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Emily Dickinson's Racy Side

Ever since her death the reclusive poet’s life has fascinated readers and a new novel explores her unknown romantic life. Donna Seaman on the latest twist in Dickinson’s afterlife.

03.01.10 3:02 PM ET

Ever since her death, the reclusive poet’s life has fascinated readers and a new novel explores her unknown romantic life. Donna Seaman on the latest twist in Dickinson’s afterlife.

Walls of books have been written about Emily Dickinson, whose pithy lines have become common parlance, from “Hope is the thing with feathers” to “Parting is all we know of heaven, / And all we need of hell.” Dickinson’s poetry is unique in its distillation, provocative paradoxes, unforeseen juxtapositions, mischievous wit, candor about death, and epic yearning. We treasure Dickinson as a quintessential American—independent, original, and wild. A singular poet and a recluse in white, we cherish her as an unassailable bride of art, a virgin martyr to reflection, a burning-bright misfit. A woman who refused to declare religious allegiance, and who rejected the rigid roles 19th-century society demanded of women and sought to impose on artists, a genius steeped in the strange, steely syncopation of her poetry. For many, Dickinson is a beacon and a guiding light who issues such slant manifestoes as this: “How happy is the little stone / That rambles in the road alone, / And doesn’t care about careers, / And exigencies never fears.”

“I wanted to sit for a century. I could feel Brainard’s manliness against my flanks, like some curious harpoon that swelled and did not sting.”

In Jerome Charyn’s cleverly irreverent novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Emily sneaks out of her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, on clandestine missions, and falls in love with men she cannot have, and men who let her down, beginning with Tom, the illiterate and tattooed handyman at Mount Holyoke, where the real Dickinson was a student for a year. Having internalized Dickinson’s distinctive voice, Charyn has his shrewd, taunting, rebellious, and dazzlingly articulate protagonist protest her father’s iron rule. She muses, “How could I make Father understand that I was a warrior, not a meek little mouse?” Frustrated by her limited options versus her brother Austin’s freedom, she thinks, “I should have had the whiskers.” As for marriage, “I have to depend on suitors and their silly Valentines, when I’d love to wear a hawk’s wings and pursue my own prey.”

In his “Author’s Note,” Charyn—the Bronx-born author of three dozen books, including memoirs, detective novels, and historical novels set during the American Revolution and in Stalinist Russia—explains that the rule-breaking Dickinson inspired him to become a writer, hence his zestful, some would say outrageous, tribute. Of course Charyn isn’t the first to take liberties with Dickinson in an imaginative work. The Belle of Amherst, a one-woman play by William Luce, opened on Broadway in 1976, starring Julie Harris. Thanks to a PBS performance, Harris has been embraced as the hermit lady-poet incarnate. Solid in its scholarship, the play is treacly in its emphasis on Dickinson’s alleged shyness and perpetual baking.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson By Jerome Charyn 348 pages. W. W. Norton & Company. $24.95.

This calcified Dickinson icon is hilariously inflated in the film Being John Malkovich (1999). Written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, it begins with Craig (John Cusack), a discouraged and morose puppeteer, sneering at a television news story about his showy rival’s latest feat: a 60-foot Emily Dickinson marionette in a gigantic white hooped dress, hanging from a bridge in Westchester County, New York, ironically declaiming the poem that begins, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” The sound comes up strongly on the second stanza: “How dreary to be somebody! / How public, like a frog / To tell your name the livelong day / To an admiring bog!”

In more literary and sensitive forms of homage, poet of conscience Adrienne Rich has written incisive poems about Dickinson, as has Lucie Brock-Broido in The Master Letters. Dickinson scholar Judith Farr funneled her knowledge into an epistolary novel, I Never Came to You in White. In The Sister: A Novel of Emily Dickinson by Paola Kaufmann, Emily’s younger sister Lavinia, who ensured that Emily’s poems were finally published, is our guide to Dickinson’s world. Rose MacMurray has a precocious teenaged girl befriend the poet in her novel, Afternoons with Emily. Poet Elizabeth Spires introduces children to Dickinson in the charming illustrated tale, The Mouse of Amherst.

