Book review: Ron Charles reviews "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" by Jerome Charyn

By Ron Charles
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 24, 2010


By Jerome Charyn

Norton. 348 pp. $24.95

If all you know about dear Emily Dickinson comes from a few sparkling nature poems and "The Belle of Amherst," cover your eyes. Your carriage is about to cross into Amherst's red-light district. Jerome Charyn's new novel about the poet tears up William Luce's classic play as though it were a faded greeting card. With its X-ray vision of what's really goin' on under her long white skirt, "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" promises a tarted-up tale of America's favorite poet -- and that narrow fellow in the grass.

The bawdy dust jacket and suggestive title aren't entirely misleading. For more than 40 years, Charyn has been mating fact and fiction in clever ways. In 2008, he attracted some good attention for "Johnny One-Eye," a comic picaresque about the American Revolution. But fooling around with George Washington and Benedict Arnold is one thing; taking the Sacred Virgin of American Poetry to second base is another. We want the prim Dickinson who told a friend, "The lovely flowers embarrass me," but here we see her sitting on a frat boy's lap squealing about the eruption of Vesuvius. Charyn has taken the poet at her word that a "secret, perched in ecstacy/Defies imprisonment!"

A desecration? Hardly. Charyn tells the truth, but tells it slant. Dickinson has been teasing us for more than 150 years. During her lifetime as the daughter of Amherst's most prominent man, she was famously reclusive -- and alluring. She lowered notes and treats from her window on a string. She carried on conversations with guests through a door kept barely ajar. She was a master at controlling others by withholding herself: As one of her poems taunts, "Big my Secret but it's bandaged --/It will never get away." And that obsessive privacy continued long after her death in 1886, when her sister discovered more than 1,700 poems in her room. Those perplexing little masterpieces seeped out with excruciating slowness in unhelpfully "corrected" versions. A complete, authoritative edition didn't appear until 1955, 90 years after many of the poems were written during the Civil War.

Several superb biographies of Dickinson have appeared (my favorite is still Cynthia Griffin Wolff's revelatory "Emily Dickinson" from 1986), along with a host of reminiscences and specialized studies, including Brenda Wineapple's marvelous "White Heat" (2008) and the indispensable three-volume variorum edition of the poems, edited by R.W. Franklin in 1998.

Charyn, however, presents something very different. Through a perceptive reading of Dickinson's verse and correspondence, he's re-created her wild mind in all its erudition, playfulness and nervous energy. Purporting to write in her private voice, he catches the erratic feints and poses as she breaks in and out of the third person -- Vampyre, Kangaroo, Queen -- and jumps erratically through little asides and jokes, plunging into fits of grief and anxiety. It's all enough to make you realize, finally, what her friend and first editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, meant when he complained that her "wantonness of overstatement" exhausted him. "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much."

The arc of the novel follows the basic outline of Dickinson's biography, but Charyn cuts and shapes the story aggressively. And he molds his version of the poet's life around her obsession with two fictional characters from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which the real Dickinson attended briefly around 1847. The first is Tom, the campus handyman with a racy tattoo on his arm. When the novel opens, 17-year-old Emily is enthralled by this rough-hewn character, the sole male at Mount Holyoke. "I had only one wish," she claims: "to be stapled forever to Tom." The headmistress is determined to make these girls into little brides of Christ, but Emily admits with her usual tone of self-mocking melodrama, "I'm hellbound in all my wickedness. . . . Tom had become my Calvary."

Competing with her for his affections is another fictional character: a poor, homely student named Zilpah Marsh, who at different times is Emily's best friend, her maid, her doppelgänger and her curse. Indeed, for decades Tom and Zilpah turn up in various guises and disguises, exciting Emily's romantic affections and dread.

I'm not convinced very much is gained by adding these two characters to Dickinson's life. Tom and Zilpah appear in the strangest and most surreal scenes -- working as a clown or a pickpocket or raving mad in a lunatic asylum -- and Emily's long preoccupation with them tends to make her seem unbalanced, even delusional.

Besides, the family members and acquaintances whom history has provided are quite colorful enough, and they all make a good showing in these pages. Dickinson was a close friend of a prominent newspaper editor named Sam Bowles. She almost married a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Court when he was in his late 60s. Her volcanic sister-in-law and neighbor, Susan Gilbert, entertained Emerson and other national figures.

Charyn is particularly good at dramatizing the repressive affection of Emily's father, the stern Squire of Amherst, who ruled over the town and his family as a benevolent dictator. That he adores her Emily never doubts, but she also knows he'll never let her go, and she gradually internalizes his cloistered design for her life even as she rails against it. "I am not your favorite feather," she wants to shout at him, "but a woman with a ferocious will."

As the novel moves along, her various romantic obsessions peak and pass, one by one, in fits of hysterical devotion and outrageous behavior ("I have never had such gymnastics performed upon my face. . . . I have no more morals than a harem girl"). Much of the time she seems to be reenacting her own mash-up of "Jane Eyre" and "The Rape of the Lock." Even after she leaves the rakish college boys behind and settles into her old-maid status as "the Squire's eccentric daughter, a meteor in the dark glasses, hopping along like a wingless bird," she still entertains a series of romantic possibilities.

Charyn has a perfect ear for Dickinson's ironic wit, her wicked characterizations of friends and enemies, but even allowing for a novelist's license, much is omitted here that I can't forgive. The flighty, unbalanced and childish Emily is given far more voice in these pages than the profound writer who claimed, "I dwell in Possibility."

The more familiar you are with the poems, the more you'll hear allusions and phrases woven into this narrative ("Because I could not stop for Death" is just one used to gorgeous effect). But we get no full poems in these pages, and that seems a damnable omission. Charyn's Emily mentions that "lines came like lightning and left like lightning, and I had to write each one down with my pencil stub or lose it forever," but these flashes of composition are just the smallest, most incidental part of the novel. From my reading of her poems, Dickinson's life was a fierce battle with her disappointments and with God, a war carried on with those pointed lines, calling Him to account for His clumsiness, His aloofness, His mindless cruelty. But too little of that spiritual acuity and agony rises from Charyn's story. For all the private romantic anxieties spilled here, Dickinson knew that "Dust is the only secret." Without that daring stare into the face of death, the poet's life is a lot of nervous prattle.

Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at

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