PEN/ Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography Longlist
O, The Oprah Magazine “Best Books of Summer” selection
“Magnetic nonfiction.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“Remarkable insight . . . [a] unique meditation/investigation. . . . Jerome Charyn the unpredictable, elusive, and enigmatic is a natural match for Emily Dickinson, the quintessence of these.” —Joyce Carol Oates, author of Wild Nights! and The Lost Landscape
We think we know Emily Dickinson: the Belle of Amherst, virginal, reclusive, and possibly mad. But in A Loaded Gun, Jerome Charyn introduces us to a different Emily Dickinson: the fierce, brilliant, and sexually charged poet who wrote:
My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—
Though I than He— may longer live
He longer must—than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without—the power to die—
Through interviews with contemporary scholars, close readings of Dickinson’s correspondence and handwritten manuscripts, and a suggestive, newly discovered photograph that is purported to show Dickinson with her lover, Charyn’s literary sleuthing reveals the great poet in ways that have only been hinted at previously: as a woman who was deeply philosophical, intensely engaged with the world, attracted to members of both sexes, and able to write poetry that disturbs and delights us today.
Jerome Charyn is the author of, most recently, Bitter Bronx: Thirteen Stories, I Am Abraham: A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War, and The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel. He lives in New York.
Novelist and nonfiction author Charyn (The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson) presents a postmodernism-flavored study of Emily Dickinson's life and work. His lively reassessment draws on the work of other scholars, close readings of Dickinson's poems and letters, and vivid commentary on the artists she inspired. Joseph Cornell created shadow boxes based on her poems, and Joyce Carol Oates's futuristic short story "EDickinsonRepliLuxe" evokes the doll-like mystery of the only extant image of Dickinson a daguerreotype taken when she was 16. At the heart of Charyn's study is a quest to find out who Emily Dickinson really was. His answer is that she was not the reclusive virgin often pictured, but rather a woman of "Promethean ambition" who raged against a culture that had no place for unmarried, childless women. Looked upon as a "half-cracked village muse," she guarded her privacy fiercely so she could work, often at a feverish pace, reinventing the language of poetry. She wrote about volcanoes, physical passion, wild beasts, rape, madness, and the grave, and was "at war with language itself" as if on a quest "to tear apart the order and hierarchy of all things." For Charyn, Dickinson has no equal as a poet, except perhaps Shakespeare. No one else, he says, took the risks she did. Illus.
It takes one to know one
It's always fascinating when one author examines the life of another, and Jerome Charyn has his work cut out for him with Emily Dickinson. Few traces remain of the celebrated poet. She's the unknowable genius…because she wanted it that way.
But Charyn won't be deterred. He's determined to make contact with her coquettish spirit. From the secrecy of the grave, she delights in hiding behind many masks. The virginal recluse. The half-cracked spinster. The resentful daughter. The village harlot. The closeted lesbian. The patrician princess. The doting aunt. The affectionate mistress. Take your pick.
So he delves into her poetry line by line, dash by dash, until a seminal moment occurs when he's in the presence of the few remaining scraps covered in her actual handwriting. He's so moved, he's literally bowled over, like he's discovered the building blocks of the universe, the charge that ignited the Big Bang.
Not stopping there, he holds up to the light the one known photograph of her in existence, before turning a critical eye upon the second, recently unearthed by a junkman in a Massachusetts estate sale. He meticulously presents the testimony of family members as well as scholars, critics and artists from all mediums that span the better part of three centuries. And still the mystery remains.
Just who was this woman?
A loaded gun. That's the conclusion Charyn inevitably comes to. Returning to the source, Dickinson's words remain at the heart of his search because they allow him to relate to her on a personal level and that's where the richness of his portrayal comes into sharp focus. Charyn is a man, a New Yorker, living in the twenty-first century, yet he understands this female rebel from New England like no one else can. He sees a part of himself in her, and that's when the book hits its stride.
In terms of making a lasting impact, Dickinson was the longest long shot in history. She never sought earthly ambition. She kept to herself, composing her work in the silence of her bedroom or scribbling away in the pantry, diluting the sunlight just enough through the window slots to accommodate her failing eyesight. She was closer to her dog, Carlo, than she was to any living person. Yet her words roared with thunder at a time when women weren't encouraged to explore an inner life full of the tumult that comes for those brave enough to strive for perfection.
Not many writers reach the pinnacle, and Charyn feels this deeply. He knows no one walks away from reading Dickinson unscathed. Chasing her is an exhilarating—often frustrating—journey, one that he's obliged to preface with a warning: Beware. Her words leave a permanent mark.