, saying
something and then disappearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COLLINS: Maybe it's the more bite-sized condition of the poems that
attracts me.

GROSS: Well, Billy Collins, it's always great to talk with you. Thank
you so much for talking with us about Emily Dickinson and reading some
of her poems.

Mr. COLLINS: Well, it's all my pleasure, Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Billy Collins served two terms as poet laureate of the U.S. He
wrote the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Dickinson poems.
His latest collection of poems is called "Ballistics." We'll talk with
the author of a new book about Dickinson in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
New Biography Claims Emily Dickinson Had Epilepsy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The time has come to dispel the myth of Emily Dickinson as a quaint and
helpless creature, disappointed in love, who gave up on life. So says my
guest Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book "Lives Like Loaded
Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

The title comes from a Dickinson poem with the line: My life had stood a
loaded gun. The book speculates that Dickinson had epilepsy, which might
explain her seclusion and some of the images in her poems.

The book also documents the family feud over the poet's brother's long-
term adulterous affair which divided the family, and after Emily
Dickinson's death, extended into a feud over her legacy and the
publication of her poems.

Lyndall Gordon is also the author of "Vindication: A Life of Mary
Wollstonecraft" and "Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life."

Lyndall Gordon, welcome to FRESH AIR. You introduce a lot of new
biographical information - certainly new to me, anyways - in your
biography of Emily Dickinson. So I'd like to start by asking you to read
a poem that has new meaning for you now that you've done all this

Ms. LYNDALL GORDON (Author): I'm going to read the poem that begins: I
tie my Hat - I crease my Shawl, because this is a poem that shows the
duality of Emily Dickinson's life. It may not come as a surprise to
listeners that she was a domestic woman, but she does, in this poem,
describe an alternative existence written with a capital E. And she
doesn't say exactly what that existence is, but there is a certain
amount of evidence that she suffered from epilepsy, and it would have -
makes sense, then, that she led a secluded life. I think that epilepsy
is a more sensible reason for seclusion than the usual idea that she
suffered from disappointed love. And so here is the poem.

(Reading) 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.

That's not the complete poem, but I wanted to stop there because the
last two lines - the couplet - breaks in upon this domestic existence,
and I think her punctuation is dramatically important. Every word in
that last couplet is pushed apart by dashes, as though there's something
beyond what she can actually express.

And although I don't want to be reductive, I think that her existence
is, first and foremost, obviously, the life of poetry. It is also the
secluded existence, the suffering existence, and in some way, an
exultant existence because her handicap - or whatever we want to call it
- was connected with her visionary life.

GROSS: Yes. I think there's been a lot of writing that epilepsy is
sometimes accompanied by visions.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. And I, myself, you know, don't know the
physiology of it, but I think that there is a change in the pathway of
the brain. Very little is understood as yet about the brain. I
understand from neurologists, scientists, that this is a century in
which a lot more about the brain will be known. But to go back to this
punctuation - the dashes that struck her contemporaries as ignorant and
impossible, and something that editors had to correct - actually gives
her writing a kind of spasmodic rhythm.

Spasmodic was used in a pejorative sense by her mentor, Thomas Wentworth
Higginson. When he first read her poems, he said they're too spasmodic
and they're too jerky. And in some way, we could connect them with
epilepsy. But I think that in our post-jazz age, we understand a kind of
syncopated rhythm. And also, I think that we're very sympathetic to what
can't be said.

GROSS: So getting back to the poem that you read, when Dickinson writes:
existence stopped, struck my ticking through, do you see that as a
reference to a seizure?

Ms. GORDON: All I can say is it could be. I think she's dispelling a
statement about a woman who has an alternative life. And it is located
in the life of mid-19th century women who struggled to do their duty,
but are struggling at the same time to control overwhelming emotions
because they were supposed to simply behave in a very decorous and
controlled way.

And one of the subjects Emily Dickinson is writing about again and again
is the fear of loss of control. In this very poem that I've been
reading, towards the end, she writes: But since we got a Bomb - And held
it in our Bosom - Nay - Hold it - it is calm.

There's that sense that 19th century women may have had that they were
suppressing their energies, their intelligence, their emotions in order
to be the model dutiful, you know, well-presented woman they were
supposed to be.

GROSS: And so the bomb could be like her poetry, her genius, her
expression. It might also be epileptic seizures waiting to emerge.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes. I think it's ambiguous.

GROSS: So in the course of your research, you came to believe that Emily
Dickinson had epilepsy. What are some of the most compelling medical
evidence that you found for that?

