The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
  • The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
  • The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

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by Jerome Charyn

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“There's nothing quite like a Charyn novel. . . . His sentences make a mournful and sensational clatter, like a bundle of butcher knives dropped on a cathedral floor.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

Jerome Charyn has been writing some of the most bold and adventurous American fiction for over forty years. His

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“There's nothing quite like a Charyn novel. . . . His sentences make a mournful and sensational clatter, like a bundle of butcher knives dropped on a cathedral floor.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post

Jerome Charyn has been writing some of the most bold and adventurous American fiction for over forty years. His ten-book cycle of novels about madcap New York mayor and police commissioner Isaac Sidel inspired a new generation of younger writers in America and France, where he is a national literary icon. Now, adding to his already distinguished career, Charyn gives us The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, an audacious novel about the inner imaginative world of America’s greatest poet. Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn has removed the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality.

The story begins in the snow. It’s 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. She sees the seminary’s blond handyman rescue a baby deer from a mountain of snow, in a lyrical act of liberation that will remain with her for the rest of her life. The novel revivifies such historical figures as Emily’s brother, Austin, with his crown of red hair; her sister-in-law, Sue; a rival and very best friend, Emily’s little sister, Lavinia, with her vicious army of cats; and especially her father, Edward Dickinson, a controlling congressman. Charyn effortlessly blends these very factual characters with a few fictional ones, creating a dramatis personae of dynamic breadth.

Inspired by her letters and poetry, Charyn has captured the occasionally comic, always fevered, ultimately tragic story of Dickinson’s journey from Holyoke seminarian to dying recluse, compulsively scribbling lines of genius in her Amherst bedroom. Rarely before has the nineteenth-century world of New England—its religious stranglehold, its barbaric insane asylums, its circus carnivals—been captured in such spectacular depth. Through its lyrical inflections and poetic rhythms, its invention of a distinct, twenty-first-century “Charynesque” language that pays remarkable homage to America’s sovereign literary past, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson provides a resonance of such power as to make this an indelible work of literature in its own right.

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Editorial Reviews

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.”
“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...”
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.
Jonathan Lethem
“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and a crack comic timing.”

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Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.50(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

