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Secret Life Of Emily Dickinson, The [Hardcover]

Jerome Charyn
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Jan. 26 2010

An astonishing novel that removes Emily Dickinson's own mysterious mask and reveals the passions and heartbreak of America's greatest poet.

What if the old maid of Amherst wasn't an old maid at all? Her older brother, Austin, spoke of Emily as his “wild sister.” Jerome Charyn, continuing his exploration of American history through fiction, has written a startling novel about Emily Dickinson in her own voice, with all its characteristic modulations that he learned from her letters and poems. The poet dons a hundred veils, alternately playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil. We meet the significant characters of her life, including her tempestuous sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert; her brooding father, Edward; and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, who may have inspired some of her greatest letters and poems. Charyn has also invented characters, including an impoverished fellow student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, who will betray her; and a handyman named Tom, who will obsess Emily throughout her life. Charyn has written an extraordinary adventure that will disturb and delight.


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Review

In his breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism, Jerome Charyn pulls off the nearly impossible: in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson he imagines an Emily Dickinson of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amidst a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is. This is a bold book, but we'd expect no less of this amazing novelist. --Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson"

About the Author

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. His novels include Johnny One-Eye and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. He lives in Paris and New York.


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4.0 out of 5 stars Courtesy of Lost for Words March 1 2011
Format:Hardcover
Source: Received from publicist as part of the Tribute Books blog tour for The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Many thanks goes to Nicole from Tribute Books for sending me a copy of this book for review. I received this book free of charge in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4/5

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson takes on the task of deciphering just what makes Emily tick, and gives us a glimpse of the reclusive life that she led. Although this is a work of fiction, it is a plausible interpretation of her life. Though I don't know much about Emily Dickinson, I do recall learning various facts about her from school, and while reading the book, I also did some research to refresh my memory. I enjoyed reading about Emily in this volume. I found The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson surprised me actually with how vivid it was, especially knowing that some works can be written with a voice that is too dry. This is not one of those books. Emily is a girl who wants to get married, and she is emboldened by her sharp wit. Her humorous and albeit dark lookout on life had me reading voraciously to see what knowledge I could glean from her.
It was interesting to see where history and fiction collides in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and though I may not necessarily agree with some of the liberties taken, I do realize that this is fictional recreation of her life. As such, I applaud Charyn for creating such a vivid backdrop, and making history so real for those who may not enjoy reading about historical figures due to the fear of 'textbook syndrome'. It really was a captivating read, especially when you see how she was influenced by the writers of her era; to us, they are prestigious and influential, but back then, they were just evolving, and coming into their own.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  45 reviews
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life of the Mind April 3 2010
By Theresa J. Elders - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Seldom am I so hypnotized by a novel's language that I pause to whisper a line aloud. One example: the description of the Northampton Asylum,"It had a freshwater pond as fragile as glass and a winding road a little like a maze that any child might conquer in a minute." Charyn's prose slides into Dickinsian poetry on every page. I wouldn't cast this tour de force as a misguided work of historical fiction. I regard it instead as something far different. This self-proclaimed Queen Recluse of Amherst well could have written an elaborate and rich novel to rival the lightning flash poems that she chose to record. Perhaps "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" is indeed the novel that Mr. Sam Bowles asked Emily to write. In channeling Emily, Charyn has set her unwritten novel on paper,"with two heads and four hands."
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Liberating Emily Dickinson from the constraints of a reclusive life March 23 2011
By Paul Carrier - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A novel about a famous - and very real - person runs the risk of distorting the subject's personality or character in some inexcusable way, to tell a more compelling story than the facts warrant.

That risk is stronger still if, as in "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson," an author uses fanciful incidents and fictional characters to complement the actual relationships and events that have been documented by the poet's biographers.

Charyn's audacious but compelling novel puts Dickinson, her family, and even her dog Carlo in contact with products of Charyn's imagination - a blond, blue-eyed handyman who figures prominently in her "secret life;" an authoritarian vice principal at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Dickinson attends; a rum-soaked tutor at Amherst College, where her brother is a student.

Not to worry.

"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson," which is narrated by Dickinson herself, pulls the famed recluse into the limelight and makes us appreciate her all the more because she is, in the end, so very human. If that requires breaking with the established facts from time to time to brush the dust from Dickinson's shoulders, so be it.