The same qualities that induce some admirers to sanctify solitary and philosophical Dickinson goad others to literary hijinks, often of an erotic nature as they respond to the ardor in her poems of longing and love, and her own sexual euphemisms. Billy Collins, a poet of slashing wit, strips bare the belle of Amherst, while also stealing her lines, in the devilishly risqué “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.” Joyce Carol Oates borrows Dickinson’s resounding cry from the heart, “Wild Nights!” for the title of her incendiary collection of “stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway.” How does Oates depict Dickinson? Reincarnated as a RepliLuxe, a smaller-than-life yet “life-like” artificial replicant. Purchased by a wealthy, unhappy, and clueless suburban couple, this self-possessed Emily wreaks sexually charged havoc.

In Charyn’s picaresque novel, Emily’s doomed infatuations spark mad adventures. She tracks down a man she desires in a filthy little tavern, where she drinks rum, and sits on his lap until the barkeep warns them of her brother’s arrival: “I wanted to sit for a century. I could feel Brainard’s manliness against my flanks, like some curious harpoon that swelled and did not sting. But the harpoon went away the moment Breckenbridge sounded his alarm, and I felt nothing but a quiver, as if manliness itself could jellify.” Indeed, Emily often feels that she is more of a man then the men in her circle, which proves especially frustrating once her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, comes into her life: “I fell in love with her when I was but a Boy, nimble and full of a teasing sport. My heart thumped whenever she was near... I would have gladly wooed her away from my brother had I been able to do so.”

Romance and sex aren’t all that preoccupy Charyn’s Emily. She is also acutely aware of social injustice, reflecting in her sparring way on class prejudice, sexism, the ill treatment of the mentally ill, and the consequences of religious hypocrisy. Her concerns, as well as her stubborn pursuit of Tom turned thief, induce her to play detective in the criminal underside of upright New England towns, where she encounters lives very different from her own privileged existence. While her interactions with other humans are fraught, she and her noble hound, Carlo, share pure unconditional love. She is also sustained and inspired by the writings of Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Browning, and George Eliot. Charyn does portray Emily as a serious and ambitious poet, a calling put to the test by cruel headaches and eye trouble that lead to her gadding about at night wearing dark glasses like a dissolute rock star, and doctor’s orders forbidding her to read and write:

“I’d rather have oblivion than be a prisoner without my Pen. I cannot soothe the constant noise inside my Brain, like a fluttering of feathers that grows fierce until I can scratch the syllables that each feather suggests––see them, touch them, my own fine feathers. Emily’s Brain will burst with all the bustle of her Plumage. But she does not rebel.”

In Charyn’s atmospheric and revealing novel, no one can match or parry Emily’s intensity, raking wit, leavened wryness, the way she jazzes language and poses prickly questions, the great net of her curiosity, or her refusal to simplify, pontificate, or make nice. So she keeps her secrets, declaring, “I was the voluptuary who lived on the thinnest air, who survived and conquered through invention alone.”

Will Dickinson devotees object to Charyn’s brassy presumption, his wild inventiveness, his commandeering of and tinkering with the poet’s voice? That remains to be seen. But one early reader, Brenda Wineapple, whose White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson has so richly enhanced our understanding of Dickinson, praises Charyn’s novel as a “high-wire act of ventriloquism.” Poet Simone Muench, whose third collection, Orange Crush, has just been released, says, “I think Charyn’s transformation of Dickinson into a narrator is a wonderful concept, and I can’t imagine people will object as long as she remains prismatic and kaleidoscopic. If Dickinson is somehow condensed, then I suspect people will feel proprietorial about her—a distinct need to protect her from categorization, and thus protect our own fascination with her multiplicity.” Susan Hahn, a poet and a playwright who has improvised on the life of Coco Chanel, and the longtime editor of the literary magazine TriQuarterly, says, “To give Emily Dickinson a fictionalized life––to take her out of her house in Amherst and “right down to the end of town” as A.A. Milne phrased it in his poem “Disobedience”––delights me. No matter how she lived, it’s immaterial given her “Wild Nights!,” her “Master,” and her heightened, passionate language––dashes and exclamation marks included. Others may strongly disagree, but I believe Emily Dickinson would have smiled at being taken on these adventures––a dart of white out the door into the night.”

Surely Charyn intends to provoke as much as entertain and enlighten. No writer, no matter how extraordinary nor how fervently deified, should be left untouched, collecting dust on her pedestal. Literature lives through reading, interpretation, appropriation, and debate. Every bold engagement with an artist and her work revives interest, rekindles passion, and sharpens our appreciation. As the real Emily Dickinson wrote, “Not knowing when the dawn will come / I open every door.”

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Donna Seaman is an associate editor for Booklist, a reviewer for the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Bookforum, and other venues. A book critic for Chicago Public Radio, her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books, and at www.openbooksradio.org.