Wild Nights!: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Wild Nights!: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

by Joyce Carol Oates

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Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), Henry James, Ernest Hemingway—Joyce Carol Oates evokes each of these American literary icons in her newest work of prose fiction, poignantly and audaciously reinventing the climactic events of their lives. In subtly nuanced language suggestive of each of these writers, Oates explores the

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Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens ("Mark Twain"), Henry James, Ernest Hemingway—Joyce Carol Oates evokes each of these American literary icons in her newest work of prose fiction, poignantly and audaciously reinventing the climactic events of their lives. In subtly nuanced language suggestive of each of these writers, Oates explores the mysterious regions of the unknowable self that is "genius."

Darkly hilarious, brilliant, and brazen, Wild Nights! is Joyce Carol Oates's most original and haunting work of the imagination.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Times
“…when tackling Wild Nights!...I found myself not only enthralled but transported.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“…an imaginative, impressive work that spotlights yet another side of Oates’ prodigious talent.”
Brenda Wineapple
…dysfunction is the subject of [this] hilarious and harrowing new collection, Wild Nights! With a title borrowed from Emily Dickinson's fiery poem of longing…these stories ingeniously imagine the last documented days (or nights) of Dickinson and four other writers: Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Henry James and Ernest Hemingway. It's a gem of a book…about creativity and age and the complicated, anxiety-ridden relationship between the two.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In this intriguing collection, Oates writes fictional death scenes for five canonical American writers, adopting elements of their signature styles with mixed results. The Poe story, written as a diary in the months after Poe's death, doesn't quite dole out its revelations with Poe-like abandon. Emily Dickinson's end is set not in 19th-century New England but in the 21st-century New Jersey suburbs, where an Emily Dickinson "replicant," complete with enigmatical utterances, is purchased by a tax attorney and his wife to liven up the house, but ends up highlighting the banality of their existences. Samuel Clemens's death is set, menacingly, against his penchant for befriending adolescent girls, a habit deplored by his spinster daughter, Clara. The prize story, however, is "Papa at Ketchum 1961," where Oates inhabits Hemingway's terse style to show the great man going down in a paroxysm of psychoses. This brutal turning of Hemingway against himself sparks a torrent of rage like that of early Oates novels such as Them. It marks an explosive ending to Oates's peculiar fantasy game, one that begs to be treated at length. (Apr.)

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Library Journal

Oates (The Gravedigger's Daughter) here builds stories around five great writers, emulating the style of each as she attempts to imagine what they were thinking at the end of their lives."Poe Posthumour: Or, the Light-House" is the best of the five, with Poe becoming a lighthouse keeper in isolated Chile and confronting his loneliness in new and bizarre ways. In "The Master at St. Bartholomew's Hospital 1914-1916," Henry James is forced to step into a ward full of wounded soldiers. At first repulsed, he perseveres and discovers a compassion he did not realize he possessed. "Grandpa Clemens & Angel Fish 1906" is based on Samuel Clemens's relationship with young teenage girls, which, although supposedly innocent, subjects Clemens to a possible lawsuit. "Papa at Ketchum, 1961" centers on Hemingway's planning his suicide, while "EDickinsonRepuliLuxe" imagines that people can purchase androids based on their favorite author. The Krims choose Emily Dickinson, but she seems to be more of a maid than a poet and wants to be set free as they become more and more frustrated with her. These stories generate fresh insights into the themes and personalities of these authors, and many readers will be hoping for a sequel with five different authors. Recommended.
—Joshua Cohen

Kirkus Reviews
Oates (The Gravedigger's Daughter, 2007, etc.) channels her energies into fictionalizations of the last days of five major American writers. "Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House" is the "spoken" diary kept by Poe while he tends a lighthouse on a Southern Pacific island (after he has died). It's also a frisky homage to H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau, as it subjects the neurasthenic Baltimorean to agonizing memories of love and loss, and his own transformation into a hybrid monster akin to the "Cyclophagus" created by his deranged imagination. "Poe" is considerably better than Oates's creepy, overwritten portrayals of an enfeebled Mark Twain, obsessed with nubile girls ("Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish 1906"), and of Ernest Hemingway contemplating suicide ("Papa at Ketchum 1961"). The latter's handful of moving moments are unfortunately dwarfed by a turgid recycling of a half century's worth of Hemingway-related cliches. Far superior, and successful in utterly different ways, are her subtly imagined treatments of the not-altogether-dissimilar figures of Emily Dickinson and Henry James. "The Master at St. Bartholomew's Hospital 1914-1916" presents the elderly James as a civilian volunteer caring for World War I wounded, who quickly become the "dear boys" he has always secretly desired. This is as generous and admiring a view of James as was offered in Colm T-ib'n's superb novel The Master (2004), and Oates caps it with a plaintive, dreamlike description of his death as this inveterate traveler's ultimate journey. Best is "EDickinsonRepliLuxe," a Frankenstein-like fantasy in which a mousy culture vulture and her frosty husband purchase a computer-powered replicant of the poetess, then arethemselves transformed by "Emily's" surprisingly strong-and human-will. Our most industrious writer back at the anvil, making her usual unholy racket, while simultaneously throwing off sporadic sparks of unalloyed brilliance.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Wild Nights!
Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

Chapter One

7 October 1849. Ah, waking!—my soul filled with hope! on this, my first on the fabled Light-House at Viña de Mar—I am thrilled to make my first entry into my Diary as agreed upon with my patron Dr. Bertram Shaw. As regularly as I can keep the Diary, I will—that is my vow made to Dr. Shaw, as to myself—tho' there is no predicting what may happen to a man so entirely alone as I am—one must be clear-minded about this—I may become ill, or worse . . . 