Charyn provides a rounded view of a brilliant poet who also is a passionate, lively and complex woman. Here, she is far more vibrant than the stereotype of the lonely "spinster" who rarely left the confines of her home in Amherst, Mass.

Dickinson's shyness and self-imposed isolation reveal only part of her persona, and a portion of her story. Her brother Austin, for example, often spoke of her as his "wild sister."

In her letters, Dickinson "wears a hundred masks," Charyn writes in an author's note, "playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil as she delights and often disturbs us, just as I hope my Emily will both delight and disturb the reader and take her roaring music right into the twenty-first century."

Even as a poet, and perhaps especially in her attitude toward poetry, Dickinson was anything but timid. Charyn's Dickinson speaks of how she "scribbled out the lightning inside my head."

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry," she once wrote. "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

Dickinson did, in fact, seclude herself at her family's Amherst home during the latter part of her life. In the novel, she comes to refer to herself as "the Queen Recluse."

From 1860 until her death in 1886, she "left the property only rarely, and received few visitors," notes the "New York Public Library Literature Companion." Her schooling behind her, Dickinson "retired to her home; later, dressing only in white, she rarely came down from her room to meet her guests," "Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia" tells us.

As such citations suggest, Dickinson's seemingly eccentric obsession with privacy in her later years has come to define the entirety of her existence in the public mind. Yet her seclusion did not fully take hold until 1860, the year she turned 30.

What of the first half of her life? How did she behave then? Charyn does not ignore Dickinson's reclusive period, but he gives us the younger woman as well, someone who is adventurous, free-spirited and rebellious.

"Carlo rules me now," Charyn's Dickinson says of her beloved Newfoundland at one point before her self-imposed exile. "I fly with him across the village in wind or snow as Carlo chases whatever rodents are around."

"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" is a work of fiction, but one that captures what I suspect was the essence of its celebrated subject, and liberates her from the exile of her room. Charyn's Dickinson overflows with intelligence and independence, charm and spirit. We see her as she probably was, and that is a great gift.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Daring Novel About the Inner Life of an Honored Poet Feb. 14 2010
By Stephanie De Pue - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" might be considered a very unauthorized biography of the famed 19th century female American poet. She is a feminist and literary icon about whom we know very little; perhaps as little as we know about those other feminist, female literary icons of the early 19th century, from across the pond: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters. This may well be due to their natural reticence as creative women living in a man's world; to the protection of their families, to the fact that, as creative women, their lives were dominated by their work, and they hadn't much in the way of actual lives. However, for whatever the reasons, it does leave their lives wide open to interpretation, and we have recently seen many, many literary and filmed interpretations of Austen's life. And we have now a daring interpretation of Dickinson's life by Jerome Charyn, a well-known literary figure.

Dickinson, the "Belle of Amherst," her Massachusetts home town, was a well-born girl, the daughter of the attorney who was considered, at that time and place, the earl of the village. She was educated at Mount Holyoke, then, apparently, a restrictive, religiously oriented seminary, she loved her father greatly, lived in his house all her life, never endured serious money worries, and has come down to us through history as a prim and proper cameo of a repressed lady in white. But all sources agree that she did have a few flirtations, and she wrote poetry that is important to many people. As I have said elsewhere before, I'm not a poetry person, and therefore am not familiar with Dickinson's life or poetry: but I surely appreciate the fine deckle-edged book I see before me.

