The Task At Hand
22 July 2016
Alfred Habegger, Amazon, Austin Dickinson, biography, Brenda Wineapple, Chuck Palahniuk, creative space, Days of Our Lives, Emily Dickinson, Epilepsy, Fight Club, Freedom, GoodReads, Hammond Typewriter, Kate, Lewis Carroll, Literature, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, Lyndall Gordon, Mabel Loomis Todd, Muppet Treasure Island, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, Negative Reviews, Nicole, On Writing, Sammy, Stephen King, The Jungle, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Upton Sinclair, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson
One of my co-workers, who sees far more in me that I do, asked honestly “Jim-Jam,” that’s what she calls me, “Is there any book you don’t love?” I didn’t hesitate to hand her my copy of A Separate Peace by John Knowles before then wrenching Gordon’s biography out of one of my other fellow co-worker’s hands and simply saying, “This travesty.” For the record she laughed, most likely because I withhold distaste for those who truly deserve it, but also because people tend to think I’m cute or ridiculous when I’m exasperated.
I try, to the best of my ability to avoid negative reviews. Writing them I mean. The reason for this is complex and the reader doesn’t honestly give three shits about my personal motivations as a writer, but simply put, I know of few actions in life that reek of such petty cowardice.
Now before the reader believes that I am describing reviews that calmly and eloquently demonstrate the flaws in a work of art in order to understand why the artist or writer has failed or missed or simply not done all that they should have, nothing could be further from the truth. Healthy criticism is necessary and vital for artists as well as the reading public because critics can, when they do their job right, sway the discourse about artworks and whether or not they are relevant to the zeitgeist, that’s a fancy way of saying reading an Amazon review can be the difference between buying Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, and passing on it for Muppet Treasure Island (for the record Tim Curry is the best part of that whole fucking film). Many of the choices of books I have made have relied upon the reviews in a newspaper or website, and in many ways my work writing these essays serves the same purpose.
On an entirely unrelated matter you should totally read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. It’s fun for the whole family!
It is the cheap reviews, the reviews that are fun to read and write because they are catty and make you say “ouch” aloud as you continue through the stream of ad hominem attacks that I despise the most. You can find many reviews like this, either in the one star reviews on Goodreads or Amazon, or else the comment section of forums discussing recent releases of comics or films based around them. The Negative Review, as I have experienced it, is a piss-poor representation of the work because the writer is obviously plagued by some personal beef that hinders appreciation for the work.
It’s this last point that makes me hesitant to write this review because as I said before, negative reviews seem cowardly. It’s easy to criticize someone when you’re just a voice or a floating head on the internet, it’s quite another act entirely to commit that criticism face to face. On another level a person who has written a book and gotten it published has achieved more than I have, at least that this point in my life, and so criticizing a book harshly feels like a true act of cowardice and bitter spite. If I don’t write a review for a novel, short story, essay, poem, play, film, etc., it is either because I haven’t gotten around to it or else because I do not believe it is worth my time to bother writing about how wretched it is.
Lyndall Gordon’s biography Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds, has earned my distaste and so I temporarily break my rule of silence in the face of mediocrity because this book stands so far as one of the worst books I have ever read.
The principle reason for this distaste is that the book passes itself off as a biography of Dickinson, when in fact the books spends, at most five or six chapters centered on the life of Dickinson, while the remainder of the book focuses on the characters of Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson and his mistress Mabel Loomis Todd, taking time away from the poet to discuss their love affair, at times in graphic detail. In one passage she describes the first actual consummation between Mabel and Austin:
Austin might not have contemplated adultery, had it not been for Gib’s death. Shattered, his spirit close to death, he came to see physical love as a comfort when home was comfortless. His wife had withdrawn into grief. This blanked-out figure in black did not appear to him a woman he has once loved; she had become something bound up with death, against whom he had to pit himself if he were to live.
So, on the evening of 13 December 1883 Austin, aged fifty-four (the same age as Mabel’s father), and Mabel, aged Twenty-seven, met in the dining room at the other house; they shut the door; and in front of the fire they fell on a black horsehair sofa. Emily, Vinnie, and the servant Maggie kept out of the way until the lovers opened the door and left. (192).
Now that I have spent some time reading Emily Dickinson, her entire body of poetry actually, as well as reading about her life, I fully understand why this affair must be discussed. Dickinson lived within a domestic sphere, particularly her father’s house, and this interaction, which would continue for some time within the house in which she wrote and lived, would affect her work profoundly. The artist’s space is an important one, and the sanctity of that space reveals the artist’s dedication to their craft especially for writers who require particular attention to their craft.
