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League of Inveterate Poets

The out-of-context contextuality of a foolish sage

The Secret Life of the Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: An Introduction

By on September 11, 2010

Emily dickinson
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After The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson author Jerome Charyn came upon my review of his novel, he wrote to me on Twitter that “it really is about Emily’s dream life and you’re the first one to point that out.” With confirmation and encouragement like that, how could I help but want to explore that theme further? So this begins a series of essays, each based upon one of the seven main sections of the book, that will explore the dreamlike qualities of the novel. I believe that Charyn has done a great service for all those who love Emily Dickinson in his fictional exploration of one of the most persistent questions about Miss Dickinson’s body of work: how could someone so notoriously reclusive have written so convincingly about the great passions of life?

That so many reviewers (even”professionals” writing for major outlets) missed that this is a novel of Emily’s dreamscape, of her imaginary, interior life, is both sad and confusing. The author himself states in his preface that it is a novel of “her fiercely imagined life” (12). Are we all still so captive to the deadly grips of literalism? Perhaps I was more sensitive and able to read The Secret Life “a-historically” because of my own journey. I used to be a Christian fundamentalist. One of the hallmarks of that tribe is a fierce dedication to absolute literalism. Coming to the realization that the opening chapters of Genesis are high poetry–and not history or science–was not only personally liberating, but liberating to the text as well. For the first time, the text could truly speak to me, not just “inform” me. Since that discovery, I have been had my antennae up for the poetic, even when it tries to pass in the guise of history.

Aside from the author’s hints in his preface, the very fact that he so convincingly tells his story in Emily’s own voice should be indicator enough that we are entering the world of rich imagination. For example, Emily wrote a series of love letters (apparently never sent) to someone she refers to as “Master.” Various men in Emily’s life have been put forward as Master, but the most prevalent theory is that he was a wholly invented character. This is the theory that Jerome Charyn favors. If it is true, it is one more evidence (as if her poetry were not enough!) that Miss Dickinson was possessed of a rich fantasy life, so rich that she would commit it to paper.

As indicated above, I will be publishing here a series of essays exploring this topic of Emily’s dream world. The first, on the “Holyoke” section of the novel, should be online very soon.

Purchase The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel

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