Writing It Slant

by Hillary Kelly | February 23, 2010

The homes and the resting places of illustrious writers have always been Meccas for devout readers. One can sleep in the London hotel room from which Oscar Wilde was extricated on charges of sodomy and “gross indecency.” The Mount, Edith Wharton’s overblown masterpiece of landscape and design in the Berkshires, is open to the public for tours. Herman Melville’s much more modest and intense house is not too far away, and is equally accessible to pilgrims. These tangible pieces of literary history speak, well, volumes about the literary figures who lived and worked in them. Wilde’s tumultuous writing career, filled with overwhelming success and devastating disappointment, ended in that very room at the Cadogan Hotel. Wharton’s financially blessed existence and extravagant home (her family is said to have been the original subject of the expression ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’) was a byproduct of the Gilded Age her novels so critically examined. Melville’s lugubrious, low-ceilinged rooms are a measure of the hard times that he faced.   

The ties between Emily Dickinson’s home and work were particularly strong, which is why those who worship at the Church of St. Emily have been visiting the “Homestead,” on Main Street in Amherst, for years. But while we love to gently peel away at her layers, as the literary and historical exegesis grows, the enigmatic Dickinson is always one step ahead. Leaving behind no diaries and little correspondence, her poems are practically the only sources by which we may know herand Dickinson herself warned readers not to “take my poems as my biography.” Not least because of the austerity of her literary remains, her house has become one of our only tactile encounters with her, a tenuous but tangible connection to her actuality.

In his intelligent and intriguing novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, Jerome Charyn attempts to give Dickinson a life that we can touch—the novel, much like the Homestead, offers us a glimpse through Dickinson’s eyes. But Dickinson is fascinating precisely because we struggle to understand her. An unmarried woman who grew slowly more reclusive throughout adulthood, she created a rich inner existence for herself behind the tall hedges of her father’s home and pointedly eschewed publication, except for a handful of poems. She ordered all her writing to be burned upon her death, and shared only a small part of her work with friends and family. She avoided the spectacle of fame and even the society of her small town. And so it seems somehow invasive, perhaps even a misunderstanding, to parade Dickinson around as the protagonist of a novel. But Charyn’s imaginary probings are respectful: he does not give definitive biographical answers. His novel is, rather, the record of his perfectly justified fascination with the questions. Rather than hubristically ripping down the shroud of mystery that covers his subject’s life, he attempts to explain the very existence of that shroud—itself not a tool of concealment, but a method of mutability. Charyn wisely makes Dickinson the narrator, allowing her to spin her oratorical web. We glimpse many different Emilys: the victim, the seeker of justice, the bold ingénue, a rebel, a saint, a sufferer of many deeply burning flames.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (a frustrating and highly misleading title) traces her life from the age of seventeen, when she is an unsaved “no-hoper” at the Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, to the moment of her death (probably from Bright’s Disease, although the illness is unnamed in the novel) at the Homestead. There are seven “parts” to the novel, each covering a distinct period of the poet’s life. The events are a mix of historical reality and Charyn’s truth-inspired fictions. His imaginative ventriloquism shines brightest when Dickinson evaluates others and her world. Charyn infiltrates—more precisely, he has been infiltrated by—her amazing language, at times borrowing wholly from her poetry. Twice, at moments of great catharsis, Emily hears a “fly … buzzing in [her] ear.” She notices the “slanted … light” pouring through the windows of a train and feels a “[t]omahawk in her side” when verbally wounded. But Charyn is more than a parrot or a pasticheur: he invents a lexicon that is nicely suited to Dickinson’s voice. Meeting a former potential lover, she wants to place him in her “box of Phantoms”; she is insulted by “words … dipped in hellfire”; she refers to her poetry as “meager electricity.”

