The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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by Jerome Charyn
     
 

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"In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
Jerome Charyn, "one of the most important writers in American literature" (Michael Chabon), continues his exploration of American history through fiction with The Secret Life of Emily

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Overview

"In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
Jerome Charyn, "one of the most important writers in American literature" (Michael Chabon), continues his exploration of American history through fiction with The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, hailed by prize-winning literary historian Brenda Wineapple as a "breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism." Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn removes the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality. The novel, daringly written in first person, begins in the snow. It's 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. Inspired by her letters and poetry, Charyn goes on to capture the occasionally comic, always fevered, ultimately tragic story of her life-from defiant Holyoke seminarian to dying recluse.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Lethem
“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and a crack comic timing.”
Publishers Weekly
The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to “choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin.” From the first page, witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town's preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as “a waste of money & a waste of time,” and it's easy to see how Emily's poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent “serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine.” Emily's growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate “woman with a ferocious will” and finally to that notorious recluse. However, while this vivid impersonation is a stylistic achievement, it's also confining and limits higher revelations. (Feb.)
Library Journal
PEN/Faulkner award winner Charyn (Johnny One-Eye) returns with a fictional speculation of the life of Emily Dickinson. The author sets the theme by quoting Dickinson's line, "To shut our eyes is to travel." The narrative spans Dickinson's life from her time as a student at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary to the end at her family's homestead. As the story unfolds, Charyn displays Dickinson's closeness with and affection for her doting father, caring brother, loyal sister, and tempestuous sister-in-law. Though Dickinson was reclusive, Charyn paints her passionate inner life, which involves imaginative romances with many unconventional suitors. One fictional suitor, Tom, whom she first encounters at Mt. Holyoke, haunts her throughout the novel. A former classmate, Zilpah Marsh—who, it would seem, is named after a character in Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology—is also a fixture for Dickinson and in fact seems to symbolize an extreme version of the poet. VERDICT The novel doesn't focus much on Dickinson's writing, which will disappoint some readers. Its strength is in the way Charyn immerses himself in Dickinson's voice, using it to create a beguiling narrative. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/09.]—Cristella Bond, Anderson P.L., IN
Kirkus Reviews
Charyn (Johnny One-Eye, 2008, plus more than 40 other books) takes on Emily Dickinson's private life-what was she doing all those years she was shut up in Amherst?Well, for one thing, according to Charyn, throughout her life she was falling in love with a number of men who crossed her path. The recurring character who remains one of the great loves of Emily's life is Tom the Handyman, part-time laborer and full-time rogue. We first meet him at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Emily attended in the 1840s. (Emily first becomes intrigued by an arrow-and-heart tattoo on Tom's arm.) Throughout Emily's life he resurfaces under various guises, and Emily never loses her infatuation, though at times she admits she might be more in love with the fantasy rather than with the reality of Tom. At the seminary Emily also meets Zilpah Marsh, who eventually becomes Tom's lover (and his partner in crime) and winds up in an insane asylum in Northampton. Emily also becomes drawn into a force field created by the charismatic presence of Sue, married to Emily's brother Austin. While her sentiments are perhaps not quite strong enough to be designated "love," Emily definitely feels a strong attraction to Sue and finds Sue's detachment and assertiveness irresistible. Late in her life, Emily becomes enamored with the widower Judge Otis Phillips Lord (whom she calls "Salem"), and he finds their gravitational pull both strong and mutual. He awakens Emily's latent sexuality ("I could feel that sweet wolf gnaw its way back into my loins. I didn't waver. I slowly slid onto my Salem's lap, wanting him to dandle me again. I ought to have some privileges at fifty-one"). Finally, appearing sporadically but loomingimportantly in Emily's life is her father, "Major" Edward Dickinson-patriarch, Congressman and Alpha male. An irreverent novel-at turns both comic and febrile-that connects us to Dickinson's longings and eccentricities. Author tour to New York, Boston, Amherst, Mass.
Booklist
“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.”
The New York Times Book Review
“Smarter than most yet true to the form...”
Joyce Carol Oates
“[A] poignant, delicately rendered vision.”
Frederic Tuten
“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.”
Brenda Wineapple
“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.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780393339178
Publisher:
Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
02/14/2011
Pages:
348
Sales rank:
767,504
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

What People are saying about this

Joyce Carol Oates
[A] poignant, delicately rendered vision.

Meet 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.

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