The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
by Jerome Charyn
Norton, 348 pp., $24.95
Of literary sleights of hand none is more exhilarating for the writer, as none is likely to be riskier, than the appropriation of another—classic—writer’s voice. In recent years there has emerged a company of remarkably imaginative, sympathetic, and diverse fictional portraits of literary predecessors: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (Virginia Woolf); Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James); Jay Parini’s The Last Station (Tolstoy); Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane, with appearances by Henry James and Joseph Conrad); Sheila Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, with sisters Emily and Anne).
In these exemplary works of biographically fueled fiction it’s as if the postmodernist impulse to rewrite and revise the past has been balanced by a more Romantic wish to reenter, renew, and revitalize the past: not to suggest an ironic distance from its inhabitants but to honor them by granting them life again, including always the stumbling hesitations, misfires, and despair of actual life—in contrast with the very notion of “classic.” As each generation would seem to require new translations of great texts, so new visions of our great predecessors would seem to exert a powerful attraction for fellow/sister writers.
No conventional biography of Henry James, for instance, could present the Master as tenderly yet unsparingly as Colm Tóibín’s Jamesian portrait, for the novelist is in possession of information about which his subject is in “denial”; no conventional biography of Stephen Crane can bring us so intimately, terribly, and funnily into the hectic private lives of the tuberculosis-stricken Crane, his (former brothel-owner) wife, and their writer-friends as Edmund White’s lyric novel; no conventional biography of the Brontë sisters is likely to present their highly charged family drama—in which Charlotte emerges, as if by chance, as the triumphant survivor among her gifted siblings—more convincingly than Sheila Kohler’s impressionistically rendered group portrait.
In this company, Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is something of an anomaly. With an epigraph from Dickinson—”To shut our eyes is Travel”—the novel is best described as a fever-dream picaresque in a slightly less febrile mode than Charyn’s previous faux-historical novel Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution (2008). Clearly, these are bold postmodernist appropriations of the past—playful, subversive, phantasmagoric. Charyn’s Emily Dickinson speaks with the appealingly wistful naiveté of Charyn’s young hero, or antihero, Johnny One-Eye; like this keen-witted observer of vividly rendered eighteenth-century colonial American life, who describes himself as “unremarkable” amid a querulous crew of quasi-historical figures like George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benedict Arnold, Charyn’s Dickinson is essentially a marginal figure in her own life, a succession of “wild masks” in thrall to the ever- elusive (male) objects of her desire.
Far from being a faithful or even a plausible portrait of the historical Dickinson, for whom poetry was a kind of sustained guerrilla warfare against the confines of her daughterly life amid a conventional Protestant small-town society, Charyn’s portrait makes of Dickinson a defiant adventuress more enamored of prowling “rum resorts” (Amherst College drinking clubs), back alleys, and circuses in search of male companionship than of such bookish pursuits as reading the classics and “scribbling” poetry. In one of her guises as “the ghost of Currer Bell” (Charlotte Brontë), Dickinson is discovered by her older, disapproving brother Austin in a “dark dead-end of Rooming-house Row” on the wrong side of the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts:
“Emily, what are you doing in this godforsaken corner?”
“The same as you, I imagine. Looking for adventure.”
“And what sort of adventure could you possibly find in Rooming-house Row?” asks [Gould], his enormous ears suddenly materializing in front of my eyes.
“I am not much traveled, Mr. Gould, being a member of the female sex who is not permitted to venture far without a male. But I had an irresistible urge to see where the maids and housekeepers of our finest families live.”
At her most audacious this Emily exchanges kisses with shadowy suitors in taverns, risks being treated very roughly—”scalped”—by mobs of surly Union army deserters, and pursues the phantom of a handsome handyman-lover through decades from Mount Holyoke Female Academy (1848) to her bedridden life as Queen Recluse in her father’s house, the Homestead (1880s). Repeatedly, her delusions of romantic love are rebuffed or vaporize into thin air; yet she persists in imagining herself as having “no more morals than a harem girl.” Poor Emily, a poet by default! Her quixotic yearnings persist to her final delirium: “I am wearing a bridal gown with my slippers and yellow gloves, though I’m not certain whose bride I am.”
In short, Charyn has invented for Emily Dickinson an active, at times frantic counterlife the poet never had: a “secret” life of unrepressed erotic desire. There is seriocomic pathos here—as well as a brashly subjective vision of our greatest American woman poet. Through years of amorous adventures and misadventures Dickinson flirts with men, maneuvers herself into compromising situations with men, yet seems never to actually lose her virginity—or does she? (“Lord, I did not know who I am or ever was.”) Near the end of her life—Dickinson died at the age of fifty-five, in May 1886, of Bright’s disease—she was courted by an elderly widower, a friend of her father’s, Judge Otis Phillips Lord of the Commonwealth Supreme Court, who did not live long enough to marry her, though he seems truly to have loved her, as Dickinson seems to have loved him. This poignant late-life romance is rendered delicately by Charyn, if ironically:
Suddenly I was Cleopatra with a plain simple face….
