Saturday, May 1, 2010

Emily Dickinson was wild!

I am currently reading The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn. Below is the press release for it:

One of the most versatile American writers alive, Jerome Charyn has written about gangsters, homicide detectives, Broadway musicals, the American Revolution, and ping-pong. Not content to rest on his laurels, Charyn tackles his most difficult, elusive, and shocking subject yet—one of the most mysterious in all American letters—the inner life of a nineteenth-century Massachusetts homebody.

The daring and unlikely match-up of writer and subject makes THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON: A Novel [W. W. Norton & Company; February 22, 2010] crackle with an energy rarely felt in an era when authors feel increasing pressure to write on subjects close to their own biographies or professional specialties. Ironically, though, Charyn is closer to the essence of Dickinson, whose own subject matter ranged far beyond the confines of her experience, than many a critic or biographer hunting for an interpretive key to her work has ever come.

“It was the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer,” Charyn writes in his author’s note, and he recovers an essential aspect of Emily that overly erudite interpretations often obscure—her courage, not in violating established verse forms, or even in setting pen to paper at a time when few women did, but in facing with humor a life whose every day was a frighteningly blank page. Charyn charts the entirety of Emily’s life—from her girlhood to her death—a life of which her literary career, which she herself tried to keep confined to an “invisible sphere,” was only one small part.

This re-imagination of Emily’s life in her own voice follows a very factual line. Charyn vividly portrays Emily’s family members from her domineering father to her meekly invisible mother, to her ever more distant brother, whose creative spark abandons him after marriage. But he also introduces fictional characters who represent broader social realities. Charyn, with a craft honed through decades of experience researching and re-creating a multitude of milieus, recovers the essential strangeness of Emily’s world. An institution like the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—rarely remarked on by Emily herself but fully imagined here—could exist, where young women were superbly educated for reasons often obscure even to their parents and preceptors, yet still had few rights of their own.

This is the world of a nation on the brink of war, where the social unrest of the cities is about to boil over and even spill into country towns like Amherst. This is a world of madhouses where petty thieves are shackled and made to wear leather masks. This is a world where genteel college fraternity boys out drinking are more dangerous than pickpockets and army deserters, and where a heretical Yale scholar is more likely than a would-be rapist to find himself ruined and on the run from the law.

When one of Emily’s secret suitors, Reverend Wadsworth, removes his gloves, it is to reveal hands “as red and rough as claws”—souvenirs of a childhood spent in a manual labor camp “little better than a jailhouse.” This rough-and-tumble nineteenth-century America that Charyn realizes was not nearly so remote from the polite world of letters as we might imagine. At different stages of Emily’s life, she brushes hands with the haunting and alluring figure of Tom, the Holyoke handyman, a lower-class picaro and a representative of the entire evolving, unstable outside world (beyond the “population of readers”) against which the poetess continually redefines herself.

Charyn’s Emily is first and foremost a creator—not a lesbian, not a frustrated lover, and not a child—but someone with the imaginative power to perceive the world as one in which all things remain somehow possible, in her fifties no less than in her adolescence, whether she is being courted or facing debilitating illness. Charyn has spent countless hours not only with Dickinson ’s poems but also with her letters, “wherein she wears a hundred masks.”

Near the conclusion of Charyn’s novel, Dickinson grits her teeth through an interview with Carleton West, a collector of her verses who has rummaged in many an attic. When the ardent West says that Emily’s poems are his life’s work, the spinster pointedly remarks, “Then it cannot be much of a life.” The gift Charyn has given us is the realization that Emily Dickinson’s genius is not confined to her verse, but must be sought in her whole life, through which she remained uncompromisingly true to herself—a feat no less difficult in late nineteenth-century New England than it is today.

About the author:
The author of 38 other books, Jerome Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and has received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Charyn was born in the Bronx in 1937 and lives in New York and Paris. Entertainment Weekly wrote that his previous novel, Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution, now available in trade paperback, belongs in the “great British tradition of picaresque novels,” and according to a starred review in Publishers Weekly it “deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.”

TITLE: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel
AUTHOR: Jerome Charyn
PUBLICATION DATE: February 22, 2010
PRICE: $24.95 cloth
ISBN: 978-0-393-06856-6

So, have you read it yet? If yes, please leave me the links to your reviews. Thanks!


  1. I hope you enjoy Emily's secret life as much as I did. To me it brought the poet to life. My review is the first one on Amazon, but then I read what Joyce Carol Oates wrote in New York Review of Books:

  2. I havent heard of this one until now but it sounds interesting!

  3. Lenore: Yes, I'm finding myself on a wild ride with Emily now! Wow, although she's the homebody type, she certainly has an imagination. And so many men in her life. Thanks for the link to the review too! :)

    Sheila: Ooh, it is interesting. Do google Emily Dickinson. This piece of fiction made her seem even more intriguing!


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