Ardor and the Abyss

From The Nation:

Emily “This is the only drama in Dickinson's life that's not of her making,” says Lyndall Gordon in Lives Like Loaded Guns, her account not only of the life but of the afterlife of Emily Dickinson, an afterlife that continues to be shaped to this day by the internecine warfare within her immediate family, their progeny and their associates. The writer of the thank-you notes is Dickinson, infamous recluse, the author of some 1,775 poems, almost all of which remained unpublished until after her death. The adulterers are Austin Dickinson, her brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, who first laid eyes on Dickinson only when she was lying in her coffin but who became the first editor of Dickinson's poems. Austin's spurned wife is Susan Gilbert Dickinson, with whom Dickinson shared 276 of her poems, including many of her greatest.

“With the exception of Shakespeare,” wrote Dickinson to Sue, “you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.” Sue would eventually publish some of the poems in her possession, and her daughter Mattie would continue until her death in 1943 to exert her mother's right to do so. Until her death in 1968, Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter Millicent would exert her mother's right to do the same thing, a right that was perhaps unintentionally bequeathed to her by Dickinson's sister, Vinnie, who asked Mabel to transcribe the hundreds of poems found in Dickinson's bedroom after her death. Lies, vendettas and lawsuits proliferated: a drama of marital infidelity was played out over the dead poet's manuscripts with an intricacy that Henry James could not have imagined. The last major player in this drama, Mary Hampson (the wife of Mattie's companion, Alfred Leete Hampson), died in 1988. Until the end, she lived in the house that Dickinson's father built for Austin and Sue, the Evergreens, and the house has remained basically unchanged since the poet's lifetime. Dickinson last entered the Evergreens on the night of October 4, 1883, when she came to sit beside her dying nephew, Gib. Today, Gib's rocking horse still stands in a shroud of dust beside his bed.

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