I could feel Phil’s longing as we lay together, and it emboldened me to think that I could arouse the want of a man. I did not scheme like Cleopatra in my Salem’s arms. If I held back, did not allow him into the Moss of my own little garden, it was not to punish or declare my modesty. I had none. It was just that my Salem was not a male witch. Whatever magic he had wasn’t enough to slay me into submission.
But our ecstasy did build with all the slow craft of a snail.
Among Charyn’s writerly gifts is a dazzling energy—a highly inflected rapid-fire prose that pulls us along like a pony cart over rough terrain, blurring author (Charyn) and subject (the “masks” of Emily) in a collage of short, often poignant scenes that generally end with the poet returned to her home deflated, rebuffed, dazed, yet still enthralled:
But I ain’t comforted much…. I could have slept on Zilpah’s porch and waited for the sun to rise. I would have learned something about that robbers’ roost of hers. But what if the robbers had swept me inside and I never saw Pa-pa and Carlo [her dog] again? They wouldn’t have bothered ransoming an old maid. And suppose their leader, Richard Midnight, tried to peck at me with his filthy mouth while Zilpah guffawed with delight and savored her own triumph? She’d have Pa-pa all to herself. She’d inherit my pencils and writing paper, and Pa-pa would consider it a miracle to have a housekeeper who could scratch an occasional Verse. Lord, it was too much to bear.
And again, following a particularly hallucinatory episode:
The mosquitoes were already tormenting me. I couldn’t move without marching into a whole skirt of them. I must have been near the river. The rot of marshland burned in my nose. And then that first signal of moon blindness struck—the feel of a terrifying stitch at the back of my head. And I plunged into total darkness, as if I’d fallen into Father’s well, but it was like a hollow without an end. I spun within its walls, faster and faster, and woke with a stifled scream on the front steps of 86 Austin, wrapped inside the shelter of an old horse blanket.
The “secret life” is narrated by Emily in brief, breathless chapters bracketed by passages of italicized prose in which the subject is viewed from the perspective of family observers. Here, where we might expect to see a different Emily, the portrait is more or less identical to the girlish self-portrait, even when the poet has become middle-aged:
Then, years after all the clandestine deliveries [Dickinson’s correspondence with the Reverend Wadsworth], her Master showed up at the door. Emily was in the garden with her watering pail. And Vinnie [her sister] knew it was the Master, knew it in an instant, as he clutched the bell pull. He didn’t announce himself, but asked for Emily in that deep voice of his, like wind barreling out of a tunnel…. And Emily, who’d always fled from intruders and depended on Vinnie to be her shield, rid herself of the pail and ran to Rev. Wadsworth, her Master, like a child out of breath….
It’s after this scene that Vinnie searches out her sister’s “Snow”—one of Dickinson’s words for her poetry—and discovers it hidden away in Dickinson’s bedroom bureau:
Little sewn booklets in a box, like the magic fans of a courtesan or coquette. And with these fans were scraps of paper and envelopes and fliers with poems scratched onto them in Emily’s own hand.
[Vinnie] began to cry and laugh at this startling treasure, but was too timid to read a line…. She couldn’t say why, but she started to dance in Emily’s room. She wanted to cover herself in Emily’s Snow, to feel it against her skin. Perhaps she was the coquette…. Vibrations went through her body like the shivering of the Lord.
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is filled with such luminous, fleeting scenes, as if in mimicry of Dickinson’s account of her own inspiration: “Lines came like lightning and left like lightning, and I had to write each one down with my pencil stub or lose it forever.”
It is Colm Tóibín’s interpretation of Henry James that his life as an artist was determined by erotic desire not only unexpressed but unacknowledged by James; in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, by contrast, Charyn’s artist-heroine is defined almost entirely by her erotic-romantic desires, not only expressed but “acted out”—at least, to a degree highly improbable in a well-born young woman of Amherst, Massachusetts, in the early to mid-1800s. For admirers of Dickinson for whom the biographical facts of her much-scrutinized life are sacrosanct, even as interpretations of these facts might widely vary, the liberties taken by Charyn in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson will be distracting, if not jarring.
