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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.