Saturday, July 31, 2010

Explosive Inheritance

by Christopher Benfey

New York Times
July 30, 2010

The tale that Lyndall Gordon unveils in “Lives Like Loaded Guns” is so lurid, so fraught with forbidden passions, that readers may be disappointed to find that no actual gun goes off in this feverish account of the Dickinson family “feuds.” There are metaphorical guns galore, including Dickinson’s self-portrait as lethal wallflower: “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — / In Corners — till a Day / The Owner passed — identified — / And carried Me away.” Gordon, who has written highly regarded biographies of Charlotte Brontë, T. S. Eliot and Mary Wollstonecraft, detects two patterns of “explosive inheritance” in Dickinson, who happened to have a grandmother named Gunn: eruptions in the lives and in the poems.

Dickinson’s Amherst, as Gordon sees it, was built on Puritanical propriety, where the “elect” attended church and eccentricity was hidden. The Dickinsons were the “first family.” The poet’s grandfather was a founder of Amherst College; her father, Edward, and her older brother, Austin, both lawyers, served in turn as its treas­urer. Edward, elected to a term in Congress, showed off his marriageable daughters, Emily and Lavinia, on a tour of Washington. On their return, in 1855, he purchased the imposing brick Homestead on Main Street, and planned a showy residence next door for Austin’s family.


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