“We are a queer lot.”

At the height of the feud between his wife, sister Lavinia and his mistress, Austin Dickinson writes “This may all seem very queer to you, and it is. We are a queer lot.” This wasn’t merely a figure of speech.  The Dickinson family was indeed “a queer lot”. Thomas Wentworth Higginson referred to Emily, in particular, as “my partially cracked poetess in Amherst”.   These three siblings lived their lives on their own terms. And as a result created the kind of melodrama we expect to find in a daytime soap opera; not a small, 19th century New England town.

Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds expands standard biography by turning the spotlight away from the poet and onto those who promoted her literary reputation after her death.  And, in the process, furthered her legend.  Using letters, medical records, a judicious amount of poetic interpretation – Lyndall Gordon makes a case for an alternative version of Emily Dickinson to the “girl in white persona” (a calculated ruse perpetrated by Emily and continued by her family).  Gone is the virginal recluse. In her place is a middle-aged woman of strong passions and opinions. Who, as a girl, defied the founder of Mt. Holyoke by refusing to convert to fundamentalism; whose girlfriends stopped responding to her odd and frighteningly intense letters; who flaunted her flirtations with married men and in the last years of her life conducted a heated affair with the friend of her late father.

‘When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him,’ she said. ‘When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is “acquainted with Grief,” we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.

– Emily Dickinson on the death of Judge Lord

Gordon’s research has provided us with a new interpretation of the woman and her poems. The most intriguing theory perhaps is that while Emily inarguably embraced her seclusion, the actual reason behind it was epilepsy. Due to the shame associated with the disease it would have remained a carefully guarded family secret even after her death. Medical records and a family history seems to support this. Both Emily’s uncle and nephew were likely epileptics.

But why is this version of the poet so different from the one we learned about in school? Gordon explains that while the co-opting of Emily Dickinson began almost immediately upon her death, it had its roots in the events of the years leading up to it. In 1882 Emily’s brother Austin began an affair with a 26-year old faculty wife named Mabel Loomis Todd. It would continue until his death in 1895 with the knowledge and blessing of Mabel’s husband. For appearances sake the lovers’ trysts took place at the Dickinson sisters’ house, known as the Homestead. Next door at the Evergreens Austin’s wife and children were fully aware of what was happening, with no choice but to accept it.

The Dickinson family divided into two camps over the affair. Austin, Mabel, Mabel’s husband and Lavinia in one. Austin’s wife and children in the other. Emily, perhaps for the first time, is shown to have remained sympathetic with her sister-in-law Sue. And when Mabel grew more brazen, colluding with Austin to disinherit his children, Gordon believes that it was Emily who held the line in their defense. This feud determined what became of Emily’s poems and, subsequently, what we know about the poet.

Book Darts in action!

Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd never met in life.  But after Emily’s death Mabel staged a daring coup for control of the poet’s legacy. She fought with Sue and Lavinia over the poems. Who had the right to edit and publish them? Whose name should appear on the book? To whom did ownership of the work belong? This situation was more complicated than it seems. Emily left all her possessions, including the famous handmade booklets of poetry, to her sister Lavinia. But over the years Emily had sent Sue hundreds of poems and letters, which Lavinia spitefully kept Sue from publishing. Instead, Mabel was brought in by Lavinia to edit the poems for publication. Lavinia never reimbursed or credited Mabel for her efforts, which were considerable.  In a sense these women were fighting over who was the rightful heir to Emily’s spirit.

Written in an engaging, satisfyingly gossipy style, Lives Like Loaded Guns includes portraits of all the key figures in the mythos of Emily Dickinson. Gordon pays particular attention to Mabel, a controversial figure for obvious reasons. A woman whose passions and ambition rivaled Emily’s own, the simple fact that Mabel was born two decades later provided her with opportunities – as a New Women of the late 19th century – that the sheltered Dickinson women would never even have dreamt of.

Here is the unclassifiable phenomenon: not quite the femme fatale, not quite the gold-digger, and not so much the social climber as to leave her husband in order to cling exclusively to her ‘King’. The constant in her history, far back, is that ‘presentiment’ combined with contempt for the domestic destiny of lesser women. Mabel’s ambition, confirmed by an array of talents but starved of means, came nearest the bone.

