from npr.org (Fresh Air; July 6, 2010)
A week after Emily Dickinson died in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia opened drawers in the reclusive poet's bedroom and found a veritable treasure trove: nearly 1,800 poems, meticulously crafted by Dickinson during her lifetime.
But the discovery of the poems set off a multi-generational family feud within the Dickinson family over the poet's posthumous publication and her legacy. Writer Lyndall Gordon, a senior research fellow at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, describes the fight between Dickinson's sister-in-law Susan, and Susan's husband's mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, in a new biography of Dickinson, Lives Like Loaded Guns.
"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," Gordon tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "[But] after Emily Dickinson's death, she sent a poem to the foremost New York editor of the day, Richard Watson Gilder ... [and] he rejected Emily Dickinson's poem."
Nine months later, Mabel Loomis Todd — the mistress of Emily Dickinson's brother Austin — took matters into her own hands. Every few days, she typed up several of Dickinson's poems and started to send them to publishers. And she was successful: Four years after Dickinson's death, the first volume of her poetry was published.
Todd heavily edited Dickinson's poems, Gordon says. It wasn't until 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson published the Complete Poems, that Dickinson's writings were published without alteration from the manuscript versions.
Gordon says that several of those unaltered poems offer clues about why Dickinson rarely left her home: She may have had epilepsy. Several of her poems touch on a handicap — and, Gordon says, certain lines within those poems indicate that Dickinson may have had spells.
"I think that we have no way of knowing for certain," Gordon says. "But if it's true, it would explain everything. If there was this stigma associated with epilepsy, the best solution for her would have been for her to remain in what she called 'my father's house.' ... She was protected by her father and by her sister Lavinia. She had a comfortable room. She had the time and space to write poetry. If she had married, she would have had babies every year and many more domestic duties."
Lyndall Gordon has previously written biographies of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Bronte and Mary Wollstonecraft.