What People are saying about this

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

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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
bette-stern More than 1 year ago
Emily Dickinson came alive for me as I read Jerome Charyn's novel. I held my breath, hoping the feeling would last - and it did, throughout the whole book, and even beyond, as I read her poetry with new eyes. Like legions of readers worldwide, I always loved Emily Dickinson, but reading biographies like Brenda Wineapple's excellent "White Heat" showed me that the familiar picture of the poet - as a recluse, cloistered in her room, her emotions tethered to her imagination - is incomplete. The truth is much more complex. Emily Dickinson lived in a time where women were repressed, but a review of her letters show that she was able to used her wits shrewdly, even flirtatiously, to live fully and, as much as possible, on her own terms. In The Secret LIfe of Emily Dickinson, Charyn uses his own considerable gifts to create a complete portrait of Emily, giving her a voice and a woman's rich emotional life. It's only a novel, but real to me.
John Underwood More than 1 year ago
This book certainly shows a side of Ms. Dickinson that I never phanthomed possible. I wonder how many of those 'relationships' were possible? They certainly could have been reflected in many of her poems. A good read..... a real page turner.
MRShemery More than 1 year ago
Cover: Despite the simplistic cover, I still enjoy looking at it. Showing the silhouette of a lady beneath her dress and petticoats makes one wonder if the outer formality of a lady is somehow hiding an inner rebellious and free spirit. It initiates thoughts of what the story within could be like. Plot: This novel fictionally covers the life of Ms. Emily Dickinson, from her time at Holyoke until her death. She is depicted as somewhat of a free spirit who tends to go where she wants despite the rules of society. She falls in love with ease and often with the most questionable gentlemen. Emily, as depicted in this novel, even sometimes wishes she were a man so she could woo a couple ladies that she is undeniably drawn and attracted to. Characters: The main character is, of course, Emily Dickinson. She is a wonderfully unique and eccentric person. I would have loved to have lived when she did and gotten to know her. Austin, Emily's brother, is very protective of Emily. They often cover for and conspire with each other. Austin ends up in a loveless and unhappy marriage which drives him to have "relationships" outside of his marriage. Lavinia, Austin and Emily's sister, is content to be a cat lady. She has numerous cats and is happy to have them as companions while living as a spinster in her family's home. She is Emily's confidant and often helps her secretly send letters to the men Emily has fallen "in love" with. Squire Dickinson, the patriarch of the family, keeps up a hard exterior. He rarely shows any joy or happiness, probably believing that to do so would diminish the aura of leadership over his family. Overall: This is an excellent and entertaining fictional look into what could have been the life of Emily Dickinson. The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson would be a wonderful addition to any classic lover's bookshelf.
Tribute_Books_Reviews More than 1 year ago
There exists a fascination with Emily Dickinson. A genius in a tiny bedroom scribbling poems that would become legendary. A mythological recluse writing about life, but not participating in it. Is it possible to tell a compelling story about an eccentric living in the recesses of her mind? Jerome Charyn draws out different aspects of her personality by peopling her life with his created characters. THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON reads more like fiction than biography. While dutifully researched, the known facts about the "Belle of Amherst" are intermingled with the author's interpretation regarding her poetic inspiration. Charyn introduces Zilpah Marsh as Emily's doppelganger. Zilpah is a scholarship student/maid at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary while Emily is the well-to-do daughter of the "Earl of Amherst." Zilpah has an affair with the school's handyman while Emily is left pining for his love. Zilpah is the favored pupil of their literary schoolmistress, but it is Emily who achieves poetic greatness. When Zilpah is hired as the Dickinson's maid, she quickly forges a lasting bond with Emily's father - something Emily struggles throughout her life to obtain. Yet it is Zilpah's highly educated mind that prevents her from accepting her low station in life. Her inability to cope lands her in an insane asylum. Emily feels Zilpah's mental breakdown, under similar circumstances, could have been her own. Despite the heated passion of her verse, Emily Dickinson is generally thought of as an old maid. Shattering this stereotype, Charyn fleshes out her relationships with the opposite sex. She receives Valentines and marriage proposals. She suffers a lifelong infatuation for Zilpah's Holyoke handyman. She wants to run away with an alcoholic card shark. She sits on a judge's lap. She seeks love in an underground rum establishment. She treasures a flea-infested blanket from a wanted criminal. She is able to write about romance not as a passive spectator but as an active participant. However, despite her adventures of the heart, she remains an unmarried virgin. Charyn portrays Emily's father as keeping her in a state of perpetual adolescence. He wants her to remain dependent on him, and he remains the most important man in Emily's life. While in a dream-like state, she even imagines her father as the perfect suitor. It is unclear if their relationship revolves around an Electra complex or if Emily simply regards her self-worth by how she appears in his eyes. After placing samples of her work under his bedroom door, it takes years for him to respond. While constantly seeking his approval, she views him as a type of savior. When wandering the streets of Boston, she stumbles across armed vigilantes pursuing Union deserters. In this chaos-induced scene, it is her father who magically comes to her rescue. Charyn shines when verbalizing Emily's talent. She is a "kicking kangaroo" as the words come tumbling out. Her verses are "feathers" that require careful pruning. Inspiration is the "lightning" that illuminates her mind. While no doubt enhanced by her formal education, her poetry springs from a natural talent. To this day, it remains a stunning achievement in American literature. Overall, Emily's "secret life" exists in the creative realm of Charyn's imagination.