Lyndall Gordon gives a remarkably fair and even-handed account of people and events.  The breadth of this book is impressive, continuing on after the deaths of Sue and Mabel to look at the impact of the feud on the next generation. Both Mattie Dickinson and Millicent Todd Bingham continued fighting over Mattie’s aunt, each publishing their own editions of the poems and furthering their own agendas along the way. It’s a bitter history Gordon has taken on, but she does it with grace and due diligence.

Biography is not for the timid.

Publisher:  Viking, New York (2010).
ISBN:  978 0 670 02193 2

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J. D. Salinger (1919-2010): Waiting for the Second Act

The death of an author can be a traumatic event to his (or her) readers, especially if the author was prolific.  John Updike is a good example of this. But J. D. Salinger was not John Updike. As far as his readers were concerned he’s been, practically speaking, dead to them (or more aptly, they were dead to him) since  Hapworth 16, 1924 appeared in the  June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. For close to half a century Salinger protected his privacy and work zealously.  No awards, no interviews, no biographies, films or sequels were permitted. The only access his readers were given was to the one novel and the three amazing short story collections – and in many ways that was enough.  For the obsessive there was always his uncollected works to seek out in magazine back issues and archives.  But there’s been nothing new, of any literary value, for 45 years.  With his death last week that all may be about to change.

A lot was said about Catcher in the Rye these last few days.  My personal infatuation with Salinger began with his short stories – all of which, in one way or another, deal with the Glass family.  The seven children of two retired Vaudeville performers (5 brothers and 2 sisters) are all above average in intelligence, physically attractive and unusually gifted. Seymour, the eldest, committed suicide at age 30 because (if we are to believe his brother Buddy’s version of events) he was too good for this world.  Buddy is Salinger’s alter ego, and the keeper of the family chronicle.  The remaining children:  Boo Boo (the “Tuckahoe homemaker”), Walt (the most cheerful), Waker (a priest, mentioned but never seen) , Zooey (“the blue-eyed Jewish-Irish Mohican scout who died in your arms at the roulette table at Monte Carlo”)  & Franny (the youngest)  were all schooled in Eastern mysticism, philosophy and religion at the knees of their two elder brothers.  If Holden Caulfield was someone I could relate to in my teenage years, reading about the Glass family guided me through my 20’s and helped me discover who I wanted to become.  I can’t really explain why, other than that they were smart and good and all spoke like actors in pre-code Hollywood films.

Not everyone felt the same way.  Salinger’s New York Times obituary has a wonderful quote from Updike (taken from his 1961 review of Franny & Zooey).

Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them. He loves them too exclusively. Their invention has become a hermitage for him. He loves them to the detriment of artistic moderation.

Updike considers this a flaw.  And therein lay the crux of Salinger’s problem with the critics.

I was able to read Hapworth 16, 1924 by painstakingly photocopying  it from microfilm at the NY Public Library.  Stupidly, a year later I lent my copy to someone I admired and it was never returned.   (There’s a karmic lesson in that I’m sure).  But what I remember is a letter home from camp by a very young Seymour Glass written in a very adult voice.  In it he predicts his own death.  And while it rambled on a bit, and didn’t sound very much like a 7-year old boy writing to his father,  it explained a good deal.  It also hinted at some tantalizing possibilities as to what Salinger had planned for the Glass-es.

The Glass family seems to have evolved into more of a spiritual quest for Salinger than anything else – now complete with a Christ figure and assorted martyrs, prophets, apostles and priests (a whole ecclesiastical cast, in fact).  He became too close to his material, emotionally exposing himself every time he published and making many of his readers uncomfortable because of it.   Focusing on spirituality is dangerous ground for any author to walk, doubly so for one who built his literary reputation with stories set on the Upper East Side of New York City and reviewed in  the New York Times and the NYRB.   And yet, with the Glass family, Salinger was shamelessly pushing religion and morality door-to-door like a Jehovah’s Witness.  It must have seemed so unsophisticated, so gauche, so anti-everything the Algonquin Round Table had stood for.  Salinger had broken some mid-century literary establishment taboo, and as a result the critics sprang on him like hyenas on a wounded wildebeest.

