NEW YORK (Reuters) - The voice of Emily Dickinson has been reimagined in a new novel exploring the lustful thoughts of one of America’s greatest poets, who still stirs debate more than 120 years after her death.
“The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” hit U.S. bookstores this week and offers a new take on the life of the 19th century poet beginning with her real-life stay at Mount Holyoke female seminary in her hometown Amherst, Massachusetts.
Neither completely fiction nor biography, it is written in the first person with the male author assuming Dickinson’s voice. It follows two recent biographies but is the first novel to present Dickinson in the first person.
Other recent books re-imagining dead writers have reinterpreted and sexualized such authors as Emily Bronte and Jane Austen.
“She is very much in the current psyche,” the book’s author, Jerome Charyn, said in an interview this week. “We have come to discover how modern she is and suddenly in the 21st century she seems to us as if she were alive right now.”
From the novel’s outset the author turns to the much-debated secret love life of the independent-minded poet, who was interpreted in 1970s literary criticism as someone who rebelled in her writing against notions of 19th century femininity which confined women to households and marriage.
While bringing in several real life characters such her sister-in-law and her father, the author debunks notions Dickinson was a lesbian or sexually frustrated. Instead the book has her fantasizing over several fictional men, including a blond handyman called Tom.
“My own feeling as a 21st century reader is that she was not gay, she was not a lesbian,” said Charyn. “It is very evident in her letters.”
Reviews say the novel explores new dimensions of Dickinson, but that it was hard to assume her voice.
The novel follows two recent biographies including “Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds” by Lyndall Gordon and Brenda Wineapple’s “White Heat.”
In 2008, author Joyce Carol Oates released “Wild Nights!” — a title borrowed from Dickinson’s poem of longing — that imagined the last documented days of Dickinson and four other writers including Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain, Henry James and Ernest Hemingway.
Editing by Mark Egan and Cynthia Osterman