Emily Dickinson Isn’t You

“I couldn’t let go,” Jerome Charyn begins his author’s note to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century, as if remembering a severed romantic relationship. He remained transfixed after writing a fictionalized account of Dickinson’s life, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, in which he inhabited, or vampirized, as he says, the nineteenth-century poet’s voice, detailing flings with noted scholars and tattooed handymen—all imagined of course. He spent two years on the book, culling through all the letters, biographies, studies, accounts, and poems he could. “I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality,” Charyn writes in his new book. “Yet she was a spinster in a way, a spinner of words. Spiders were also known as spinsters, and like a spider, she spun her meticulous web…”

Her seduction of Charyn implies her lingering claim on the present, but his inability to “let it go” introduces his attempt to put his mark on her. In the twenty-first century, Emily Dickinson has become very much about our selves, an interpretation that has been allowed to flourish partly because of her anonymity: The bulk of her poems, of course, were published after she died, and she lived with her parents all her life, unmarried and leaving letters that only hint at possible lovers, hardly ever leaving her home. During the last 30 years, it has been many writers’ impulse to try her on, explore the “masks,” as Charyn calls them, that she wore in her poems, and give motive to her writings through more expressive means. Among the better-known works there’s Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson, which traces the works that informed Dickinson’s rich interior life; Adrienne Rich’s essay “Vesuvius at Home,” which sees her as feminist forebear; Maureen McLane’s “My Emily Dickinson” from her biblio-memoir My Poets; and Camille Paglia’s essay from Sexual Personae, comparing her to the Marquis de Sade.

Charyn’s book gives a checkered history of the many interpretations of Dickinson, at times attempting to connect them to her actual biography. He starts to trace key disputes in Emily Dickinson scholarship, from the intended recipient for her Master letters—a major clue to a possible hidden romance—to her jumbled publication history. (Her editors Matthew Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd removed her punctuation, then her heirs began to find more unpublished poetry and letters—as did their children.) There was no complete volume of Dickinson’s poetry until 1955. This volume, when it finally appeared, led to a fuller picture of Dickinson by 1976, when “Vesuvius at Home” and the popular one-woman play The Belle of Amherst, which Charyn writes much about, both came out.

The goal of such writings is ostensibly to better know Emily Dickinson, though by means of murky, refracted knowledge—as if making sense out of the same image as projected through a hall of mirrors. But in Charyn’s book, which leans heavily on his own personal web of associations, some sense of who Dickinson might have been ends up feeling more out of reach.

A Loaded Gun progresses with a snaking chronology, imitating the slipperiness of its subject. One chapter, “The Two Emilys—and the Earl,” examines Emily Norcross Dickinson, Emily Sr., in detail, along with Emily’s father, as a portrait of the people who ostensibly best knew her; another chapter is devoted to Dickinson’s very close relationship with her dog, Carlo, her only recorded long-term companion.

Charyn’s book quickly sets up themes that reflect more about his own cultural tastes than Dickinson. He examines, for instance, figures who have been as enchanted as he is with Dickinson as muse. The chapter “Ballerinas in a Box” mostly traces the artist Joseph Cornell’s near-obsession with Dickinson, but Charyn takes such a circuitous path that the portrait becomes muddled. He opens with quotes from male poets and critics who revived Dickinson’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Allen Tate, he tells us, wrote in 1932 that many were mistaken that “no virgin can know enough to write poetry,” but went on to call her “a dominating spinster whose very sweetness must have been formidable.”

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