Monday, February 28, 2011

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A NovelWhen talking about Emily Dickinson, author Jerome Charyn comments that "in her writing she broke every rule." In The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Jerome Charyn breaks a certain kind of rule himself--a rule many writers these days are beginning to break--and uses a literary figure as the central character in his novel.  His book is a fictionalized biography of Dickinson from her early years until her death.  Charyn uses deep readings of the real Dickinson's poetry and her letters to provide the basis for his own fictionalized Emily.  In his hands, she is wild, strange, distant yet in-your-face, overly self-assured and yet wildly timid at the same time.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing in Charyn's book is his attempts to channel the private voice of Emily Dickinson.  Often he accomplishes this beautifully, echoing the sometimes-erratic and strange tone of her poetry in a way that sounds authentic and meaningful.  I'll give a few examples:

"I will let Imagination run to folly."

"Who was this lioness?  Could it have been the same lightning that arrived so suddenly and seemed to rip Verses out of my skin?"

"She conspired and bled bitter smoke, as erupting volcanoes often do.  But none had been as beautiful as she."

"And so I should like a horn, but my horn is meager and not made of fine metal."

But there are also times when the cipher-code of Dickinson's reconstructed voice pushes the reader away.  The choice to use first person narration usually helps a reader understand the internal world of a character.  In this case, the convoluted voice of this shrouded poet felt alienating.  Of course, this strange voice of hers (and his) keeps her mysterious and private--and almost certainly that is what she would have wanted.

More troubling than the strangeness of her voice is the fact that his Emily seems to have no desire to understand or analyze herself.  She seems remarkably immature, completely petty and selfish, and awfully thoughtless.  Perhaps this is the true Dickinson, but if so, I fail to understand how she could have produced such deep and powerful poetry.  His Emily, at least to me, winds up seeming like a poorly drawn character.

Although The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson was shaped profoundly by the writings of the real Dickinson, I was bothered by two wild departures from evidence:

1.  the creation of two major characters, wholly fictional, who seem to explain almost everything that happens in Dickinson's life and appears in her poetry.  The story of her life when explained this way starts seeming too pat, too complete.  Every little bit of added detail seems to fit into some grand puzzle.

2. the striking absence of the real Dickinson's poems.  Although there are allusions to many of them, I kept wanting Charyn to provide a more concrete or substantial link between his story of the poet and her poetry.  The choice to do so would have not only paid tribute to Dickinson but strengthened the power of the novel.

I have mixed opinions about this book.  I am drawn to the sometimes-beautiful language of the novel.  I love Charyn's efforts to make connections to other writers of Dickinson's day such as Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot.  And there are certainly some imaginative insights that ring true.  Fundamentally, though, the novel does not seem to accomplish what it sets out to do.  Overall, it did not give me a deeper understanding of Emily Dickinson.  Nor do I think the book with its skeleton characters and predetermined episodic plot works as an independent novel.

My verdict: read it if you are obsessed with all things Emily--and then follow your reading of Charyn with the words of the poet herself in a new and fabulous edition of some of her poems complete with commentary by the brilliant Helen Vendler.

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This post is part of the Tribute Blog Tour of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson.  Click on the link to see a list of other blogger's opinions and ideas about this book.


  1. Like you, I had trouble with this book and in fact was not able to bring myself to finish it. I ended up having to divorce the character of Emily from the Emily Dickinson I know.

  2. Hannah, thanks for your review, and for hosting a stop on the blog tour. I really admire the mission of your blog in promoting the classics.

  3. Crowe Flies: I'm sorry you couldn't finish it. There is so much that really works in this book that I was sorry it didn't all come together for me. And I agree with you that separating the character of Emily from the real-life poet makes some of the book less troubling.

    Tribute: Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to review this book. And thank you as well for your very kind remark about my goal. I've learned so much already!

  4. I'm always weary of such books, especially after The Taste of Sorrow, which everyone seemed to like...

  5. Alexandra: I haven't read any Jude Morgan--but am pretty skeptical about those books. I love Charlotte Bronte so much I'm just not quite ready to risk it with that book!

  6. Dickinson is such an intriguing person, but I should probably read more of her own work rather than stuff like this. :) I've barely touched the surface of her work.

  7. I love the cover of this book but know about nothing about Dickinson, so this is probably not a book for me.

  8. Trisha and leeswammes: Definitely check out Helen Vendler edition of ED's poems, linked to at the end of the post. Vendler's commentary is brilliant and allows ED's voice to shine through very brightly.

  9. I love the cover of this book. Emily Dickinson is one of my favorite poets, but I've only read a handful of her poems. That's why this book scares me. I might not get all the references. :)

  10. Darlyn: Now might be your chance! You could read the novel (which does make many references but none of them are necessary for understanding the book)--then go read ED herself and see what fits and what doesn't. Or, even better, just go straight to the ED...

  11. I think I'll probably pass on this novel. I have Helen Vendler's wonderful book though, and love sitting down and reading one or two of her commentaries on ED's beautiful poems. I am actually planning to start a weekly "Emily Dickinson Project" on my blog, and start featuring a poem of hers, background information, etc. I think it'll be fun. My plan is to get it started at some point in November, and given that she wrote just under 1,800 poems, it ought to keep me busy for a while! ;-)

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