Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson

No, I haven't abandoned my blog. I finished reading Jerome Charyn's The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson last night, and I have to say that I was a bit disappointed by it. Originally I was entranced, but that quickly ended as I realized how fictional Charyn's Dickinson truly is.

I think we all create our own Emily Dickinson, that there is no possible way to ever know who and what she was, at least not accurately. Even her own family members have created their own versions of Dickinson, created in their own images. In this vein, Charyn has every right to write her as he sees fit.

My greatest objections to this book is that he creates too timid a Dickinson, one who cowers before man after man, depending on each to define herself. For the purely fictional Tom the handyman, she is an angel, she is her father's Dolly, then a deserter's Daisy, and Judge Lord's Jumbo. Her only slight definition of herself for herself is as the kangaroo, but for much of the novel, she seems very little of Emily Dickinson.

Surprisingly little is mentioned of her writing; it is hardly even mentioned in the first half of the novel. When it is brought slightly more into focus, it is presented as an attack on the poet-- sudden lightening that leaves her grasping and stunned. Just as she is defined only by the men in the novel, she is presented as a victim of her poetry. Yes, Charyn grasps the poet's love of the sudden words of poetry that come to her, but the event always seems violent and borders on destructive.

Additionally, I felt that it was belittling to Dickinson when Charyn addressed the poet's affinity for white dress. In his novel, he chose to attribute this to the death of her beloved dog. While no doubt Dickinson may have dearly loved her dog, it seems rather ridiculous to establish the pet's death as her reason for forever after wearing white alone.