Ms. GORDON: Well, there are two forms of evidence. But I do want to
precede what I say by an acknowledgment that this is only a guess. It's
only a suggestion. I've put the evidence in one chapter out of 18
chapters. It's only an element in a book. And I think that the evidence
is quite compelling if we take into account the fact that there is a
genetic component to epilepsy, and there were two members of the family
in Emily Dickinson's lifetime who suffered from the illness.

The other bit of medical evidence has to do with drugstore records, the
way she was treated. The medications she took, they're ridiculous, but
they're consistent with what people were given in the 19th century to
judge from the medical tome(ph) of the doctor who treated Emily

GROSS: Now, you say during Dickinson's time it was considered shameful
to be a woman and have epilepsy. It was associated with hysteria,
masturbation, syphilis, impairment of the intellect, leading to
epileptic insanity. Women were expected not to get married if they had
epilepsy. There were some states that had laws forbidding women to marry
if they had epilepsy. So as part of your theory, you think that if she
indeed had epilepsy, that would easily explain her self seclusion.

Ms. GORDON: Absolutely. I'm not saying she definitely had it. I can't.
And because there is so much secrecy surrounding the condition - and I
think the secrecy went on as a common, well into the 20th century - I
think that we have no way of knowing for certain. But if it's true, it
would explain everything. If there was this stigma associated with
epilepsy, the best solution for her would've been to remain in what she
called my father's house. She continued to call her home my father's
house well after her father's death. And she was protected by her father
and her sister Lavinia.

She had a comfortable room. She had the time and space to write poetry.
If she'd married, she would've been having a baby nearly every year and
she would've had many more domestic duties. I mean, she hated it when
she came back from college in 1848 and she had to - it was assumed she
would do the same kind of domestic duties. And I think once the nature
of her condition was made clear, I would guess after she first consulted
a very eminent physician, Dr. Jackson, I think that her father indulged
her - rightly so - and allowed her to follow her - what would make her

GROSS: Would you read a poem that you now interpret as possibly being a
description of her epilepsy?

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Now, I must preface this by saying that she uses I. She
uses the confessional first person a lot in her poetry. And I think
one's got to be careful that, at times, what she herself told Mr.
Higginson that he mustn't trust her I, that she was playing dramatic
roles at times.

GROSS: Higginson was her literary mentor and editor.

Ms. GORDON: That's right. But I do think that there are certain poems,
and I'm going to read one, where she is talking in the first person
about her own experience.

(Reading) I felt a cleaving in my mind, as if my brain had split. I
tried to match it, seam by seam, but could not make them fit. The
thought behind, I strove to join unto the thought before. But sequence
raveled out of sound like balls upon the floor.

GROSS: That's really terrific, and you don't need to have epilepsy to
identify with the feelings that are stated there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GORDON: Yes. We might well all experience...

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. GORDON: ...that disconcerting feeling that we are not being as
ideally logical as we'd like to be. But I think that epileptics would
feel that sense of disorientation after an attack.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Lyndall Gordon, and she's
written a new book about Emily Dickinson called "Lives Like Loaded Guns:
Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about what
you've learned about Emily Dickinson and her life and her family.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon. We're talking about her new book
"Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

A good deal of your book is devoted to the split within Emily
Dickinson's family, when her brother - her married brother - fell in
love with a much younger woman and she became his mistress, and his wife
found out about it. His wife had been Emily Dickinson's - or at least
one of her most devoted readers.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: So, you know, the family took sides over whether they sided with
the mistress or with the wife. And then when Dickinson died, these two
women had a feud over Dickinson's legacy and her poems. These are
fascinating stories you tell. So let's start with the story of the
mistress, Mabel Todd...

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: ...who came to town with her husband, who was coming to Amherst
to teach astronomy.

Ms. GORDON: That's right.

GROSS: So how did she, at the age of 27, meet Austin Dickinson, who was
in his 50s?

Ms. GORDON: Well, yes. Austin Dickinson and his wife, Susan, were the
social leaders of the town. And Austin Dickinson was called the Squire.
He inherited the title from his father. And he was a man of grave
bearing and great aplomb, and nobody would have suspected looking at
him, as he strode, you know, through the town tapping his cane, that he
would ever fall into the folly of passion.

But what I would say is that behind every character - Austin Dickinson,
behind Mabel Loomis Todd, behind Susan Dickinson, the wife - there's a
lot of history behind each character, and it's very hard to convey this
quickly. But Austin Dickinson's marriage was not entirely happy. Susan
Dickinson was somebody who had suffered a terrible shock at the age of
20 when she - she was an orphan, and her most beloved sister, the one
who'd taken her mother's place, died just after childbirth.