Stephen King in his book On Writing, a book that is mandatory for anyone wanting and aspiring to become a writer, offers a beautiful and concise view of this “room” in which the writer writes:
The space can be humble (probably should be, as I think I have already suggested), and it really needs only one thing: a door which you are willing to shut. The closed door is your way of telling the world and yourself that you mean business; you have made a serious commitment to write and intend to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. (155).
If it were Gordon’s intent to demonstrate how this violation of the writer’s space was her actual goal then I might spare judgement when looking at the inclusion of this passage. The conflict is that this scene establishes much of the later portion of the book which becomes one long salacious* scandal after the other to the point that a book that is supposed to contribute knowledge to the larger field of Dickinson scholarship becomes a nasty “who-said-what-and-who-did-what-to-whom” affair leaving the poet a largely forgotten or broken woman whose work is fought over for the next three generations.
A small passage later in the book perfectly sums up the entire ethos of Gordon’s effort:
Whicher was Mabel Todd’s man: he treats her deferentially, with careful acknowledgment of what she’d achieved. The feud is never mentioned but his cover declares his allegiance, stamped with the same painting of Indian Pipes as Todd has used on her covers for the Dickinson volumes of the 1890s. (362).
Mabel Todd, following Emily Dickinson’s death, became the woman responsible for typing up and arranging the earliest editions of her poems. For this she should be commended. Looking back at this quote however the reader should recognize that Gordon reveals her intent. Dickinson as a woman does begin the text, however by the end of the book the artist has been left behind so that Gordon can explore the long messy affair that was the copyright lawsuit, the libel trial against Mabel Todd, the defamation of character that took place between the descendants of the Todds and Dickinson’s, and ending finally when all of Dickinson’s papers, letters, and poems were given to Harvard University for study but not after yet another nasty public and legal clusterfuck. The phrase “Mabel Todd’s Man” reduces the content of the book to some kind of revolting melodrama in which case the reader has to pick sides on this awful affair, or else gawk from afar watching rich people acting nasty to each other.
The reader may ask, what is the problem with that? People enjoy watching that all the time, and aren’t you the current President of the Days of our Lives Fan Club?
For the record I’m not going to dignify that second answer with a response…except to say that Nicole and Kate are totally not the bitches everyone says she they are and everyone needs to get off their back, being a rich white woman is hard, or so television tells me. You’re either being stalked, attacked, brainwashed by that fat tub of ass Stefano, and don’t even get me started on Sammy and…ahem. Excuse me.
The problem with this attitude is that Dickinson becomes attached to a long salacious scandal, and readers that encounter Gordon’s book will be forever after be plagued by the impression she offers rather than the work Dickinson produced. The greatest conflict I have with Gordon is not that she wrote a book about the nasty legal affair surrounding Dickinson’s poetry, it’s that the book poses itself off as a biography of her life, when clearly the creative and intellectual effort went into learning about the squabbles that took place after she died. Had the publishers and Gordon just followed that route the book may not be such a nightmare.
This debacle comes to head in the chapter ‘Snarl in the Brain,’ which remains one of the most controversial claims of the book. If you don’t believe me read a few of the reviews of the book and you’ll observe both casual readers, Dickinson fanatics, and Dickinson scholars all have either crufied Gordon for this chapter, or else argued she has a real insight. The reader may ask immediately, what’s so controversial about it?
Gordon has argued, using examples from her poems and letters that Dickinson may have suffered from epilepsy:
Collectively, in her poems, there’s a history of mechanism breaking down, a body dropping, in one of her clock poems, when the ticking stops. It ‘will not stir for Doctors’. In ‘A Clock stopped’ it’s a clock with miniature figures who appear on the hour. The figures dangle, hunched in pain, like puppets bowing. Not the clock on the mantel, Dickinson says, pressing her point: it’s the body that seizes up. (115).
This is Gordon’s way of introducing the topic of epilepsy. She goes on to say
If this, at least in part, is what was secret, the conditions of Dickinson’s life make sense: sickness is a more sensible reason for seclusion than disappointed love. A seizure can happen with little warning: about a minute. Too short time to take cover. This is why those who keep the condition secret would fear to go out, even to join callers in the parlor. During the annual summer Commencement, when Mr. Dickinson, as college Treasurer, entertained visitors at home, Emily would emerge, walk swiftly through the crowd and disappear. What seemed eccentric was simply dread. Marriage for epileptics was discouraged and some American states prohibited it by law. She saw herself ‘by birth a Bachelor.’ (117).
