Synopses & Reviews
“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 Dickinsonis 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 Dickinsonhe 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 is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and a crack comic timing." Jonathan Lethem
Q & A with Jerome Charyn, author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson 1. Q: The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson is the astonishing fictional autobiography of one of America's greatest poets. What inspired you to write a novel from the perspective of Emily Dickinson? What are you trying to reveal about her in this book? A: I fell in love with Emily Dickinson's poetry when I was a child. She was the first writer I had ever read. I would never have dared write a novel in her voice when I was younger, but I'm less "fearful" now. There is such a mystery about her life, about the loves she might have had--so much of her romance existed in her mind. I wanted to enter this mystery, to remove the myth of the Old Maid, and to reveal the woman who might have been there behind her many masks. 2. Q: This novel includes incredible detail about Emily Dickinson's family, the political and social climate of nineteenth-century New England, the Mount Holyoke Seminary, where Emily went to school, and Amherst, Massachusetts. What sort of research did you need to do in order to accurately inhabit her character? A: I read everything I could about her, but no biographer could help me crawl inside her skin. I had never read her letters until I began researching the novel I intended to write, and the letters were just as disturbing and electric as her very best poems; it was in the letters that I found the "music" I needed to write the novel. 3. Q: Much of the book is set in Amherst, where Emily Dickinson and her family spent most of their time. Indeed, the relatively bucolic, calm setting of the Amherst countryside comes in stark contrast to the gritty, crowded, mosquito-plagued streetscape of Boston, where Emily briefly relocated to consult with an eye doctor about her failing vision. What is the significance of place to the book and to the life and work of Emily Dickinson? A: Amherst seemed to be her entire life, but she had made two very long trips to Boston (and Cambridge) during the time of the Civil War and went through a rather excruciating treatment for her eyes. In my novel, I wanted her to wander around Boston and Cambridge half-blind: a country girl in the metropolis, without her Newfoundland, Carlo, who had been her one constant companion. It gave me a chance to show Emily under great stress. 4. Q: Your portrait of the prim, pious female society within nineteenth-century Mount Holyoke differs drastically from the raucous male fraternities of Amherst College, of which Emily's brother, Austin, was a member. If Emily Dickinson had been born a man, how do you think her poetic legacy and her prominent place within the public imagination would have been altered? A: But the real answer to your question is that Emily often liked to imagine herself as a man. Had she actually been born a man, I doubt that we would ever have had the same marvelous poetry--as creator she was both male and female. The poems are wicked, full of snares and tricks, and sometimes filled with "violence," but it is the violence of a woman who empowers herself in a world that gave her very little real power. 5. Q: With her many (unconsummated) love affairs with gentlemen ranging from a poor handyman to an alcoholic scholar to a man many years her senior, your Emily Dickinson is in many ways a more colorful and, some would say, scandalous figure than the reclusive woman we often think of. What led you to portray her in such a way? A: The poems themselves are often quite "sexy," and I wanted to crawl under the "vail" of her language, and reveal her own secret life, to show her as a subterranean creature in contrast to the prim old maid we often imagine her to be. She wasn't prim at all. 6. Q:What is it about Emily Dickinson's life and work that you feel continues to capture the public imagination? A: She was an incredibly brave woman, much more "modern" than anyone around her. She lived her own imaginative life with a daring that still startles me. As a woman she was entombed in the limits of her own time, but as a poet she went very, very deep into her own well, so that we have a kind of "autobiography" written with a fierce will that helped create her own rich interior life. 7. Q: What is gained/lost/revealed by a man undertaking to write a story from the perspective of so famous a female figure? A: I had to "reinvent" myself to write the book, to imagine myself into her own willful femininity. Perhaps in the twenty-first century our own sexuality is defined in a very different way and it's no longer so difficult to cross that "boundary" between male and female. Perhaps in writing the book I found the "female" within myself and was able to wind my way into the "bearded creature" she often imagined herself to be. Emily loved to think of herself as male and female. The only advantage I had as a writer was the closeness I felt to her and the belief that I could fall into her own dream. 8. Q: Emily Dickinson's schoolmate and maid, Zilpah Marsh, who succumbs to insanity, creates quite an impression as a madwoman, scrawling pictures on the wall of her asylum cell with her own blood. Bertha Rochester also makes an appearance in the book, as Emily and her friends speculate on the gender of the mysterious author of Jane Eyre. What is the significance of the madwoman to your book and to the time period? A: Zilpah was Emily's rival and her dream sister, and Zilpah's madness suggests some of the power of Emily's art. Both of them scribbled with their own blood, but Emily's was the blood of metaphor and language, and the "spillage" wasn't so great. Zilpha is the creature Emily might have become without the protective mask of family and "culture." Zilpah was that wild woman in the attic, like Mrs. Rochester, and Emily was frightened of them both and drawn to them both--they existed outside the realm of culture, in the wild language of art. "Jerome Charyn is merely one of our finest writers, with a polymorphous imagination and a crack comic timing." Jonathan Lethem
Jerome Charyn, "one of the most important writers in American literature" (Michael Chabon), continues his exploration of American history through fiction with , hailed by prize-winning literary historian Brenda Wineapple as a "breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism." Channeling the devilish rhythms and ghosts of a seemingly buried literary past, Charyn removes the mysterious veils that have long enshrouded Dickinson, revealing her passions, inner turmoil, and powerful sexuality. The novel, daringly written in first person, begins in the snow. It's 1848, and Emily is a student at Mount Holyoke, with its mournful headmistress and strict, strict rules. Inspired by her letters and poetry, Charyn goes on to capture the occasionally comic, always fevered, ultimately tragic story of her life-from defiant Holyoke seminarian to dying recluse.
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 Dickinsonprovides a resonance of such power as to make this an indelible work of literature in its own right.
"In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination."--Donna Seaman, , starred review
About the Author
Jerome Charyn, a master of lyrical farce and literary ventriloquism, published his first novel in 1964 and is the author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I Am Abraham, and dozens of other acclaimed novels and nonfiction works. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. Two of his memoirs have been named New York Times Book of the Year, and Michael Chabon has called him, "One of the most important writers in American literature." Charyn has also spent time as a professor and an international ranked table tennis player. He lives in New York and Paris.