A writer obsessed with the Belle of Amherst imagines her rich, sensual inner life.
After spending two years writing a novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (2010), Charyn (Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, 2015, etc.) felt dissatisfied: “I knew less and less the more I learned about her.” Now he turns to nonfiction, mining the prodigious research he conducted for the novel: biographies, literary criticism, archival research, “psychoanalytic studies of her crippled, wounded self, tales of her martyrdom in the nineteenth century, studies of her iconic white dress, accounts of her agoraphobia,” and interviews with artists, poets, and scholars. Charyn analyzes artist Joseph Cornell’s evocation of Dickinson and poet Adrienne Rich’s empathetic interpretation. The result is an absorbing, though necessarily speculative, meditation on Dickinson’s personality, yearnings, and elliptical poetry. For Charyn, Dickinson was a powerful, mysterious woman in charge of her own life. He dismisses the idea that she was a “helpless agoraphobic, trapped in her room in her father’s house,” although her father was overbearing and kept his daughters “on an invisible leash.” Dickinson, he believes, was equally tyrannical. “She built a whirlwind around her and lived within its walls.” She was “promiscuous in her own fashion, deceiving everyone around her with the sly masks she wore.” She was an outlaw, “an alchemist,” a “witch of the Imagination,” “the mistress of her own interior time and space,” and possibly bisexual. Charyn is intrigued by one scholar’s argument that Dickinson had a romance with another woman, with whom she may have sat for a daguerreotype reproduced as the book’s frontispiece. “None of us will ever get near enough to Emily,” he writes ruefully.
While much is speculation, Charyn’s ardent sleuthing yields a daring portrait of the elusive “enchantress” and her world.