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The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, February 22, 2010

4 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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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.)
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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).
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393068560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393068566
  • Product Dimensions: 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,525,149 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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 short stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative and Ellery Queen.

Charyn's popular crime novels, featuring homicide detective Isaac Sidel, inspired a new animated drama series. 'Hard Apple' debuts on the small screen in 2017, helmed by Hollywood insider James Gray (The Immigrants) and illustrated by famed artists Asaf and Tomer Hanuka (Waltz with Bashir.) Click on the teaser video below.

Now in bookstores: Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories. Bronx-born Charyn brings to life the pre- and post-Robert Moses world of New York's northernmost borough in thirteen bittersweet stories. *Nominated for Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award and Kirkus Prize in Fiction.

Coming March, 2016: Charyn's groundbreaking and highly-anticipated study A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century - the subject of a new documentary narrated by Cynthia Nixon.

Charyn lives in New York and Paris.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover
"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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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 admittedly lit-crit-untrained eye) he has largely captured her eccentricities, cadences, and most of all, her hypnotically musical way of writing. I can think of little that compares with Dickinson's "prose" style, except perhaps the high cadences of the Authorized Version of the Bible or the Arabic of the Qur'an. Like these works, Dickinson's prose style is less "prose" than it is a near-blank verse poetic style--rhythmic, and when read aloud, musical.

Charyn captures both Dickinson's language and her complexities. He freely intertwines fact with fiction, which is why I think reading this book as some kind of strict historical fiction/quasi-biography is a huge mistake. This isn't a biography or even a biographical novel. It's more akin to what Shakespeare's great Roman tragedies were: dramatic reworkings of sources that were themselves somewhat embellished (the layering of Shakespeare's Coriolanus to Plutarch's Caius Martius to the "real" Caius Martius, for example). A more contemporary example might be Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, which is largely autobiographical but (as I understand it) interpolates some fictive situations or twists--new layers to a real story. Like The House on Mango Street, Charyn's Secret Life is also told in a loose vignette style.

Out of the raw material of Dickinson's tempestuous life in the Amherst teapot, Charyn casts her as a somewhat reclusive spinster whose bottled-up passions are always at a boil and ready to burst. The story is relatively straightforward, and usually centers on Dickinson's interaction with one or two people at a time.
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Format: Paperback
Before she was a well known poetess, Emily was just a girl. She was a student at Mt. Holyoke Seminary, a beloved daughter, a sensitive sister, and a great romantic. Read all about the various loves and losses of Emily, and her time in Amherst. She was unlike anything the town had ever seen, a truly unique woman.

Long a fan of her poetry, I sadly know very little about the life of Emily Dickinson. So, much of this amazing book went over my head I fear. Jerome Charyn does a masterful job of weaving established facts about Emily's life and the people in it with his own imaginings of what it was like to live in her mind. Charyn slips into the mind of Emily, and write a novel full of wonder and heart.

Rarely does a modern author capture the same rhythm and flow of a classic writer, and attempts to do so are typically unconvincing. But Charyn defies the law of averages, and makes one forget they are not reading straight from Emily's diary. He channels her spirit brilliantly, and we really feel as if we know Emily by the end of the book. We share her pain, as well as her pleasure.

I think this is a wonderful novel that weaves together elements of classic literature with modern literature in a new, fresh way. I recommend this to every fan of Dickinson's poetry, nay, of all classic poetry. Charyn talks about reaction to the novel in his video.

I am among the faction who love the novel, and am grateful for the chance to learn more about my dear Emily. Take this opportunity to do the same.
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