LeeRegal More than 1 year ago
I loved THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON from its first page. I was immediately pulled into Emily Dickinson's world, and there I could see, think and feel as she did. For someone like me - who always loved her poetry - it was a heady experience. I read this novel twice through, once at breakneck speed, holding my breath as each chapter opened a new window into Dickinson's heart. The second time I kept a more leisurely pace, with a collection of her poetry close at hand. As I read, I grew up and old with Dickinson. I understood what drove her to write, but so rarely share, her poems. Before reading this book, I never would have believed it was possible to identify with Emily Dickinson so powerfully. It was an unexpected gift, like opening a time capsule. Even putting to one side Dickinson's poetry, the book makes a really good read. It's great story, beautifully written, with astonishing plot twists and turns. THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON is also sensual and romantic, with a cast of characters who stays with you. But the story always brings you back to Dickinson's words. If you love poetry, if you love Emily Dickinson, if you love passionate women's novels or romantic historical fiction, you must read THE SECRET LIFE OF EMILY DICKINSON.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As an artist I have to say the cover of the book, the skewed legs, is horrible. No legs should be that bended and thick. As for the book, so far, so good. Finally a book that rejoices in the English language.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
kherbrand More than 1 year ago
Let me start by saying that while I enjoy reading poetry, I have never taken it upon myself to learn anything about any of the great poets - so I have no point of reference to tell you whether or not this fictionalized account of Emily Dickinson's life and the characters she encounters are real or not. Now I feel like I can tell you how I found the book. The book in not written in a "modern" tone, but rather in Emily's voice as it would have been in the 1800's. This gave me a sense of being in the time and helped paint the picture of her life. From the start of the book, where she was a student at Mount Holyoke, studying to be a "bride of Christ" to the end of her life, she continued to have a fascination and secret yearning for Tom, the handyman at the school. He turns up throughout the book in various ways and in various people. The story also includes her brother Austin, little sister Lavinia, her father (whom treats her as daughter, wife, servant, in various episodes throughout her life) her sister-in-law Sue, and school mate Zilpah - who is sometimes her friend and sometimes her nemesis. I found it to be an engaging read, but I did have to be in the right mood to read it. What it has done for me, is make me want to go find a "real" biography of Emily Dickinson and learn more about the real lady!
asimpleman More than 1 year ago
In this novel Emily Dickinson comes alive. The talent of Jerome Charyn is irrefutable. I thoroughly enjoyed every sentence. It is a pleasure to to find a novel about a person whom everyone believed to be just s recluse,was anything but. The book is treasure.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Prof_D_Josephs_NYC More than 1 year ago
I found this book sensational and of poor conscience. It adds nothing to our knowledge of the life of this most iconic American woman poet. I agree with the New York Times reviewer, Charyn James (not a relative?) who said, TBR Fe. 21, 2010, that Jerome Charyn's book; "fits neatly into the category of literary body snatching," and it has little to do with the reality of Dickinson's, times or life and poetry. It is a poorly conceived book meant merely to use ED's name for commercial gain, and adds nothing to the true history of American literature. In a way it is shameful, because Jerome Charyn is a skillful writer and could have done better if he had really researched Dickinson's life to write a story as good as the other American novel about ED out this month: WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS: The Story of Emily Dickinson's" Master: Neighbor and Friend and Bridegroom," with its NON-fiction afterword: LOVER OF SCIENCE AND SCIENTIST IN DARK DAYS OF THE REPUBLIC. That book by a writer listed with the Dickinson Scholar's Registry, is real, true, and poignant, and it solves at last, the truth of who was the "Master Figure" of ED's poetry. Charyn is beating a dead horse with his portrayal of Samuel Bowles as Dickinson's love interest. He is way off base, but the book I recommend explains it with the latest research that Charyn has missed or not bothered to read. WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS is truly thrilling and emotionally satisfying, human and humanizing, and it's peppered with ED's actual texts to prove its thesis, based on its carefully researched afterword. Its author, Daniela Gioseffi, is a widely published, American Book Award winning poet who has also been a dramatist, a playwright, and novelist, as well as a non-fiction autthor of decent conscience, AND it's good read and empathetic of 19th century women and women artists in general. I give WILD NIGHTS, WILD NIGHTS, by Daniela Gioseffi, six stars, and ask Mr. Charyn, why be so flippant and silly with the use of ED's name? You are grave robbing! The TBR reviewer is correct when he concludes that you "miss Dickinson's fireworks" in favor of your own useless fantasies. Here's what other accomplished writers are saying: "Gioseffi's writing is appealing... Engaging, filled with energy.... irresistible. Larry McMurty, The Washington Post. Pulitzer Prize: Terms of Endearment "Gioseffi's work overflows with poetic vision. Nothing is ever pretentious.for effect." Nona Balakian, former staff reviewer, The New York Times. "... a gifted and graceful writer.. A stunning essay [Afterword]. It should be a book." Galway Kinnell, Pulitzer Prize & National Book Award winning poet "Whatever Daniela does, she does well. Among other things, I'd put my life in her hands.. Dickinson is lucky Daniela took hers in her hands." Grace Paley, Former Poet Laureate of VT. NY State Fiction Award. "Startlingly fresh. Animated. Voluptuous. Gioseffi's writing is Mythopoeic." Mary Pradt, Library Journal "Gioseffi's writing is imaginatively rich, startling, intelligent, with a wide range of reading behind it, and relevant to the most profound issues of our times. John Logan, Former poetry editor: The Nation "I like the way you're essay richly evokes the life and times of Dickinson." Robert Hass, Former Poet Laureate USA. Read Gioseffi's book instead!