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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinsonby Jerome Charyn
Synopses & Reviews
What if the old maid of Amherst wasn't an old maid at all? Her older brother, Austin, spoke of Emily as his wild sister. Jerome Charyn, continuing his exploration of American history through fiction, has written a startling novel about Emily Dickinson in her own voice, with all its characteristic modulations that he learned from her letters and poems. The poet dons a hundred veils, alternately playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil. We meet the significant characters of her life, including her tempestuous sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert; her brooding father, Edward; and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, who may have inspired some of her greatest letters and poems. Charyn has also invented characters, including an impoverished fellow student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, who will betray her; and a handyman named Tom, who will obsess Emily throughout her life. Charyn has written an extraordinary adventure that will disturb and delight.
"Versatile and puckish Charyn extends his rascally improvisations on American history....In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination, liberating Dickinson from the prim and proper cameo image of a repressed lady in white, and revealing just how free she truly was." Booklist (starred review)
"Its strength is in the way Charyn immerses himself in Dickinson's voice, using it to create a beguiling narrative." Library Journal
"Charyn has a perfect ear for Dickinson's ironic wit, her wicked characterizations of friends and enemies..." Ron Charles, The Washington Post
Charyn pens an astonishing novel that removes Emily Dickinson's mysterious mask and reveals the passions and heartbreak of America's greatest poet.
"In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review
“There's nothing quite like a Charyn novel. . . . His sentences make a mournful and sensational clatter, like a bundle of butcher knives dropped on a cathedral floor.” —Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post
“Jerome Charyn is one of the most important writers in American literature.” —Michael Chabon
An astonishing novel that reveals the passions, humor, and heartbreak of America’s greatest poet.
“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is astonishing. Charyn gives Emily Dickinson a new life, and one with a rush of energy and power. I shall never see her or her poetry in the same way again.” —Frederic Tuten, author of Adventures of Mao on the Long March
“I never heard Emily Dickinson’s voice, but Jerome Charyn’s novel convinces me that this is the nineteenth-century genius woman poet, actually telling her story. . . . A tour de force by a major American novelist.” —Herbert Gold, author of Still Alive: A Temporary Condition
“In his breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism, Jerome Charyn pulls off the nearly impossible: in The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson he imagines an Emily Dickinson of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amid a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is. This is a bold book, but we’d expect no less of this amazing novelist.” —Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson
“Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and crack comic timing. Whatever milieu he chooses to inhabit, his characters sizzle with life and his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable.” —Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude
“Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible.” —Tom Bissell, author of God Lives in St. Petersburg
“Charyn skillfully breathes life into historical icons.”—The New Yorker
“Deserves to be spoken about in the same breath as E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” —Publishers Weekly, about Johnny One-Eye
Jerome Charyn has been writing some of the most bold and adventurous American fiction for over forty years. His ten-book cycle of novels about madcap New York mayor and police commissioner Isaac Sidel inspired a new generation of younger writers in America and France, where he is a national literary icon. Now, adding to his already distinguished career, Charyn gives us The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, an audacious novel about the inner imaginative world of America’s greatest poet. Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn has removed the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality.
The story begins in the snow. It’s 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. She sees the seminary’s blond handyman rescue a baby deer from a mountain of snow, in a lyrical act of liberation that will remain with her for the rest of her life. The novel revivifies such historical figures as Emily’s brother, Austin, with his crown of red hair; her sister-in-law, Sue; a rival and very best friend, Emily’s little sister, Lavinia, with her vicious army of cats; and especially her father, Edward Dickinson, a controlling congressman. Charyn effortlessly blends these very factual characters with a few fictional ones, creating a dramatis personae of dynamic breadth.
Inspired by her letters and poetry, Charyn has captured the occasionally comic, always fevered, ultimately tragic story of Dickinson’s journey from Holyoke seminarian to dying recluse, compulsively scribbling lines of genius in her Amherst bedroom. Rarely before has the nineteenth-century world of New England—its religious stranglehold, its barbaric insane asylums, its circus carnivals—been captured in such spectacular depth. Through its lyrical inflections and poetic rhythms, its invention of a distinct, twenty-first-century “Charynesque” language that pays remarkable homage to America’s sovereign literary past, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson provides a resonance of such power as to make this an indelible work of literature in its own right.
About the Author
Jerome Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and has received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His novels include Johnny One-Eye and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. He lives in Paris and New York.
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