There is a difference between analyzing a poem and analyzing a woman who wrote poetry. Gordon speculates in this passage, and while speculation is sometimes all you can do when writing about the life of Dickinson, Gordon pushes a little too far. Epilepsy as a neurological disorder is too complex an ailment to subscribe to Dickinson just by reading a few of her poems. Yes Dickinson wrote about damaged bodies, but that does not indicate a problem with her brain. Artists are able, through their creative voice, to discuss, describe, and muse on a wide variety of topics, and the breakdown of the body is not novel to poetry at large. Let me put it this way, Lewis Carrol wrote about broken clocks, talking birds, a cat that could slowly vanish, and a Queen who ruled over a deck of cards society. That doesn’t mean Carroll actually encountered these characters, it just means that Carroll had a great LSD guy. If you don’t like that metaphor consider it from another angle Chuck Palahniuk wrote about testicular cancer and mental illness in Fight Club but he suffered from neither. Artists imagine and gravitate to imagery that captures their emotional spectrum which in turn fuels creation.
Gordon’s argument is not only ill founded it’s poorly organized and at its core becomes insidious. It’s irresponsible to attach such a medical condition to a person without any knowledge of their medical records, and since scholars have none to work with, putting this interpretation into print is heinous to Dickinson as an author.
Gordon’s book seems one long travesty after another as she abandons opportunity to discuss individuals such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man who exerted a real influence over Emily as a woman and as a poet, in favor of describing Mabel Loomis Todd’s attempt to sway Emily to her favor. These regular negations are coupled with piss-poor organization, ill-founded assumptions about Dickinson’s personality and motivations, extended interactions between people situated to further the melodrama and scandal, and finally a last-ditch effort to leave the reader with a fascination with Emily Dickinson as a lasting American poet. If it’s not clear at this point, Gordon’s book is, for the most part as waste of effort and time.
As I said at the start of this essay however, I detest writing purely negative reviews, for even polished turds hold specs of gold here and there. Here is Gordon’s:
In 1888 she retrieved the manuscripts she had placed in The Evergreens and turned them over to Mabel Todd, who proceeded to transcribe hundreds of poems. Mabel worked at first on the borrowed Hammond typewriter, then on a more primitive ‘World’ machine that cost her $15. She had to turn to a pointer manually to each letter, and then stamp the letter (capitals only) on to a paper through an inked rubber sheet. It was laborious, exhausting. (253).
It would be a mistake to say that Gordon had no relevance in the discourse of Emily Dickinson, for her book does demonstrate the complicated affair that led to contemporary reader’s ability to actually read her poems. The background behind the long messy affair that led to her poems publication is a topic worthy of discussion. The conflict becomes when the person leading the discussion is more concerned with the pissy-fits than the woman who stood above them trying to create something that would outlast the people screaming around her.
I was aware of the existence of the word “Salacious” before I took the Dickinson course, but I neer employed it as a term until this year. The reason for this is that my professor regularly employed it as a means of criticizing Gordon and her particular pronunciation began to get stuck in my head. The only way to describe it is phonetically. Suh-Lay-shus. It flows off of the tongue like honey and when she found out I had gotten it stuck in my head she even called me out in one of her lectures. It remains one of my great personal victories.
Perhaps the most bothersome aspect of the book is not even Gordon’s work but the reviews that abound the cover of the work. The Chicago Tribune is printed saying:
“Brilliant literary detective work…Gordon catches the poet’s essence, allowing us the closest, most thrilling insights yet into the volcanic genius of Amherst.”
The Washington Post prints:
“Lives Like Loaded Guns…reads like a fabulous detective story…[Gordon] takes us into undiscovered territory.”
And finally Marion Meade writes:
“With the artistry of a master storyteller Lyndall Gordon parts the curtains on the Garbo of Amherst to lay bare an explosive drama of genius, adultery deceit, and secret sickness as theatrical as Peyton Place…Biography at its most thrilling.”
What troubles me about these advertisements is not just that there are long passages omitted from them, but the embedded rhetoric that Gordon has written a brilliantly constructed biography that digs through the private life of a wonderful poet uncovering a long list of scandals and debacles. The reviewers come across as ravenous dogs hungry to eat up the scandal that surrounded Dickinson and praise Gordon for digging through the trash rather that doing right by the poet and writing about her life and work. I recognize that melodrama sells and that is the reality of the book market, but what does it say of the mass audience that they praise authors who are willing to write about at length about flaws, while a truly interesting life and brilliant body of work is left smeared?
***Writer’s FINAL Note***
I truly hope this is my last negative review for this was exhausting and left me entirely dissatisfied. If the reader is genuinely interested about learning about Emily Dickinson’s life they should try White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple or else My Wars Are Laid Away in Books by Alfred Habegger. These books promise a real look at Dickinson’s life and the relevance of that life to her work.