Susan didn't want to marry. She was an intelligent woman who tried to
find other means of supporting herself so that she didn't have to marry,
but she was unable to do so. And Austin was the most eligible bachelor
in town. I may say, if you look at his picture, he is incredibly
handsome in a Byronic sort of way.

And Mabel Todd, too, had an abyss behind her in that she married a man
who was a secret philanderer, but she hoped her love would purify him.
And that was an innocent and rather sweet thought, but it didn't happen.
And he tugged her into acceptance. But as the years passed, she did want
fidelity. And she says in her journal that when she looked into Austin
Dickinson's blue eyes, she saw a man who would be forever faithful.

So it may seem strange that he fell into this adultery with Mabel Loomis
Todd, but he was, by nature, I think, a faithful man - but unhappy, as I
said, in a marriage that was probably sexually not compatible.

GROSS: Emily Dickinson had been very close with Susan, her sister-in-

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: And Susan was a devoted reader of Emily Dickinson.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: Emily Dickinson shared her poems with very few people.

Ms. GORDON: She sent 276 poems next door to Susan Dickinson. That was
more than twice the number she sent to anyone else. And she affirmed, in
letters, that Susan Dickinson was in the know. She said, you know. She
gave assent to Susan Dickinson as her preferred reader. And Susan
Dickinson was a bookish woman. I think she bought about two to 3,000
books in her lifetime. She was somebody who read the best, I mean, even
better books than Emily Dickinson herself in her youth.

She read the real classics, like the Brontes and Elizabeth Barrett
Browning and George Eliot - and she and Emily Dickinson were reading
together. So she's a terribly important person in Emily Dickinson's
life, and Emily Dickinson adored her. All we can be sure about is that
there was this huge bond between the two women and that Mabel Loomis
Todd didn't have that bond with Emily Dickinson.

GROSS: Mabel Todd, the mistress, ended up becoming a believer in Emily
Dickinson's poetry.

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: How did she find out about the poetry? How did she become so
confident that it was brilliant?

Ms. GORDON: Yes. Yes. Well, I think that very soon after Mabel Loomis
Todd arrived in town in 1881, the Dickinsons called on her, and then she
was visiting their house very often. Really, the truth is that Susan
Dickinson originally took her up as a reader, an accomplished woman.
Susan Dickinson wanted to mix with readers and accomplished people, and
Mabel Loomis Todd was accomplished not only as a reader and writer - she
published pieces in magazines - she also was a singer. She had trained
at the Boston Conservatory of Music. She sang in the church choir. She
sang solos. She could paint flowers to professional standard. So Susan
was bowled over by this young, accomplished woman who arrived in town
and longed to be friends.

It was Susan who I imagine showed Mabel Todd Emily Dickinson's poems.
And I think that Mabel Todd had the intelligence to see at once that
these were poems of genius. She had been also be influenced by Susan's
view that these were poems of genius.

GROSS: So we've been talking about how Emily Dickinson's brother had a
very long affair with a younger woman, although he remained married to
his wife Susan. And after Emily Dickinson died, Susan, the wife, and
Mabel Todd Loomis, the mistress, feuded over the editing and publication
of Emily Dickinson's poems and Emily Dickinson's legacy. How old was she
when she died?

Ms. GORDON: She was 55. She died early, and it was in May 1886.

GROSS: So how did Susan and Mabel start feuding about who had the rights
to those poems and how they should be published?

Ms. GORDON: Well, it would have seemed natural to everyone that Susan -
who had been Emily Dickinson's support as a poet and keenest reader -
should be the one to edit and publish the poems. And it must be said
that Susan tried immediately. After Emily Dickinson's death, she sent a
poem to the foremost New York editor of the day, Richard Watson Gilder,
the editor of Century Magazine. But, alas, he rejected Emily Dickinson's

Now we don't know what happened to Susan at that moment. There's no
evidence. But my guess is that there is Susan, an intelligent, bookish
woman in a provincial town who's never had anything to do with the
publishing world before. My guess is that Susan was very daunted by this
rejection. And she didn't do anything for a while.

And nine months after Emily Dickinson's death, Mabel Loomis Todd, who
was, as I said before, a professional. She was used to dealing with
magazine editors - tempted Lavinia by acquiring a typewriter and asking
Lavinia if she could type up say, three of Emily Dickinson's poems to
see what they looked like in print. And, of course, Lavinia was
absolutely delighted.

