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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 348 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (February 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393068560
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393068566
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,207,785 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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).

More About the Author

Jerome Charyn, a master of lyrical farce and literary ventriloquism, published his first novel in 1964. The author of Johnny One-Eye, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, and dozens of other acclaimed novels and nonfiction works, he lives in New York and Paris.

Customer Reviews

What I love about both Emily Dickinson and Jerome Charyn's writing - none of that.
Belle
The book is well written and lets the Emily that resides in Charyn's mind become one that shows her passion, humor, and brilliant writing ability.
Laura L. Johnson
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry," she once wrote.
Paul Carrier

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Theresa J. Elders on April 3, 2010
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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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Paul Carrier on March 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
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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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Stephanie De Pue VINE VOICE on February 14, 2010
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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Becca Polard on June 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
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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