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by Jerome Charyn

Pub Date: Feb. 22nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-393-06856-6
Publisher: Norton

Charyn (Johnny One-Eye, 2008, plus more than 40 other books) takes on Emily Dickinson’s private life—what was she doing all those years she was shut up in Amherst?

Well, for one thing, according to Charyn, throughout her life she was falling in love with a number of men who crossed her path. The recurring character who remains one of the great loves of Emily’s life is Tom the Handyman, part-time laborer and full-time rogue. We first meet him at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Emily attended in the 1840s. (Emily first becomes intrigued by an arrow-and-heart tattoo on Tom’s arm.) Throughout Emily’s life he resurfaces under various guises, and Emily never loses her infatuation, though at times she admits she might be more in love with the fantasy rather than with the reality of Tom. At the seminary Emily also meets Zilpah Marsh, who eventually becomes Tom’s lover (and his partner in crime) and winds up in an insane asylum in Northampton. Emily also becomes drawn into a force field created by the charismatic presence of Sue, married to Emily’s brother Austin. While her sentiments are perhaps not quite strong enough to be designated “love,” Emily definitely feels a strong attraction to Sue and finds Sue’s detachment and assertiveness irresistible. Late in her life, Emily becomes enamored with the widower Judge Otis Phillips Lord (whom she calls “Salem”), and he finds their gravitational pull both strong and mutual. He awakens Emily’s latent sexuality (“I could feel that sweet wolf gnaw its way back into my loins. I didn’t waver. I slowly slid onto my Salem’s lap, wanting him to dandle me again. I ought to have some privileges at fifty-one”). Finally, appearing sporadically but looming importantly in Emily’s life is her father, “Major” Edward Dickinson—patriarch, Congressman and Alpha male.

An irreverent novel—at turns both comic and febrile—that connects us to Dickinson’s longings and eccentricities.