So far I seem to be in very good spirits, and eager to begin my Light-House duties. My soul, long depressed by a multitude of factors, has miraculously revived in this bracing spring air at latitude 33°S, longitude 11°W in the South Pacific Ocean, some two hundred miles west of the rock-bound coast of Chile, north of Valparaíso; at the realization of being—at last, after the smotherings of Philadelphia society, and the mixed reception given to my lectures on the Poetic Principle, in Richmond—thoroughly alone.

May it be noted for the record: after the melancholia of these two years, since the tragic & unexpected death of my beloved wife V., & the accumulated opprobrium of my enemies, not least an admitted excess of "debauched" behavior on my part, there has been not the slightest diminution of my rational judgment. None!

This fine day, I have much to rejoice in, having climbed to the pinnacle of the tower, with good-hearted Mercury leaping & panting before me; gazing outto sea, shading my dazzled eyes; all but overcome by the majesty of these great spaces, not only the ever-shifting lava-like waters of the great Pacific, but the yet more wondrous sky above, that seems not a singular sky but numerous skies, of numerous astonishing cloud-formations stitched together like skins! Sky, sea, earth: ah, vibrant with life! The lantern (to be lit just before dusk) is of a wondrous size quite unlike any mere domestic lantern I have seen, weighing perhaps 50 pounds. Seeing it, & drawing reverent fingers across it, I am filled with a strange sort of zest, & eager for my duties to begin. "How could any of you have doubted me," I protest, to the prim-browed gentlemen of the Philadelphia Society, "I will prove you mistaken. Posterity, be my judge!"

One man has managed the Light-House at Viña de Mar from time to time in its history, tho' two is the preferred number, & I am certainly capable of such simple operations & responsibilities as Keeper of the Light entails, I would hope! Thanks to the generosity of Dr. Shaw, I am well outfitted with supplies to last through the upcoming six months, as the Light-House is an impressively sturdy bulwark to withstand virtually all onslaughts of weather in this temperate zone not unlike the waters of the Atlantic east of Cape Hatteras. "So long as you return to 'rescue' me, before the southern winter begins," I joked with the captain of the Ariel; a burly dark-browed Spaniard who laughed heartily at my wit, replying in heavily accented English he would sail into the waters of Hades itself if the recompense was deemed sufficient; as, given Dr. Shaw's fortune, it would appear to be.

8 October 1849. This day—my second upon the Light-House—I make my second entry into the Diary with yet more resolution & certainty of purpose than the first. For last night's sleep, while fitful, owing to the winds that never cease to insinuate themselves into the cracks & crevices of the Light-House, was the most restful in many months. I believe that I have cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died. (Yes, it is too ludicrous: Mercury barks as if laughing at his master's fanciful thoughts.)

Yesterday evening, with much enthusiasm, in the waning hours of the lengthy day, my canine companion and I climbed to the great lantern, & proceeded as required; ah! there is indeed wind at this height, that sucked away our breath like invisible harpies, but we withstood the assault; I took great pleasure in striking the first match, & bringing it to the tongue-like wick so soaked in a flammable liquid, it seemed virtually to breathe in the flame from my fingers. "Now, that is done. I declare myself Keeper of the Light at Viña de Mar: that all ships be warned of the treacherous rocks of the coast." Laughing then aloud, for sheer nervous happiness; as Mercury barked excitedly, in confirmation.

With this, any phantom doubts I might have entertained of being abandoned to the elements, were put immediately to rest; for I acknowledge, I am one of those individuals of a somewhat fantastical & nervous disposition, who entertains worries where there are none, as my late beloved V. observed of me, yet who does not sufficiently worry of what is. "In this, you are not unlike all men, from our esteemed 'leaders' downward," V. gently chided. (V. took but fond note of my character, never criticizing it; between us, who were related by cousinly blood as by matrimony, & by a like predilection for the great Gothic works of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Heinrich von Kleist, & Jean Paul Richter, there fluidly passed at all times as if we shared an identical bloodstream a kindred humor & wryness of sympathy undetectable to the crass individuals who surrounded us.)

But—why dwell upon these distracting thoughts, since I am here, & in good health & spirits, eager to begin what posterity will perhaps come to call The Diary of the Fabled Light-House at Viña de Mar, a document to set beside such celebrated investigations into the human psyche as the Meditations of René Descartes, the Pensées of Blaise Pascal, Les rêveries du promeneur solitaire of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, & the sixty-five volumes of Jean Paul Richter.

Wild Nights!
Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway
. Copyright © by Joyce Oates. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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