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A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

4.8 4
by Jerome Charyn

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PEN/ Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Longlist
O, The Oprah Magazine “Best Books of Summer” selection

“Magnetic nonfiction.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Remarkable insight . . . [a] unique meditation/investigation. . . . Jerome Charyn the unpredictable, elusive, and enigmatic is a


PEN/ Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Longlist
O, The Oprah Magazine “Best Books of Summer” selection

“Magnetic nonfiction.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Remarkable insight . . . [a] unique meditation/investigation. . . . Jerome Charyn the unpredictable, elusive, and enigmatic is a natural match for Emily Dickinson, the quintessence of these.” —Joyce Carol Oates, author of Wild Nights! and The Lost Landscape

We think we know Emily Dickinson: the Belle of Amherst, virginal, reclusive, and possibly mad. But in A Loaded Gun, Jerome Charyn introduces us to a different Emily Dickinson: the fierce, brilliant, and sexually charged poet who wrote:

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

Though I than He— may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—

Through interviews with contemporary scholars, close readings of Dickinson’s correspondence and handwritten manuscripts, and a suggestive, newly discovered photograph that is purported to show Dickinson with her lover, Charyn’s literary sleuthing reveals the great poet in ways that have only been hinted at previously: as a woman who was deeply philosophical, intensely engaged with the world, attracted to members of both sexes, and able to write poetry that disturbs and delights us today.

Jerome Charyn is the author of, most recently, Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel. He lives in New York.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 12/07/2015
Novelist and nonfiction author Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) presents a postmodernism-flavored study of Emily Dickinson’s life and work. His lively reassessment draws on the work of other scholars, close readings of Dickinson’s poems and letters, and vivid commentary on the artists she inspired. Joseph Cornell created shadow boxes based on her poems, and Joyce Carol Oates’s futuristic short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” evokes the doll-like mystery of the only extant image of Dickinson—a daguerreotype taken when she was 16. At the heart of Charyn’s study is a quest to find out who Emily Dickinson really was. His answer is that she was not the reclusive virgin often pictured, but rather a woman of “Promethean ambition” who raged against a culture that had no place for unmarried, childless women. Looked upon as a “half-cracked village muse,” she guarded her privacy fiercely so she could work, often at a feverish pace, reinventing the language of poetry. She wrote about volcanoes, physical passion, wild beasts, rape, madness, and the grave, and was “at war with language itself” as if on a quest “to tear apart the order and hierarchy of all things.” For Charyn, Dickinson has no equal as a poet, except perhaps Shakespeare. No one else, he says, took the risks she did. Illus. (Mar.)
From the Publisher

Praise for A Loaded Gun

PEN/ Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Longlist
O, The Oprah Magazine “Best Books of Summer” selection
Philadelphia Inquirer “Spring Ahead Into the World of Books” selection
Nordstrom’s The Thread “Weekend Guide” selection
Longreads “Best of the Year: Most Popular Exclusives” selection
Ploughshares “Indie Spotlight: Year-end Wrap-up” selection
Publishers Weekly “Book of the Week” & PW Daily “Review of the Day” selection

“A magnetic nonfiction reevaluation of the mystifying, radical, perhaps bisexual, and maybe greatest-ever American poet.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“In A Loaded Gun, [Charyn] is again out to release Dickinson from the myths that have enclosed her. . . . With essayistic chapters on Dickinson’s mother, her dog, her servants, her photographic image, her poetic fragments—Charyn’s book is perhaps best viewed as yet another imaginative attempt to get to the source of Dickinson’s emotional intensity, and to imagine an ‘Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century.’” —New York Review of Books

“Ecstatic. . . . [Charyn] may be the perversely perfect critic for the poet who wandered ‘The House of Supposition — / The Glimmering Frontier that / Skirts the Acres of Perhaps—.’” —VICE magazine

“[Emily Dickinson] will blow the top of your head off, no matter what century you live in. Charyn looks at a lot of ways to see this revolutionary, subversive, explosive genius.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“Less literary criticism than threnody, a bold, loose-limbed, Whitman-like prose-poem lamenting the constrictive previous, but still prevailing, notions of Dickinson and lauding instead a wild woman of words. . . . A Loaded Gun is an invitation to meet Dickinson on the dizzyingly high ground of her imagination from a fellow writer who has done just that with his own writing.” —Bay Area Reporter

“An imaginative and unprecedented look at Emily Dickinson that is part biography, part literary criticism, and altogether fascinating.” —Ploughshares

“Charyn has followed Dickinson as assiduously as Alice down the rabbit hole. . . . Is Dickinson gay? Read Charyn’s fascinating thesis and decide.” —Lavender Magazine

“Charyn is a man, a New Yorker, living in the twenty-first century, yet he understands this female rebel from New England like no one else can.” —Scranton Examiner

