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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: Holyoke

| September 13, 2010

It is odd and slightly ironic that one of the most frequent criticisms leveled at The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (hereinafter The Secret Life) was that it suffered from a lack of citing Miss Dickinson’s poetry. While it may be true that there are very few quotations of her poems in the book, from the very first words, we are fully in the realm of poetry, in her own voice (as author Jerome Charyn imagines it):

“Tom the handyman is wading in the snow outside my window in boots a burglar might wear” (17).

It is imagery true to the Emily we know through her poetry.

Moreover, it introduces one of the central characters (and primary resident of Emily’s dreams), the fictitious Tom Harkin (or Tom the Handyman). Tom is an orphan rescued by the headmistress of Holyoke Female Seminary and taken in to be the school’s handyman. He is forbidden any contact with the female students, thus (along with his shock of blond hair) making him instantly the object of Emily’s desire.

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