Such purely invented characters as the illiterate, tattooed Tom the Handyman and the Amherst College tutor Brainard Rowe, as well as Dickinson’s wild-girl alter ego–poetess Zilpah Marsh, who at one point lives in the root cellar of the Dickinsons’ stately house, are principal in the novel, even as historic figures like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s controversial first editor, with whom she corresponded for many years, and the flamboyant young woman Mabel Loomis Todd, with whom her much-revered older brother Austin had an adulterous relationship and who would be Dickinson’s controversial posthumous editor, are relatively undeveloped.
Even Dickinson’s charismatic Vesuvius of a sister-in-law Sue, the aggrieved wife of Austin, makes a belated appearance in Dickinson’s life as Charyn recounts it; Dickinson notes in passing, “I fell in love with her when I was but a Boy”—but we see relatively little of the famously volatile sister-in-law. And the much-reiterated appeal of Tom the Handyman—metamorphosed finally as “that blond Assassin in the sunlight” in one of Dickinson’s poems—is difficult to comprehend over a period of so many years—so many picaresque experiences—and hundreds of pages.
A fully realized principal character in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, as he was a principal character in the historic Dickinson’s life, is her father, Edward Dickinson, a Christian pillar of the Amherst community and a US congressman. “Squire” Dickinson exudes an air of benevolent despotism in his household of mostly women:
It is only Father who can make me tremble. He has the wrath of God in his wayward eyebrows. But Father suffers a little without me. He swears to Mother that he can only survive on the Indian bread I bake. He loves to have me near….
The distinguished Mr. Dickinson—”Pa-pa”—enters into the poet’s fever-dreams like the objects of her erotic fascinations, and seems at times identical with them:
Swirling in Father’s arms, I feel like a broken doll. Pa-pa, I want to shout, I am not your favorite feather, but a woman with a ferocious will. I do not utter a peep, & Father plunks me under the quilt with the same brutal tenderness that has become his signature.
Dickinson adores her father even as she has no illusions about his estimate of his “womenfolk”:
He took care of us, but in his own heart he must have felt that we were crippled creatures—mermaids who couldn’t swim. Daughters don’t matter much. I was a cripple to him, in spite of all my Plumage.
Nor does Dickinson’s father evince much interest in her literary inclinations: “Pa-pa did talk Poetry, but only with his horse. The rest of the world was pure Prose.” In a bitter-comic passage that recalls a similar experience of Charlotte Brontë when she’d given her self-centered minister-father a copy of Jane Eyre to read, along with a selection of very good reviews, Dickinson complains:
It tore at me that Father did not know one damn thing about my Treasure. A couple of years ago I gathered up the courage to leave one small booklet of Verses under his door. Lord, I wasn’t looking for praise, but the privilege of having a tiny anthill of my own. Months later I found that booklet shoved back under my door like a misused missile. And never a sound from Pa-Pa, never a syllable…. It wouldn’t even have pleasured Pa-pa had he known that half my songs were to him.
Dickinson is then stunned when her father unexpectedly serenades her with lines from her poetry, explaining that it had taken him two years to recover from the experience of reading her poems: “They nearly tore my head off.”
Among the many wonderfully lyric —magical—vignettes in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, the most memorable have to do with death: the death of Dickinson’s beloved, elderly dog Carlo, and the death of the Squire. Charyn has never written more powerfully and persuasively than in these lovely pages in the section titled “Queen Recluse” that covers the years following 1865 when Dickinson has taken up with masochistic fervor the mantle of “irascible old maid.” Far more significant in Dickinson’s life than her string of romantic infatuations is “the Pup [who] has seen me cry, throw jealous fits, plot against Pa-pa…. I cannot recall being lonely in his presence.”
Following Carlo’s death, Dickinson is more easily “terrified.” The wild alter ego Zilpah dies a suicide in 1873 having scribbled “Zilpah is zero at the bone.” Soon after, the great catastrophe of Dickinson’s life occurs, when she’s forty-three and her father seventy-one—Edward Dickinson’s death of a stroke in Boston. So deeply bereft is Dickinson that she can’t attend his funeral but hides away—”The slumber I had was like a tiny groan in a sea of wakefulness.” An “avalanche of dreams” shakes her intermittently for years:
I moan in the middle of the night. A Monster chases me, with a ruffled, unfamiliar form, yet owning my father’s dark eyes. I cannot bring myself to call him Pa-Pa.… So I call him Dark Eyed Mister, and his horrid, unnatural face begins to smile—or grin, I should confess, since he does not have a regular mouth, but a lipless hole that serves as a mouth. It puzzles the mind. Is this Monster my Pa-pa, the earl of Amherst, transmogrified by some substation between celestial and terrestrial ground?
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson gains emotional momentum as it moves from the picaresque romps of Dickinson’s youth to the stoicism of her final years. Losses of Carlo, her father, and a beautiful young nephew have the effect of easing Dickinson toward her own death, presaged by the diminution of her “lightning” powers: “My pencil hung on its string at my side like a sick snake, or a pendulum that could sometimes breathe.”