The story begins in the snow, in 1848, at Mt. Holyoke. To begin with, Charyn gives us an excellent picture of Dickinson's environment, a harsh one for man, woman, and beast, with, seemingly, a severe religious climate, and even more severe weather. Her home is as restrictive as is Mount Holyoke; nevertheless, she has her flirtations, and a literary life: it is fun to watch her excitedly discovering the work of Charlotte Bronte, and thinking about Mr. Rochester. (It's also noticeable that the working class women we meet, who are striving for better lives, end up universally pauperized, and generally, in the lunatic asylum, pretty much, therefore, as madwomen in the attic.) Charyn gives us rounded pictures of the village of Amherst at the time, and the nascent Amherst College, Mount Holyoke, and the nearby metropolis of Boston. He does much of this, however, in a voice he's invented for Dickinson, a 19th Century New England vernacular he based on her poetry: I found it impeded my reading and didn't much care for it. But the story was powerful enough to carry me along. He gives us a picture of Dickinson, who is imaginative, brilliant and witty, as we know she was; also mischievous, passionate and sexual, and surrounds her with a colorful gallery of actual people she knew, her brother Austin and sister Lavinia; her sister in law Sue, a rival and close friend, and her father Edward, a controlling Congressman. Charyn has also invented several characters, principally Tom, the Holyoke handyman, and Zilpah Marsh, her schoolmate and maid. As much as anyone ever has, inspired by her letters and poetry, he gets inside her skin.

It's quite an achievement for the Bronx-born Charyn, who now lives in New York and Paris. He has authored 38 other books, has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and has received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Some may think the writer has gone too far and dared too much in this book, but I'm not one of them.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A letter to Mr. Charyn on his latest work: June 26 2010
By Becca Polard - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Dear Mr. Charyn,

I have recently had the opportunity to complete your novel "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson." I was so intrigued by the book that I eagerly licked each word with ravenous eyes. I must say that I feel as though you have done the job of channeling our Emily rather well. As someone who has picked through her actual letters and pored over most of her works, I was amazed at how near your lexicon came to her poetic verse. You practiced her well. There were times when my mind slipped right out of my head and I forgot that I was reading fiction. Sometimes it was as if I were going through Miss Dickinson's own diary that had, perhaps, once been tucked away under a loose floorboard in the Homestead and I reveled in that delusion.

I enjoyed your vision also. Upon reading, one can be kidnapped by you, Sir, to a parallel universe in which our Emily had some heartpounding adventures. I thoroughly liked hearing your spin on Holyoke with the fictitious Zilpah Marsh and her tattooed Tom. I was fond of how you took such tedious measures to delve into the relationship between Emily and her father. It was splendid to see what life could have actually been like for those two outside of what history books have written. Your tale held my interest and made me wonder just how many exploits Emily had that no one, save God Himself, was able to be privy. You also remained true to her personality and did not fancy her into someone she could not have been. The cocktail you have invented has intoxicated my imagination to the fullest, but still resembles the Emily I have come to know over the past eleven years.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of your novel was how I found the events, that perfect blend of fact and fantasy, pointing to certain poems she penned during her lifetime. Several of her poems ran through my brain as I devoured your prose. "It's all I have to bring today" was what rang out when I read the part where she was in the orchard with her "Philadelphia." And I pretended that "I never lost as much but twice" was a combination poem in homage to both Tom and her father. It was a pleasure to feign that those poems were now inspired by your characters, both false and true.

I intend to let others know that you have found your mark with this book. Emily's fans, as well as Daisy herself, should be very proud and honored by what you've accomplished. Thank you.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Emily came to life... March 1 2011
By Tiffany A. Harkleroad - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Before she was a well known poetess, Emily was just a girl. She was a student at Mt. Holyoke Seminary, a beloved daughter, a sensitive sister, and a great romantic. Read all about the various loves and losses of Emily, and her time in Amherst. She was unlike anything the town had ever seen, a truly unique woman.

Long a fan of her poetry, I sadly know very little about the life of Emily Dickinson. So, much of this amazing book went over my head I fear. Jerome Charyn does a masterful job of weaving established facts about Emily's life and the people in it with his own imaginings of what it was like to live in her mind. Charyn slips into the mind of Emily, and write a novel full of wonder and heart.

Rarely does a modern author capture the same rhythm and flow of a classic writer, and attempts to do so are typically unconvincing. But Charyn defies the law of averages, and makes one forget they are not reading straight from Emily's diary. He channels her spirit brilliantly, and we really feel as if we know Emily by the end of the book. We share her pain, as well as her pleasure.

I think this is a wonderful novel that weaves together elements of classic literature with modern literature in a new, fresh way. I recommend this to every fan of Dickinson's poetry, nay, of all classic poetry. Charyn talks about reaction to the novel in his video.

I am among the faction who love the novel, and am grateful for the chance to learn more about my dear Emily. Take this opportunity to do the same.
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