". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, January 1, 2012

2011: Foxessa Read 11 Books

(+ many, many more, but these reflect the most significant theme of all my reading, the endless expressions of violence that is the history of us .... )

Gordon, Lyndall.  (2010) Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds. Viking. 

Emily Dickinson’s poem “My Life Had Stood – A Loaded Gun” can be found here. A short series of essays on the poem by various American poets can be found here.

This is an American tale of emotional violence and a desperate quest for upward social mobility, during which homes became battlefields of the heart, littered with casualties. The book’s apt title comes from Emily Dickinson’s poem, # 764:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day

and concludes:

For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die –

Gordon conveys the excitement with which women readers and writers of the day greeted the emergence of Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Dickinson’s letters describe how much she anticipated each new work by these women, as when she sought out Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Bronte immediately upon its publication. She requested that Emily Bronte’s poem, “No Coward Soul Be Mine” be read at her funeral, but she squarely agreed with Charlotte Bronte’s famous rejection of Jane Austen: “The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood . . .”

The book’s presentation of the cultural and social matrices that formed the characters of Dickinson and her community are impressive, as in her account of the effect of the second Great Awakening upon Dickinson: she would not be saved, though the pressure put on her to do so made her so ill she had to leave school. Dickinson was as reclusive as the Brontes and Browning, and Gordon carefully describes the homes, gardens, and landscapes of Dickinson’s Amherst, with details from primary sources and her poems. But Gordon’s somewhat sensationalist central subject is the affair between Emily Dickinson’s puritanical, patriarchal brother, Austin, and the gorgeous home wrecker, Mabel Loomis Todd. 

Austin and Emily’s grandfather had founded Amherst College, and like his father before him, Austin served in the powerful position of college treasurer. He married Emily’s best friend, whom she called ”my soul mate”: the cultivated, vivacious Susan Huntington Gilbert, a highly regarded hostess to a long list of accomplished, famous and important friends who helped make Amherst one of the centers of New England’s intellectual and academic life. Though Dickinson never showed the largest portion of her work to anybody, Susan was permitted to see many of her poems, and some were written about her.

Enter the antagonist. In contrast to the socially prominent, financially secure Dickinsons, the enchanting Mabel Loomis Todd grew up in poverty,  Her husband, David Peck Todd, was a morally careless adventurer-astronomer. A charming, conniving seducer and an early advocate of what was then called “free love,” he did well from his wife’s long affair with Austin, who obtained for him Amherst college positions at levels beyond his professional qualifications. The part of the book that tells this story is founded upon a great deal of speculation, the sort that makes for splendid historical fiction. However, for a non-fiction study, there’s so much “it could have been,” “it might be,” and “perhaps,” that a researcher would need to take care in using this work as a source.

The economic and emotional destruction of the affair between Austin and Mabel was carried down through at least three generations, and split literary and Amherst communities. At one point in her struggle to get Austin to acknowledge her publicly as his true life partner, Mabel Loomis Todd requested in a letter that he kill Susan. Fortunately, Austin was too dumb -- or too smart – to understand what she wrote, and never responded to the letter’s request, at least not in writing, or any other way, as far as we know. Mabel succeeded in pushing Susan out of Austin’s life, at the price of being socially outcast by the community she’d expected to lead through Austin. She never married Austin, who died in 1895; Susan outlived him.

However, Mabel made her fame and fortune from the poetry of Austin’s deceased sister Emily, claiming both poetry and poet. Although Mabel never met Dickinson, or  read any of Dickinson’s poems until after the poet’s death in 1886, she conned the greater number of Emily’s poems out of Austin and Emily’s sister Lavinia after Lavinia discovered them. Mabel never returned them, and, in a brilliant career move, went on to edit the poems (their first publication was in 1890), while constructing a persona for Emily as the White Dove of Amherst, which has plagued Dickinson’s image ever since, though Dickinson was no demure pigeon. It was the great era of the traveling lecturer, and Mabel toured, reading Dickinson’s poems while garbed in white, as “her” Emily supposedly read them to her. The grab of both poet and unpublished poems alienated Mabel's former ally, Austin and Emily’s sister Lavinia. Austin’s son hated her, and legally fought Mabel’s possession of the family land Austin had gifted Mabel’s husband.

Speaking as a reader who argues with books as she reads them, I wonder how much to trust Gordon’s understanding of Dickinson’s inner life. Oddly, she believes that Emily Dickinson had no interest in the subjects of slavery, abolition or the Civil War. But was there a person alive in the entire country who didn’t think about the Civil War, all the time, while it was going on? * Emily Dickinson was a politically informed adult. Her father was a congressman, and she lived in an intellectually active, abolitionist atmosphere at a time when the Civil War was devouring and mangling the young men of every town and family in New England. Not only is Dickinson’s work marked by its variety of images of, and addresses to, Death, she employed frequently the imagery of the same Civil War army weaponry illustrated in newspapers and publications of the day. 

Writers write what they know, and Emily Dickinson knew what the people around her felt, and she knew what she saw. For Dickinson, who lived in the years before, during, and after the Civil War, violence in all its forms was as familiar as the garden path between her house and Susan’s. 


* Other than Nathaniel Hawthorne, that is, who carried on a many-year sulk fest that everybody else wouldn't let him ignore it because they thought and talked and wrote about it all the time!
Here follows a short list of some of the other most interesting books I read this year. All of them are about America, violence and money too.

Lemay, J.A. Leo. (1991). The American Dream of Captain John Smith. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville and London.

Lukács, Georg. (1938 – 1962 -- 1983). The Historical Novel. University of Nebraska Press.

Remini, Robert V. (1977) Andrew Jackson Vol. I: The Course of American Empire 1767 – 1821. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. NY, and Johns Hopkins Paperbacks edition 1998.
                             (1981) Andrew Jackson Vol. 2: The Course of American Freedom 1822 – 1832. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. NY, and Johns Hopkins Paperbacks edition 1998.      
                              (1984) Andrew Jackson Vol 3: The Course of American Democracy, 1833-1845. Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. NY, and Johns Hopkins Paperbacks edition 1998.
*Note: These volumes are no longer in print and available only through dealers.

Simmon, Scott. (2003). The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Slotkin, Richard. (1973) Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600 – 1860. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown.
                           (1985) The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800 – 1890. Atheneum, New York.
                           (1992) Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier In Twentieth Century America. Atheneum, New York

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