By Mark Traphagen on May 21, 2010
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Historical fiction is a daring enterprise, which is a polite way of saying that it borders on the foolhardy at one extreme and the arrogant at the other. If attempting to recreate a time and place neither author nor reader can visit to verify smacks of foolhardy hubris, then fictionalized autobiography might be something worse. However, after reading The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, the reader is glad author Jerome Charyn risked something worse to achieve something better: an engaging, intriguing, dreamscape creation of an Emily Dickinson who, if not the one who actually existed, leads a “secret life” we would wish for the reclusive bard of Amherst.
Emily Dickinson does not seem like the most fertile ground for novelization. Aside from the words of poetry she left us, she is best known for hiding out in her bedroom for decades, communicating with others only by notes or from behind a partially-opened door. Charyn seemed to want to pursue the question “how could someone who barely ever left her room write so convincingly and sensuously about the world?” Charyn’s answer is to hypothesize that shy Emily may have been more the adventuress than we have known.
Charyn’s Emily certainly gets out more than her historical counterpart did. Though for the most part Emily of Secret Life stays true to the famous reclusive image, she can’t resist getting herself up close and personal with flesh-and-blood representatives of some of the more salacious eroticisms hinted at throughout her poetry.
To facilitate those adventures, Charyn freely mixes his own created characters in among the real historical persons who surrounded Miss Dickinson. Some of these act as the chief dramatic foils to the poetess’s otherwise carefully controlled and constructed life. Most intriguing is Zilpah Marsh, one of Emily’s classmates at the Holyoke Seminary. Zilpah is every bit as intelligent and witty as Emily, but her lower class origins drag her down a different, more ignominious path. Even still, Emily finds herself often envious of her less fortunate rival. We are introduced to Zilpah as she and Emily battle over Tom, the school handyman, who oozes both raw sexuality and pure romance. Though Emily seems to appreciate Tom more, it is Zilpah who ends up living with him.
Tom is another fictitious character, who Charyn brings into Emily’s life to be that ideal of the pure man whom she will always pursue but never own. Tom is “that blond Assassin in the sunlight” (from Dickinson’s poem “Apparently with no surprise…”). Like an assassin, he appears unexpectedly and in many disguises throughout Emily’s life, and the bullets he shoots at her are the ways his presence reminds her of what she sacrificed for her art.
But the character who looms largest in the life of Jerome Charyn’s Emily is her very real father. Emily may have an active “secret life,” but the central motivator for all she does is a need to please and be admired by her father. Squire Dickinson of the novel is at the same time Emily’s biggest cheerleader and harshest judge, though he almost never speaks either a word of praise or of judgment. His ability to be both intimately close and coldly distant is a painful enigma for Emily. He is a driven man, well-aware of his position as the most prominent citizen of Amherst. She describes him as “a ferocious engine on a lonely track.” Yet Emily is able to see a warm and tender heart that she wishes he could turn more toward her. When her father laments that Emily’s return from Holyoke Seminary means no more of her letters at the post office, she teases that she could plant letters there for him. He tells her it wouldn’t be the same, “because I couldn’t hear the hunger in your lines.” Her father’s aloofness is his way of encouraging the hunger he knows essential to her art, and it is both Emily’s greatest pain and her most useful inspiration.
A painful and shocking sampling of this tough love occurs fairly early in the novel. Visiting her rival doppelgänger Zilpah in an insane asylum, Emily observes her father showing the half-mad woman a tenderness and compassion she herself had never known from him. Though she takes this as the universe’s recompense on her for her earlier mistreatment of Zilpah, she also realizes that this will be the way of her life. Denial of intimacy with those from whom she most desires it drives her to the world she can create on slips of paper with the pencil stub always tied by a string to her dress.
Yet Emily’s relationship with her father is not all ice and distance. When she discovers that her father actually had read some of her poetry she had left out for him to find, she asks why he never told her. “Dolly [his pet name for her:],” he said, “it’s taken me two years to recover. They nearly tore my head off.” For Emily, such an impact on her father is nearly as good as a tender embrace, though she would have welcomed the latter. She seeks a replacement for that embrace in a succession of men she courts from afar, but that kind of fulfillment is not to be hers.
While these interpersonal conflicts drive the plot of the novel and sketch out Charyn’s thesis for possibilities of why Emily turned out the way she did, it is the language of the novel, its use of words and turns of phrase, that raise The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to a work of brilliance. The author succeeds in creating a voice for Emily that rings true. We can never know, of course, if this is really how she felt and thought, but if somehow it turned out to be close to the truth, we would not be surprised. Once when a friend asks Emily what the actual subject of one of her poems was, Charyn has her respond, “Verses do not have a subject, I should think, but a kind of shudder, as if the whole world were born again within the flash of an eye.” Another time she remarks, “I have no terrain. I dance on a precipice, knowing I will fall.” These are lines we could easily believe the Belle of Amherst actually uttered.
Historical fiction and biography at their best offer us an alternate world of the past. While almost certainly not “historical” in the strictest sense, nonetheless they provide us not only with insight into the past figures who serve as characters, but also a window into the human condition which transcends all time and place. While many of Emily’s struggles as depicted by Jerome Charyn are specific to her historical situatedness (e.g., the resistance to women as “serious” authors), yet we recognize the universal joys and sufferings of any creative person in any time. That The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson succeeds in doing this with one of the more obscure personages of modern literary history is a credit to the skill of the author.
Note: This review originally appeared in The Englewood Review of Books [Vol. 3, #19:].
(I went on to write a chapter-by-chapter set of essays on this novel that were acclaimed by author Jerome Charyn and have been used by study groups around the world to dig deeper into this magical story. Begin with An Introduction to The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn)