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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel [Kindle Edition]

Jerome Charyn
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)

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Book Description

"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

Jerome Charyn, "one of the most important writers in American literature" (Michael Chabon), continues his exploration of American history through fiction with The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, 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.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The inner life of Emily Dickinson was creatively effulgent, psychologically pained and emotionally ambivalent, as reported by Charyn, who here inhabits the mind of one of America's most famous poets. Charyn parrots the cadent voice of razor-sharp Dickinson, beginning in her years as the tempestuous young lyricist who aims to choose my words like a rapier that can scratch deep into the skin. From the first page, witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town's preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as a waste of money & a waste of time, and it's easy to see how Emily's poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine. Emily's growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate woman with a ferocious will and finally to that notorious recluse. However, while this vivid impersonation is a stylistic achievement, it's also confining and limits higher revelations. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Charyn carefully adheres to the known facts of Dickinson's life, and he has a thorough knowledge of her poems and letters, the strains of which echo through his clever and elegant prose. Despite these qualities, the critics' reactions were tepid and unenthusiastic. They collectively took issue with his characterization of Emily as fickle, unstable, and promiscuous--hardly the makings of a perceptive and profound writer. The Washington Post denounced Charyn's choice to exclude Dickinson's poems from the narrative as a "damnable omission," and the San Francisco Chronicle derisively labeled the novel a "bodice-ripper." Readers who cherish Dickinson and her astonishing legacy may find the heroine of Secret Life supremely unsettling; those unacquainted with her should perhaps start with a biography like Brenda Wineapple's White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higgins (HHHH Nov/Dec 2008).

Product Details

  • File Size: 807 KB
  • Print Length: 348 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (February 14, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003A7I2G4
  • Text-to-Speech: Not enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #506,488 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Life of the Mind April 3, 2010
Seldom am I so hypnotized by a novel's language that I pause to whisper a line aloud. One example: the description of the Northampton Asylum,"It had a freshwater pond as fragile as glass and a winding road a little like a maze that any child might conquer in a minute." Charyn's prose slides into Dickinsian poetry on every page. I wouldn't cast this tour de force as a misguided work of historical fiction. I regard it instead as something far different. This self-proclaimed Queen Recluse of Amherst well could have written an elaborate and rich novel to rival the lightning flash poems that she chose to record. Perhaps "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" is indeed the novel that Mr. Sam Bowles asked Emily to write. In channeling Emily, Charyn has set her unwritten novel on paper,"with two heads and four hands."
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
A novel about a famous - and very real - person runs the risk of distorting the subject's personality or character in some inexcusable way, to tell a more compelling story than the facts warrant.

That risk is stronger still if, as in "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson," an author uses fanciful incidents and fictional characters to complement the actual relationships and events that have been documented by the poet's biographers.

Charyn's audacious but compelling novel puts Dickinson, her family, and even her dog Carlo in contact with products of Charyn's imagination - a blond, blue-eyed handyman who figures prominently in her "secret life;" an authoritarian vice principal at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which Dickinson attends; a rum-soaked tutor at Amherst College, where her brother is a student.

Not to worry.

"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson," which is narrated by Dickinson herself, pulls the famed recluse into the limelight and makes us appreciate her all the more because she is, in the end, so very human. If that requires breaking with the established facts from time to time to brush the dust from Dickinson's shoulders, so be it.

Charyn provides a rounded view of a brilliant poet who also is a passionate, lively and complex woman. Here, she is far more vibrant than the stereotype of the lonely "spinster" who rarely left the confines of her home in Amherst, Mass.

Dickinson's shyness and self-imposed isolation reveal only part of her persona, and a portion of her story. Her brother Austin, for example, often spoke of her as his "wild sister.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Daring Novel About the Inner Life of an Honored Poet February 14, 2010
"The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" might be considered a very unauthorized biography of the famed 19th century female American poet. She is a feminist and literary icon about whom we know very little; perhaps as little as we know about those other feminist, female literary icons of the early 19th century, from across the pond: Jane Austen, and the Bronte sisters. This may well be due to their natural reticence as creative women living in a man's world; to the protection of their families, to the fact that, as creative women, their lives were dominated by their work, and they hadn't much in the way of actual lives. However, for whatever the reasons, it does leave their lives wide open to interpretation, and we have recently seen many, many literary and filmed interpretations of Austen's life. And we have now a daring interpretation of Dickinson's life by Jerome Charyn, a well-known literary figure.

Dickinson, the "Belle of Amherst," her Massachusetts home town, was a well-born girl, the daughter of the attorney who was considered, at that time and place, the earl of the village. She was educated at Mount Holyoke, then, apparently, a restrictive, religiously oriented seminary, she loved her father greatly, lived in his house all her life, never endured serious money worries, and has come down to us through history as a prim and proper cameo of a repressed lady in white. But all sources agree that she did have a few flirtations, and she wrote poetry that is important to many people. As I have said elsewhere before, I'm not a poetry person, and therefore am not familiar with Dickinson's life or poetry: but I surely appreciate the fine deckle-edged book I see before me.