A Loaded Gun is a fascinating meditation on an individual’s relationship to language and her place in the world, and Charyn’s quest will appeal not only to poetry lovers and Dickinson fans, but to anyone who understands the joy of immersing oneself in a puzzle to which no definitive ‘answer’ yet exists.” —Late Night Library

“Reading Jerome Charyn sometimes evokes the sensation of seeing Dickinson arise from her poems. . . . [H]e is about the work of enlarging the universe of her person and her poetry while he shows how much more there is still to do in fathoming her depths and contours.” —University Bookman

“Charyn is intrigued by the hermeneutics of biography and literary criticism. He is steeped in the work of Dickinson scholars and readers. . . . For Charyn the poems are Emily Dickinson, the vital part of herself that as a woman in nineteenth-century Massachusetts she could only fully express by keeping to herself—not as someone shy of society so much as one who knew society simply could not reciprocate what she had to offer. In other words, Charyn’s Dickinson is not agoraphobic, not a neurotic, but a writer in charge of her destiny.” —Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly

“In his reexamination of Dickinson as a sensitive recluse, Charyn does the influential poetess justice by admitting her ambition. Dickinson’s irreverence for grammatical and societal convention made her a revolutionary figure. Charyn gives the writer due credit for engineering her reputation and role, and not being a victim to it.” —Nordstrom’s The Thread

“A postmodernism-flavored study of Emily Dickinson’s life and work. . . . [A] lively reassessment [with] vivid commentary.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A writer obsessed with the Belle of Amherst imagines her rich, sensual inner life. . . . Charyn’s ardent sleuthing yields a daring portrait of the elusive ‘enchantress’ and her world.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Charyn explores how the gaps in knowledge about Dickinson’s biography and writings contribute to her ever-expanding mystique. . . . [His] inviting prose allows readers with any degree of expertise on the life and work of Dickinson an entryway into her innovative, marvelous poetry.” —Library Journal

“A celebrated master of literary voice, Charyn inhabits Dickinson from the first page. . . . [A Loaded Gun] is a gratifying nut of poetic analysis, historical psychology, and the passionate homage of a lifelong disciple of the beloved Belle of Amherst.” —Historical Novels Review

“An intense work of literary scholarship. . . . [H]ighly recommended.” —Midwest Book Review

“In A Loaded Gun, Jerome Charyn penetrates to the heart of Emily Dickinson, commonly thought to be a gifted but withdrawn spinster. He explores the ‘demon’ in her, the ‘predator,’ and should make readers go back to her poetry with a new understanding of why she still works her spell in our time.” —Herbert Gold, author of Still Alive: A Temporary Condition and When a Psychopath Falls in Love

“Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Gun is a staggeringly brilliant meditation on Emily Dickinson’s life and work, one that will shatter forever the myth of ‘the virgin recluse.’ His shrewd and provocative reading of her life, her loves, and her times allows us to understand in new ways just how Dickinson reinvented the language of poetry itself. One of the great and most original storytellers of our time, Charyn takes us deep inside the mysterious power and glory of Dickinson’s poetry, and into the strange, bold fearlessness of her outlaw life.” —Jay Neugeboren, author of Imagining Robert and The Other Side of the World

“Remarkable insight . . . [a] unique meditation/investigation. . . . Jerome Charyn the unpredictable, elusive, and enigmatic is a natural match for Emily Dickinson, the quintessence of these.” —Joyce Carol Oates, author of Wild Nights! and The Lost Landscape

“Provocative, sexy, pulsing with energy, and sometimes outrageous, Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Gun revisits the subject he ‘couldn’t let go’ after completing his novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. Tunneling into the poems, letters, biographies, and works of art inspired by Dickinson, Charyn presents the poet as ‘a Satanic, catlike sibyl,’ adept with masks, tricks, and outlaw escapes from convention. Keeping the subjects of the poet’s family, religion, sexuality, and poetic ‘tradecraft’ whirling in the air, he shows us Emily Dickinson as a ‘target who never sits still.’” —Susan Snively, author of The Heart Has Many Doors and Skeptic Traveler

Praise for Jerome Charyn

“One of the most important writers in American literature.” —Michael Chabon

“One of our finest writers. . . . Whatever milieu [Charyn] chooses to inhabit, . . . his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable.” —Jonathan Lethem

“Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible.” —Tom Bissell

“A fearless writer. . . . Brave and brazen.” —New York Review of Books

“One of our most intriguing fiction writers.” —O, The Oprah Magazine

“Charyn skillfully breathes life into historical icons.” —New Yorker

“Both a serious writer and an immensely approachable one, always witty and readable and . . . interesting.” —Washington Post