In his winningly written author’s note to Johnny One-Eye, Jerome Charyn speaks of his lifelong interest in George Washington and the Revolutionary War era—”I have been writing Johnny One-Eye ever since I was nine, a street kid in the South Bronx.” In his author’s note to The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Charyn acknowledges an even deeper kinship with Dickinson:
She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start…. It was the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer.
As Charyn has been an exuberant chronicler of the mythos of American life from the start of his career in a succession of highly stylized novels—he has written thirty-seven books, including three memoirs—it’s likely that he has imagined “Jerome Charyn” in romantic-mythic terms as well, a precocious naïf:
We had so little in common. She was a country girl, and I was a boy from the Bronx. She had a lineage with powerful roots in America, and I was a mongrel whose heritage was like an unsolved riddle out of Eastern Europe. Yet I could hear the tick of her music in my wakefulness and in my sleep. Suddenly that plain little woman with her bolts of red hair was as familiar to me as the little scars on my own face.
Charyn’s Dickinson is “terrifying in her variety…bitchy, petulant, and seductive, and also a mournful, masochistic mouse in love with a mystery man she called ‘Master.’” As biographers and commentators have noted, this “Master” might have been any of a half-dozen men, or no one, as the poetry inspired by “Master” seems to conceal as much as it reveals. Both the historical Dickinson and the poetry she left behind in the little hand-sewn booklets lend themselves to endless speculation, decoding, and mimicry—attempts at appropriation and mimicry, in Charyn’s words:
[The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson] will be told entirely in Emily’s voice, with all its modulations and tropes—tropes I learned from her letters, wherein she wears a hundred masks, playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil as she delights and often disturbs us, just as I hope my Emily will both delight and disturb the reader and take her roaring music right into the twenty-first century.
Yet the voice Charyn has created for Emily Dickinson doesn’t truly suggest this range of personalities. This Dickinson is forever defined by—if not trapped in—the breathless yearnings of a (female) adolescent as imagined by a (male) novelist: we are led to wonder of the Emily Dickinson who read widely, and purposefully, in all the great poets she could get her hands on, including Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, and “Mr. and Mrs. Browning”—what of the poet who read with an eye for the craft of poetry? It is surely true that lines came like “lightning” to the poet—as to many poets; but it is also true that Dickinson worked and reworked her poems, often over a period of years, as she worked and reworked her brilliantly teasing letters.
Consider the celebrated last letter of Emily Dickinson’s life, written to her Norcross cousins shortly before her death:
Is this a letter or a poem? Is it both? One can see by the very spacing of the lines that this seemingly tossed-off farewell isn’t just “lightning” but also conscious, considered craft. And among Dickinson’s extraordinary 1,775 poems and many hundreds of letters this is just one tiny gem.
To have created a portrait of Emily Dickinson that accommodated both the girl-adolescent and the canny poet suffused with a wish to make of her craft something beyond the fleeting moment—a portrait that acknowledged the subject’s literary ambition and her not-modest assessment of her own writerly gifts—would have required a different, more spacious vision of Dickinson than Charyn seems to wish to provide here. Could one imagine a portrait of a male poet—Dickinson’s contemporary Walt Whitman, for instance—for whom poetry wasn’t the very center of his life, far more inextricably bound up with his identity than a succession of mere romantic yearnings? It may even have been that, in the tradition of (male) poetry, Emily Dickinson employed her “Master” as a sort of muse: a scaffolding of sorts for her art. How else to interpret such lines of poetry as Dickinson often wrote, leaping from a private subject to a purely contemplative statement:
Oh Life, begun in fluent Blood
And consummated dull!
Achievement contemplating thee—
Feels transitive and cool.
There is considerable pathos, however, in Charyn’s clearly sympathetic and warmly imagined tracking of his subject’s doomed attempt to thwart her destiny—to escape her father’s house and, as if incidentally, to escape the very circumstances that made her “Snow”—her brilliant poetry—possible. This is not a portrait of the artist with which we may, or can, easily identify, but The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson makes of this questionable thesis a poignant, delicately rendered vision. It’s as if all art is but a strategy to “invent” a bearable life, as Charyn’s Dickinson suggests in this elegiac passage late in the novel:
I would suffer each time Circus season arrived…. The nearness of my blond Assassin intoxicated me, and I wasn’t even sure that Tom was a renegade clown in the Circus. But that was the disease of Miss Emily Dickinson. I had to invent what I could not ascertain—no, did not want to ascertain. I was the voluptuary who lived on the thinnest air, who survived and conquered through invention alone.