The story begins in the snow, in 1848, at Mt. Holyoke.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A letter to Mr. Charyn on his latest work: June 26, 2010
Dear Mr. Charyn,

I have recently had the opportunity to complete your novel "The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson." I was so intrigued by the book that I eagerly licked each word with ravenous eyes. I must say that I feel as though you have done the job of channeling our Emily rather well. As someone who has picked through her actual letters and pored over most of her works, I was amazed at how near your lexicon came to her poetic verse. You practiced her well. There were times when my mind slipped right out of my head and I forgot that I was reading fiction. Sometimes it was as if I were going through Miss Dickinson's own diary that had, perhaps, once been tucked away under a loose floorboard in the Homestead and I reveled in that delusion.

I enjoyed your vision also. Upon reading, one can be kidnapped by you, Sir, to a parallel universe in which our Emily had some heartpounding adventures. I thoroughly liked hearing your spin on Holyoke with the fictitious Zilpah Marsh and her tattooed Tom. I was fond of how you took such tedious measures to delve into the relationship between Emily and her father. It was splendid to see what life could have actually been like for those two outside of what history books have written. Your tale held my interest and made me wonder just how many exploits Emily had that no one, save God Himself, was able to be privy. You also remained true to her personality and did not fancy her into someone she could not have been. The cocktail you have invented has intoxicated my imagination to the fullest, but still resembles the Emily I have come to know over the past eleven years.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of your novel was how I found the events, that perfect blend of fact and fantasy, pointing to certain poems she penned during her lifetime.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars If she needed further proof she was wise to remain a recluse...
You have to give Jerome Charyn credit for chutzpa, if nuthin' else. He had to know going in that he was going to get a lot of grief for daring to play ventriloquist for Emily... Read more
Published 10 days ago by meeah
3.0 out of 5 stars Emily Dickinson Revealed (?)
This book, written in the first person by "Emily Dickinson," is interesting throughout--but I didn't buy that it was accurate in the least. Read more
Published 8 months ago by Helen Bennett
1.0 out of 5 stars Terrible.
I tried to read it, but it was so unlike anything Emily Dickinson, I had to throw it away. What was the author thinking?! Read more
Published 10 months ago by Helena Lundgren
5.0 out of 5 stars The Belle Still Rings With Clarity and Grace
If I were to meet Monsieur Charyn in person, I should feel compelled to curtsy and thank him profusely for his quite wonderful and engaging book ... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Wanda Lea Brayton
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Tool For "Belle" Acting Prep
When I began preparing to play the role of Emily Dickinson in "The Belle of Amherst, naturally I read Emily's letters, many biographies about her, scholarly articles and more. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Sindalee
2.0 out of 5 stars So Overrated, So Disappointing
In the first 25 pages or so, I thought this was going to be a really good read about ED. But the deeper I read, the more trouble I had with it. Read more
Published 20 months ago by JM
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW!
Quirky, yet factual, I really got a sense Emily Dickinson as a person! I absolutely loved Charyn's style; he is a true fan of Emily in that he honors her as she was and does not... Read more
Published 22 months ago by HSwanson
5.0 out of 5 stars A gorgeous symphony...
Jerome Charyn's "Secret Life of Emily Dickinson" is tremendously moving and atmospheric. I've read extensively through the three volumes of her personal correspondence, and (to my... Read more
Published on October 14, 2012 by kelsie
1.0 out of 5 stars Cheap Shots by Trickster Jerome Charyn
At page 120, I could see no redeeming qualities in this book. In disgust, I stuffed it into the recycle bin so it would not fall into anyone else's hands. Read more
Published on June 15, 2011 by C. Hermes
5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome read!
Good book. If you like Emily Dickinson or reading books on the lives of poets this book is written as a biography in almost a story-novel form. Read more
Published on May 21, 2011 by TattingChic
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More About the Author

Jerome Charyn, master of lyrical farce and literary ventriloquism, published his first novel in 1964. He's the author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, I Am Abraham, and dozens of other acclaimed novels as well as nonfiction works. His stories appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines - with his new collection, Bitter Bronx, in bookstores July, 2015.

Charyn's crime thrillers are heading for productions on the big and small screen, launching in 2016 with the first animated TV police procedural, Hard Apple, based on his popular detective Isaac Sidel.

Next up for Bronx-born Charyn is Bitter Bronx, bringing to life the pre- and post-Robert Moses world of New York's northernmost borough in thirteen bittersweet stories. (June, 2015 from Liveright/Norton)

He lives in New York and Paris.

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Topic From this Discussion
Emily Dickinson's Garden at NY Botanical Gardens
I read about this in the NYT this weekend. I'm taking my daughter - she's studying ED in college. See you there.
May 3, 2010 by Beatrice Myers |  See all 3 posts
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