“Absolutely unique among American writers.” —Los Angeles Times

“A contemporary American Balzac.” —Newsday

Praise for Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel

“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

“Daring.” —New York Times Book Review

“Audacious. . . . Seductive. . . . Charyn has never written more powerfully. . . . A poignant, delicately rendered vision.” —New York Review of Books

“Through a perceptive reading of Dickinson’s verse and correspondence, [Charyn’s] re-created her wild mind in all its erudition, playfulness and nervous energy.” —Washington Post

“Compellingly drawn. . . . I admire Charyn’s achievement in lifting the veil of a heretofore mysterious figure.” —Los Angeles Times

“Breezily chronicles the chaotic emotional life of Emily Dickinson.” —New Yorker

“In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination.” —Booklist (starred review)

Library Journal
Almost everything about America's most mythical poet, Emily Dickinson (1830–86), is a mystery. In his nonfiction counterpart to his popular novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Charyn explores how the gaps in knowledge about Dickinson's biography and writings contribute to her ever-expanding mystique. As a result, Charyn's book forsakes chronology for meditations on thematic details he finds important in the poet's life, such as her complicated relationship with her parents; her dog, Carlo; her love affairs—whether real or unrequited—with men and women; and a recently discovered daguerreotype that might be the second-known photograph of Dickinson. Charyn also devotes plenty of pages to writers, artists, and scholars whom he feels have best understood Dickinson's writings, such as scholars Jay Leyda and Marta Werner, poet Adrienne Rich, and artists Joseph Cornell and Jen Bervin. VERDICT Despite the book's apparent lack of cohesion, Charyn is an engaging author who clearly appreciates his subject. The inviting prose allows readers with any degree of expertise on the life and work of Dickinson an entryway into her innovative, marvelous poetry.—Brian Flota, James Madison Univ., Harrisonburg, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A writer obsessed with the Belle of Amherst imagines her rich, sensual inner life. After spending two years writing a novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2010), Charyn (Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, 2015, etc.) felt dissatisfied: "I knew less and less the more I learned about her." Now he turns to nonfiction, mining the prodigious research he conducted for the novel: biographies, literary criticism, archival research, "psychoanalytic studies of her crippled, wounded self, tales of her martyrdom in the nineteenth century, studies of her iconic white dress, accounts of her agoraphobia," and interviews with artists, poets, and scholars. Charyn analyzes artist Joseph Cornell's evocation of Dickinson and poet Adrienne Rich's empathetic interpretation. The result is an absorbing, though necessarily speculative, meditation on Dickinson's personality, yearnings, and elliptical poetry. For Charyn, Dickinson was a powerful, mysterious woman in charge of her own life. He dismisses the idea that she was a "helpless agoraphobic, trapped in her room in her father's house," although her father was overbearing and kept his daughters "on an invisible leash." Dickinson, he believes, was equally tyrannical. "She built a whirlwind around her and lived within its walls." She was "promiscuous in her own fashion, deceiving everyone around her with the sly masks she wore." She was an outlaw, "an alchemist," a "witch of the Imagination," "the mistress of her own interior time and space," and possibly bisexual. Charyn is intrigued by one scholar's argument that Dickinson had a romance with another woman, with whom she may have sat for a daguerreotype reproduced as the book's frontispiece. "None of us will ever get near enough to Emily," he writes ruefully. While much is speculation, Charyn's ardent sleuthing yields a daring portrait of the elusive "enchantress" and her world.

Product Details

Bellevue Literary Press
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5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Meet the Author

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Jerzy: A Novel (forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press); A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century; Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories; I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War; and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel. Among other honors, he has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, was named a Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture, and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award for Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York.