Charyn gives Dickinson a voice, but his decision to make her a chameleon, a character that frequently seems to break free from its creator, liberates him from the inhibitions of biography. Charyn’s Emily has an obsession with nicknames and pseudonyms that begins when she latches on to “Dolly,” her father’s childhood nickname for her. Her father is the center of her world, though not always for the better—she claims that her life is “one long letter to Edward Dickinson, Esquire.” With men she is “Currer Bell,” “Daisy,” “Enobarbus,” or “Kangaroo.” George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, two women who became famous using the names of men, are of great interest to Emily. Romantic interests take on the names of the cities that they inhabit: “Philadelphia” (Reverend Charles Wadsworth), and “Salem” (Judge Otis Phillips Lord). Most revealingly, she invents nicknames for herself: “Queen Recluse” and “witch of Amherst.” These nicknames emancipate Emily in the way that alternate identities do. No longer must she abide by the standards of her father, who as an attorney, a state congressman, and a local notable selects the society and the behavior that he deems appropriate for his daughters. As Enobarbus (following in the footsteps of her Shakespearian namesake), she critically examines the actions of the “great men” around her—including her father. And as Currer Bell, she contemplates the implications and the consequences of fame. 

When Jane Eyre fever sweeps through Amherst, Emily delights in the question of Currer Bell’s gender and true identity, fascinated by the freedom of a nom de plume. In Charyn’s novel and in reality, Emily read and admired Jane Eyre. (She named her dog Carlo after St. John’s Newfoundland.) But Brontë’s pseudonymity held a special charge for Dickinson, who regarded herself as a fellow clandestine author. The fictionalized Emily attends a debate, hosted by the seniors of Amherst College, to deliberate on the gender of Currer Bell. When called upon by a suitor to give her opinion, Emily declares, “No simple Authoress could ever have endowed Jane with so beguiling a voice.” The men in the room, pompously self-assured that only a man could have written such a brilliant novel, cheer for her without thinking about what she has said. They miss the meaning of that unsimple word “simple.” Emily is not claiming here that the author of Jane Eyre is a man; she is claiming that only a woman of fierce intellect could have crafted such an inspired character.

Such scenes, all leaps of his imagination and not proven facts of her biography, are the most interesting passages in the novel. Charyn’s flourishes and twists illuminate more about Dickinson than his facts and figures. After all, there is hardly any need for another Dickinson biography: Richard Sewall’s The Life of Emily Dickinson and Alfred Habegger’s My Wars Are Laid Away in Books meticulously exhaust this subject. Regarding men, however, Charyn’s imagining goes a step too far. Emily Dickinson is often regarded as odd or (especially according to high school English students) crazy because she did not marry. Instead of rejecting this condescension, which buries the fact of her radical inner autonomy, her deeply unconventional nature, Charyn indulges it by casting Emily as a damsel in distress. She is picked up, carried, or set on a man’s lap no less than five times in the novel (and she is nearly a fully grown woman from the beginning).

Charyn’s Dickinson is a woman obsessed with, immersed in, and wholly wrapped up with men and masculinity. She fixates on Tom the Handyman, a visiting Yale scholar, the editor of the local newspaper, her own father, and various other supporting actors. This girlish fixation on men is contradictory to both Charyn’s Emily and history’s Dickinson—not because Dickinson should be likened to a nun, chastely locked away in her cell, but because such concern is excessive. History does tell us that Dickinson formed romantic attachments, and sometimes guarded these relationships overzealously. At more than one moment in her life, she seriously considered marriage. Still, do we truly believe that Emily Dickinson was a woman whose center of gravity was formed by men? Not if we continue to read her poetry. Charyn’s depiction of a boy-crazy Emily makes her brilliance and her isolation seem too easily explained and insufficiently explored. He should have taken some cues from Emily herself, who, in one of her most enduring poems, reminds us that she “dwells” in “Possibility,” a “house” in which she can spread “wide [her] narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise.”

Charyn’s novel is much like a visit to the serene, bucolic Homestead. There have been some alterations to the place, and some rooms remain under lock and key. Incomplete records allow for spirited and intense debate. And the past lingers hauntingly in a long, heavily shadowed corridor. The Homestead and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson are both illuminating but faint copies of the past—devices that allow us the thrill, and the dissatisfaction, of only a glimpse.

Hillary Kelly is the assistant editor of The Book.

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