Janet Malcolm’s NYRB article from June, 2001 –  Justice to J. D. Salinger – discusses this critical backlash.  I won’t bore anyone with my own attempt.  But I wanted to mention the infamous 1996 incident where  Salinger gave a small publishing house  permission to put out a limited edition of Hapworth 16, 1924.  Typically, the news Salinger was going to have a “new” release caused a minor media frenzy.  (The Washington Post recently featured  an interesting article where the publisher explains what happened).  Critics scurried over to the New Yorker’s archives to write their reviews of the story prior to the book’s release – and what they wrote was not pretty.  Some of it was downright petty.  The reviews are online, if you want to look them up.  Suffice it to say that when it was over I wasn’t the least surprised that Salinger backed out of the deal  and withdrew once again to New Hampshire.

This intensely personal connection and protectiveness towards his work and characters leads me to believe the reports that Salinger continued writing without publishing, despite the lack of proof.  Whether or not what he has written is any good – well, that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it?  I’m fairly confident we’ll find out, regardless of whatever instructions were left.  And I’m grateful for it.  I don’t see it as a betrayal of the author’s wishes, or a situation like the recent Nabokov circus over The Original of Laura.  I’m not expecting half-finished manuscripts being passed off as novels. What Salinger left was not work he held back from publishing because he didn’t think it was good enough.  In his mind we were the parties lacking.

So I expect there will be good writing. There may also be some awful writing… and honestly, what if there is?  At the end of Franny and Zooey, Zooey tells his sister that because she came home “if you look at it a certain way, by rights you’re only entitled to the low-grade spiritual counsel we’re able to give you around here, and no more”.  He makes a good point.  Awful writing comes with the territory and, as always with Salinger, it’s ultimately subjective.  I, for one, have waited a long time to find out where he was headed after Hapworth.  At this point I’ll be happy with whatever I can get.

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The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

*Warning:  contains spoilers.

The Lost City of Z:  A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability.  He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.

See the resemblance?

In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”.  The party was never seen or heard from again.  Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened.  All failed (some disastrously).  The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination.  As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story.  Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof.  Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”.  Sightings were reported.  Psychics became involved.  As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:

According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.

Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker.  He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken.  Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of.  Think Survivor meets the History Channel.

It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape.  Grann was certainly equal to the task.  He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle.  Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.

First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise).   Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue.  Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover.  He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them.  He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him.  I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.

Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment.  Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old.  While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion:  Fawcett and party died in the jungle.  It’s a bit anticlimactic.  The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them.  Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.

Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question.  Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”.  David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested  in the direction of further reading on the subject.  Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing.  Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.

Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations.  Portions were interesting.  Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city.  Yet this is only a small part of the narrative.   In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles.  As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.

Did you see this? – A Nonfiction Marriage by Jonathan Van Meter, New York Magazine

The Slate Audio Book Club is one of my ipod vices (check out this older post if you’re interested in the rest of them).   Their July 16th Podcast was on Thy Neighbor’s Wife by Gay Talese.  It led me to THIS article in New York Magazine.

How the heck did I miss this book?!  Granted I was  working my way through Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski in 1981 when Thy Neighbor’s Wife was first published.  And the book is an in depth look at the 1970’s sexual revolution.  (Not something they offered in the Weekly Reader).  Still, I would have expected the controversy it created to have lasted well into my college years.  Talese used immersion journalism to do his research – working in a “happy ending” massage parlor, joining a nudist colony and participating in orgies – all with a wife & two children at home.   During the 10 years it took him to write the book  he was completely open about his research methods with both his wife and the press.  You have to admit that’s a pretty gutsy move, judgments aside.

Thy Neighbor’s Wife was re-published this past April, which means finding it shouldn’t be too hard.  Since it seems to have sold ridiculously well when it first came out a used copy shouldn’t be difficult to get your hands on either.  I recommend reading it (despite never having read it myself)  if only as a prologue to Talese’s next project.

He is currently at work on a book which will explore his 50 year marriage to  Nan A. Talese.  She is the legendary Random House editor and currently a Senior Vice President at Doubleday.  She is also, in my mind, the real hero of this story.  If Gay Talese is considered a radical because of his immersion into the sexual counter-culture while researching Thy Neighbor’s Wife, then how much more so is Nan Talese for staying with him through it?  Not only staying with him, but doing so while maintaining a successful career and seemingly without compromising how she chose to live her own life.  I can’t imagine a more fascinating couple.

There’s no word on the title, but this is  one book that I will be following the press on.  According to Talese’s website it is tentatively schedule to be released in the Fall, 2011.  Again, here is the link to the New York Magazine article:

A Nonfiction Marriage by Jonathan Van Meter

And please keep watching this space for my eventual review of Thy Neighbor’s Wife.