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A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is like so many of Dickinson's poems—enigmatic. Charyn shows how the Belle of Amherst followed wherever her creativity guided her, never knowing where she'd end up. Yet at the same time, he makes sure to illustrate how she maintained a tight-fisted control over the boundaries of her tiny world throughout the course of her life. Dickinson carefully fashioned a safe, homelike environment for herself, without a husband, free from society, in order to give free rein to her thoughts, allowing them to run wild inside her head. What a fascinating portrait of such an artist Charyn paints with each brushstroke of words. I love how he throws out there that genius never really dies, but is simply reborn. He imagines how Shakespeare's talent lying that was dormant in the ground for hundreds of years somehow arises and is given new life in the vessel of a 19th century female. If he's right, then we're all better for it. It makes me wonder who will be next to carry the torch. And thanks to Charyn's thought-provoking question, I can't wait to find out.
Faith4 More than 1 year ago
A Loaded Gun by Jerome Charyn is well worth your time reading. Not only is it enjoyable, but you will learn some history of an era, besides gain a little understanding of what makes a poet tick. The poet is the poetess, Emily Dickinson. Charyn views Emily as a complicated character. She was agoraphobic, but her poems take her out of her self-imposed cloister to meet all kinds of people. She was a spinster, but her poems can be erotic. Her eroticism includes fantasies between both sexes. Perhaps Emily was bi-sexual. But despite this radical ambiguity, Charyn’s depiction of Emily Dickinson as “A Loaded Gun,” showcases an expert mistress of creative writing. Her poetry, writing and life are liquid language personified into A Loaded Gun. Charyn is a detective writing up his surveillance of Emily. He has to be meticulous because if he can’t prove she’s guilty, the evidence will be thrown out. Hence the microscopic analysis of her life. First, Charyn considers what others have concluded: William Luce’s play—the Belle of Amherst, Adrienne Rich’s Vesuvius at Home, Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s The Magnicent Activist, Jay Leyda’s The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, Christopher Benfey’s works, Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson,Joseph Cornell’s art, etc.. There’s too many to name. Read the Bibliography. Next, Charyn follows Emily around. She hides in her home, running when the door knocker raps. Charyn teases her out. She does have relatives and some of these are friends. There’s Carlo her dog and sometimes muse. But each of these tells conflicting experiences. Which relationship reveals the true Emily? Charyn finds that the deeper he digs, the more elusive she becomes. Finally, Charyn has to conclude that Emily Dickinson is a loose cannon. She is guilty of impersonating a simple woman of letters. She’s guilty of impropriety. She is guilty of hubris. She is just not who we think she should be. In the end, the reader has to agree with the excellent research and scholarship of Jerome Charyn. He gives enough evidence to prove that Emily Dickinson was a loaded gun. But Charyn’s biography also has evidence that Emily was an innocent product of her environment. Everyone wanted her to be their version of Emily. And she tried to placate everyone. Nonetheless, the conclusion is still that she was a loaded gun.
vvb32 More than 1 year ago
With excerpts from Emily Dickinson's letters, poetry and other critiques about Emily this book continues to describe and discover the essence of Emily. Daguerreotype images of her are also critiqued and analyzed to puzzle her out. Despite her reclusive ways, restricted environment and relationships, Emily created a tremendous amount of poetry. The attempt to uncover the mystery of how such a person could burst forth with that body of work was fascinating to learn about in this book. In the end, I found Emily to be like one of our modern day hoarders. She gathered words on scraps of papers and left them behind for us to ponder over. With her mad poetry skills, she then crafted those words to capture her inner self and moments in her life which again leaves us in a cloud of mystery.
Tribute_Books_Reviews More than 1 year ago
It's always fascinating when one author examines the life of another, and Jerome Charyn has his work cut out for him with Emily Dickinson. Few traces remain of the celebrated poet. She's the unknowable genius…because she wanted it that way. But Charyn won't be deterred. He's determined to make contact with her coquettish spirit. From the secrecy of the grave, she delights in hiding behind many masks. The virginal recluse. The half-cracked spinster. The resentful daughter. The village harlot. The closeted lesbian. The patrician princess. The doting aunt. The affectionate mistress. Take your pick. So he delves into her poetry line by line, dash by dash, until a seminal moment occurs when he's in the presence of the few remaining scraps covered in her actual handwriting. He's so moved, he's literally bowled over, like he's discovered the building blocks of the universe, the charge that ignited the Big Bang. Not stopping there, he holds up to the light the one known photograph of her in existence, before turning a critical eye upon the second, recently unearthed by a junkman in a Massachusetts estate sale. He meticulously presents the testimony of family members as well as scholars, critics and artists from all mediums that span the better part of three centuries. And still the mystery remains. Just who was this woman? A loaded gun. That's the conclusion Charyn inevitably comes to. Returning to the source, Dickinson's words remain at the heart of his search because they allow him to relate to her on a personal level and that's where the richness of his portrayal comes into sharp focus. Charyn is a man, a New Yorker, living in the twenty-first century, yet he understands this female rebel from New England like no one else can. He sees a part of himself in her, and that's when the book hits its stride. In terms of making a lasting impact, Dickinson was the longest long shot in history. She never sought earthly ambition. She kept to herself, composing her work in the silence of her bedroom or scribbling away in the pantry, diluting the sunlight just enough through the window slots to accommodate her failing eyesight. She was closer to her dog, Carlo, than she was to any living person. Yet her words roared with thunder at a time when women weren't encouraged to explore an inner life full of the tumult that comes for those brave enough to strive for perfection. Not many writers reach the pinnacle, and Charyn feels this deeply. He knows no one walks away from reading Dickinson unscathed. Chasing her is an exhilarating—often frustrating—journey, one that he's obliged to preface with a warning: Beware. Her words leave a permanent mark.