And it's possible to follow what Mabel did in her voluminous journals
and diaries. She kept both. So you can see that, you know, every few
days, she typed up a few of Emily Dickinson's poems. And she would leave
it for a while, and then she'd type some more.

And eventually, Lavinia decided that it was Mabel Todd who should edit
the poems. And Lavinia began to take over baskets full of Emily
Dickinson's manuscripts and dump them in front of the fire in Mabel
Todd's home. So, in the end, Mabel Todd had a huge cache of poems. And
this is where we have to admire Mabel Todd, for two or three years in
the late 1880s, she had the staying power and the conviction of Emily
Dickinson's genius to transcribe - and, in some cases, type up on a very
primitive typewriter - Emily Dickinson's oeuvre. And then later on, she
co-opted a man of letters, (unintelligible), Thomas Wentworth Higginson,
whose name carried prestige, and he became a coeditor with Mabel Todd.

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book "Lives
Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Lyndall Gordon, the author of the new book, "Lives
Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds." The origin of
the feud is the adulterous affair Dickinson's brother had with a married
woman. After Emily Dickinson's death, her brother's wife Susan and his
mistress Mabel Todd fought over how to publish Dickinson's poems.

So when Mabel Todd succeeds in getting Emily Dickinson's poems

Ms. GORDON: Yes.

GROSS: are they edited? Because you complain that, in some
volumes, her poetry is edited down. Some of those dramatic dashes that
give a really interesting rhythm to her work aren't there. So how are
those poems initially edited?

Ms. GORDON: Well, I wouldn't complain of Mabel Loomis Todd, because I
think, again, we have to see that in its historical context. She edited
the poems in the way that was normal in the 1890s. And that time, Emily
Dickinson's punctuation and her off-rhymes were seen to be peculiar, as
signs of ignorance, of incompetence.

I think Mr. Higginson did understand that Emily Dickinson had huge
talent. But he thought she didn't know how to set things out. And so we
might think in this day and age that the pair tampered with the poems in
rectifying some of their rhymes in putting in commas instead of dashes.
But I want to make it clear that Mabel Loomis Todd was very careful by
her own rights(ph). She was very careful with proofs. She insisted on
five sets of proofs, because the typesetters were correcting themselves,
and she didn't want the typesetters to make decisions.

She was as careful as she could be in her transcriptions. I think we've
got to be very grateful to Mabel Loomis Todd for dredging up this genius
at a time when she was unrecognized. And then, of course, after the
publication, there was huge public assent.

GROSS: In the feud over Emily Dickinson's legacy, what did each side of
the family want?

Ms. GORDON: Well, yes. Well, each side wanted not only the papers that
had been unpublished - there was still a vast amount of unpublished
papers, even though Mabel Todd, in part with Higginson, had brought up
four volumes in the 1890s - masses of papers remained. And each side -
each camp - wanted not only to own the papers and publish them, they
wanted to own Emily Dickinson - who was going to say who she was and
convey her legend to posterity. And each camp had promoted its own

What's interesting is that both images were excessively pathetic. They
played up pathos. So the Dickinson camp - that is in the second
generation carried on by Martha Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's niece -
presented a sentimental image of a pathetic Emily Dickinson in a dimity
apron who had been in love all her life with one master, one man, and
had gone into seclusion because she couldn't have him.

And on the Todd side, Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter Millicent, presented
also a pathetic image, but in this case, it was an image that continued
Mabel Todd's slander of the ousted wife Susan. And in this legend, Emily
Dickinson retires into seclusion because of an estrangement between her
and her, quote, "cruel sister-in-law." Therefore, Emily Dickinson quote,
"failed to publish."

GROSS: So in the mistress's version of the Emily Dickinson story, it's
Emily Dickinson sister-in-law, the mistress's rival, who is the bad guy.
She's the villain in the story.

Ms. GORDON: Yes. She's the villain.

GROSS: So where do you see your book fitting into the feud over Emily
Dickinson's legacy?

Ms. GORDON: Well, my book is, I think, an attempt not to take sides in
the feud, to see how the feud happened, to tell the whole story of the
feud, to see the case they were making most eloquently, but actually to
see that both camps were promoting legends and that we have to strip
those legends away. That's the attempt of the book, to strip the legends
away, so as to see a more volcanic, less pathetic Emily Dickinson.

GROSS: Lyndall Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. GORDON: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Lyndall Gordon is the author of the new book "Lives Like Loaded
Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds." She's a senior research
fellow at St. Hilda's College University of Oxford.

You can read an excerpt of her book on our website,,
where you can also download podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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