Dona Munker: Writing a Biography

      ~ Writing a Biography ~
      About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life

WHAT I'M READING NOW: Lyndall Gordon's "Lives Like Loaded Guns"

July 1, 2011

Tags: Lyndall Gordon

Emily Dickinson (Amherst College Library)

        Just as my husband and I are about to go on vacation--a trip to Istanbul in honor of a Big Birthday--I've become caught up in Lyndall Gordon's Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. My justification is that Sara Bard Field, who belonged to the generation after Dickinson (she was born in 1882) found her poetic voice only after she began reading Dickinson as an adult.

        Gordon's book explores a family scandal (adultery! in New England! in Amherst!) and how it led to generations of literary warfare that profoundly influenced the public's image of Emily Dickinson. Gordon, a biographer who likes to take an experimental approach to her subjects, uses her research in her latest book to plumb the inner life of this most enigmatic of American poets. She doesn't shy from interpreting the facts she uncovers her own way, either, even when doing so means sticking her neck out and disagreeing with what other people consider indisputable. As a constitutional coward, I feel that this is something I ought to emulate.

        Finally, Gordon is a terrific storyteller. Her book is so engrossing that I'm going to take it with me. Thirteen hours in an airplane with Emily--whose personality was, let's face it, more than slightly weird. But I have to find out what appealed to Sara. My husand is in charge of the maps, the restaurants, and the itinerary, and I'm responsible for the dervishes and the belly dancers. The whole thing seems a bit schizoid. But it's Amherst or bust.

        The disciple of a famous sculptor came upon his master carving an elephant from a huge, shapeless chunk of stone. "Master," cried the disciple, "What splendor! What realism! What insight! How do you do it?" "Simple," replied the sculptor. "You just cut away everything that isn't elephant."

        Stalking the Elephant is a blog about creating an elephant from a chunk of stone, a.k.a. writing a biography.

        It's also about the biographer's writing life (well, mine, anyway) and a work in progress, SARA AND ERSKINE, AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. This is an intimate reconstruction of the life of SARA BARD FIELD, a World War One-era minister's wife, suffragist, and poet, and her extraordinary affair with an outspoken attorney, philosophical anarchist, and Renaissance man CHARLES ERSKINE SCOTT WOOD.

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