The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

An Introduction to the Novel

By Jerome Charyn on 3.26.10

She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start, because in her writing she broke every rule. Words had their own chain reaction, their own fire. She could stun, delight, and kill “with Dirks of Melody.” I never quite recovered from reader her. I, too, wanted to create “[a] perfect—paralyzing Bliss,” to have my sentences explode “like a Maelstrom, with a notch.”

It was the old maid of Amherst who lent me a little of her own courage to risk becoming a writer. ” A Wounded Deer—leaps highest,” she wrote, and I wanted to leap with Emily.

We had so little in common. She was a country girl, and I was a boy from the Bronx. She had a lineage with powerful roots in America, and I was a mongrel whose heritage was like an unsolved riddle out of Eastern Europe. Yet I could hear the tick of her music in my wakefulness and in my sleep. Suddenly that plain little woman with her bolts of red hair was as familiar to me as the little scars on my own face.

But I wasn’t interested in writing a novel about a recluse and a saint. I soon discovered that Dickinson was terrifying in her variety; she could be bitchy, petulant, and seductive, and also a mournful, masochistic mouse in love with a mystery man she called “Master,” and to whom she would have sacrificed all. “I’ve got a cough as big as a thimble—but I dont care for that—I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that dont hurt me much. Her master stabs her more,” she writes in a letter that was probably never sent. Whatever her turmoil, she was pleasuring herself with her own words. “Master” could have been any of half a dozen married men she secretly adored, or no one at all. We do know that she had some kind of serious flirtation near the end of her life with a widower, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, that she even considered marrying him, but was constantly holding him off. “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”

Her brother Austin often spoke of Emily as his “wild sister.” And she was wild in her own way. She had a ferocious intelligence that must have frightened her at times, and frightened those around her, including her own father, Edward Dickinson, who once served as a congressman from Massachusetts. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor and writer she clung to as her “Preceptor,” dismissed Edward Dickinson as “thin dry & speechless.” Yet this speechless man is at the center of my novel. Their curious connection served as a kind of courtship. He loved Emily, feared her, and kept her a child, while she danced around him like some local Scheherazade. “I do not cross my father’s ground to any House or town,” she loved to recite. But she crossed her father’s ground many a time in her poems and in her fiercely imagined life.

Her real Perceptor, however, wasn’t likely Higginson but her sister-in-law, who remained Emily’s surest reader. “Sister Sue” was also a very complicated creature, who had a whole tribe of Dickinsons to deal with. Emily likened her to Mount Vesuvius and the Gulf Stream. Susan loved to smolder, and Emily stayed in her spell for thirty years.

She seldom spoke of the eight or nine months she spent at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48, yet this first “break” with Amherst was an important one and helped crystallize some of her longings. It is at Mount Holyoke where The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson begins as she comes embroiled with her Tutors and fellow seminarians, who are trapped in a religious awakening she manages to resist. Though the novel clings to the line of Emily’s life, I have also included several fictional characters, such as Miss Rebecca Winslow, the vice principal at Holyoke, who will introduce her to the art of poetry; Zilpah Marsh, a seminarian, who conspires against Emily; Tom, the handyman at Holyoke, who hypnotizes her with the tattoo on his arm; and Brainard Rowe, a Tutor at Amherst College, who courts her when she’s nineteen.

The novel is told entirely in Emily’s voice, with all its modulations and tropes—tropes I learned from her letters, wherein she wears a hundred masks, playing wounded lover, penitent, and female devil as she delights and often disturbs us, just as I hope my Emily will both delight and disturb the reader and take her roaring music right into the twenty-first century.

[Updated: All Gone!] Editor’s Note: We have some free copies of Jerome Charyn’s The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson to give away. The first 5 people to write to telling us which one of Emily Dickinson’s poems is their favorite (along with your mailing address - US only) will get a book.

topics: Columnists


Jessica Carroll said on 3.26.10 at 3:55pm:

WILD NIGHTS! WILD NIGHTS!” Is my very favorite!

Jenny Skinner said on 3.26.10 at 10:34pm:

Becase I Could Not Stop For Death

The Editors said on 3.28.10 at 11:26am:

Jessica, Jenny: To get a book you needed to send us an email, but I’ll include these on a list I’m compiling of readers favorite Dickinson poems. Did you hear Robert Pinsky reading “Wild Nights Wild Nights” for us last April?

Jessie Carty said on 3.28.10 at 3:32pm:

Darn I missed out on the book! But I am slowly reading through Emily’s collected works. A little Emily each morning wink