The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel Hardcover – Jan 26 2010
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Starred Review. In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination, liberating Dickinson from the prim and proper cameo image of a repressed lady in white, and revealing just how free she truly was. — Booklist
Smarter than most yet true to the form... — The New York Times Book Review
[A] poignant, delicately rendered vision. — Joyce Carol Oates
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is astonishing. Charyn gives Emily Dickinson a new life, and one with a rush of energy and power. I shall never see her or her poetry in the same way again. — Frederic Tuten, author of Adventures of Mao on the Long March
About the Author
Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent novel is I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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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.
Charyn captures both Dickinson's language and her complexities. He freely intertwines fact with fiction, which is why I think reading this book as some kind of strict historical fiction/quasi-biography is a huge mistake. This isn't a biography or even a biographical novel. It's more akin to what Shakespeare's great Roman tragedies were: dramatic reworkings of sources that were themselves somewhat embellished (the layering of Shakespeare's Coriolanus to Plutarch's Caius Martius to the "real" Caius Martius, for example). A more contemporary example might be Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, which is largely autobiographical but (as I understand it) interpolates some fictive situations or twists--new layers to a real story. Like The House on Mango Street, Charyn's Secret Life is also told in a loose vignette style.
Out of the raw material of Dickinson's tempestuous life in the Amherst teapot, Charyn casts her as a somewhat reclusive spinster whose bottled-up passions are always at a boil and ready to burst. The story is relatively straightforward, and usually centers on Dickinson's interaction with one or two people at a time. Like Dickinson, Charyn has a mastery of the small, pithy sarcasm: "There was never a show-off like Emily Lavinia Norcross," she says to us in the first-person, "But I'd start a war between our families if I bludgeoned her."
Charyn's Dickinson is also a warm, acutely human observer: "I find Mother in the kitchen, reading a recipe. There is a delight on her face I seldom see. Perhaps the clarity of measuring cups soothes her. She looks up in wonder, her mind still caught in a world of ingredients." My own mother has a deep and abiding love of cooking and recipes--so perhaps that is why this passage struck me powerfully, but a world of meaning is crammed into this brief set of sentences. Charyn, like Dickinson, has the gift of packing mountains of meaning into molehills of sentences.
The ending (mild spoiler: Dickinson dies at the book's end) is an immensely moving fugue, as Dickinson walks almost like a ghost through a maelstrom of faces, voices, and memories that have filled the book from literally its first page. As the final chapters unfold, Charyn's Dickinson speaks with consistently powerful, forceful images (a dancing cow, for example), but it is clear the division between her lively imagination and reality is blurring and collapsing. The result is some of the most moving prose I've read in a work of modern fiction.
Coming off of a reading of Alfred Habegger's magnificent My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson, I found this book to be a satisfying, intriguing, and even emotional read for anyone who loves the work of one of the greatest poetic voices in the history of American literature.
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.
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.