February 2010

Not your grandmother’s Dickinson

By Jerome Charyn
Review by
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The book jacket of Jerome Charyn’s imagined life of Emily Dickinson depicts a demure young lady captured in a Victorian silhouette. The thing is, the woman’s hoop skirt is transparent and beneath it there are long legs, a hint of hot pants and booties. This image gives us the first hint that, no—Charyn’s Emily isn’t the recluse we’ve all heard about. Though she calls herself a "mouse” (among many other things), she’s not. She’s obsessed with, enraptured by and completely stupid about men, beginning with her father, the loving but overbearing and eccentric Edward Dickinson, the Squire of Amherst, Massachusetts. Indeed, given her fascination with the human male, you wonder how this version of Emily managed to stay unmarried all of her life, and a virgin (at least in the book) ’till she was about 52, if this reviewer read that scene correctly. And then you wonder how she found time to write her strange, sublime, deathless poetry. Biographers suggest that Emily was passionate, intemperate even. What she wasn’t was a ninny.

The novel begins with Emily at the women’s seminary at Mt. Holyoke, where she is a restless and skeptical teenager. She falls in love with the only male creature around: Tom the handyman, a blond, impoverished near mute who lives in a shack. When he comes down with a fever, she jumps at the chance to nurse him, elbowing aside the girl who becomes his lover in the process. Tom, in this rendering, will be the secret love of Emily’s life; she never gets over him even as she fixates on depressive preachers and other sad sacks. None of these chaps can possibly compete with her father, an otherwise powerful man who can’t seem to function without her and is much closer to her than he could ever be to his neurasthenic wife. The men who breeze in and out of Emily’s gaze aren’t up to par with her handsome Yalie brother Austin, who comes close to thrashing one of them for luring his “wild sister” into a rum joint.

This fictional Emily Dickinson may exhibit a surprising amount of indiscipline, although Charyn displays an eye for detail and an understanding of human inner turmoil that will draw in the reader. Of note in the book are echoes of the poetry that made Emily famous, as in the time she sees that fabled snake in her family’s orchard. Scenes that combine fantasy and poetry are the novel’s greatest success.

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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

By Jerome Charyn
ISBN 9780393068566

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