Before the advent of computers, or even typewriters, writing was a hand affair. Some of America’s best writers wrote their masterpieces long hand using pencil. John Steinbeck particularly favored the pencil. He started every day by sharpening 24 new pencils. When he wrote East of Eden (oh, I do recommend it if you’ve never read it), he used 300 pencils.
Why this reverie on pencils? Well, writing and more specifically writing words. Words words words. I just finished reading a marvelous new literary biography: Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns. The subject is Emily Dickinson, who had her own way with words. Gordon has a dual thesis—first, she posits quite convincingly that Emily suffered from epilepsy, and that the disease may have accounted for her success as a poet. In part, the disease fueled some of the content of her poems, both in subject matter and style. A poem such as “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” which is sometimes interpreted as a description of madness makes much more sense if you understand it as a foreboding of the effects of a seizure. As for style, Gordon points out how Emily’s unorthodox use of words and punctuation can be a verbal representation of a seizure like state. Read a poem such as “After great pain a formal feeling comes” and think epilepsy. The closing line “First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –“ sounds so like the onset of a seizure.
Not only do the poems shed light on the prospect of Emily’s awareness of her illness, but also the details of her life line up in support. Gordon most convincingly traces the historical record of visits to physicians and medications prescribed for Emily. She slowly withdrew from the world, narrowing her circle of contacts. That is not to say that she did not carry on lively correspondence with various friends. But, if you accept that she suffered from epilepsy, for which at the time there was no effective treatment to forestall seizures, her withdrawal makes absolute sense. She would have isolated herself to avoid the stigma that accompanied having a seizure in public.
Gordon points out that Emily’s father in his effort to help his daughter exempted her from most household chores, which freed her to write poetry. She may have been counseled not to marry—which also freed her. Read this little poem—and see how its meaning dovetails nicely with Emily’s awareness that her illness freed her.
A Death blow is a Life blow to Some
Who till they died, did not alive become —
Who had they lived, had died but when
They died, Vitality begun
Second, Gordon chronicles the adulterous affair between Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an Amherst professor. Emily Dickinson’s grandfather had built a homestead on Main Street in Amherst. There, Emily’s family—her parents and her brother Austin and sister Lavinia—lived. When Austin married, he and his wife Susan had moved into a house (called the Evergreens) built immediately next door to the Homestead. When Austin began his affair, some 27 years into his marriage, he and Mabel would meet at the Homestead. By then, the senior Dickinson parents were dead, and the Homestead belonged to Emily and Lavinia.
Imagine, sometimes up to three times a week for several hours at a time, the house being taken over by the lovers. They used a room downstairs, the dining room, as their place of assignation. Emily presumably stayed upstairs, writing poetry. No wonder her “life stood like a loaded gun.” Gordon credibly writes that the stress of this untenable situation may have hastened Emily’s death.
The stress of the affair may have killed or at the least hastened Emily’s death, and it also led to a multi-generation feud over who was the heir to Emily’s writings. Sue, Austin’s estranged wife who had been Emily’s dear friend, and Mabel, the mistress, each thought themselves the true beneficiaries of Emily’s life work. Their feud then was passed on to the next generation with Sue’s daughter and Mabel’s daughter each claiming the right to Emily’s words.
WORDS. Wondrous that we have pencils that write them. Wondrous that we have a poet such as Emily who flexed them to her use. And wondrous that we have a biographer such as Gordon to ferret out the details of a complicated life and record that life in words.
photo of Emily Dickinson:
Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dickinson, taken circa 1848. (Original is scratched.) From the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection and Family Papers, Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut.