The Secret Life Of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

Witty Emily harbors conflicted feelings toward her female status: her esteemed father, the town’s preeminent lawyer, adores Emily at home for her intellectual companionship, but also dismisses her formal education as a waste of money & a waste of time, and it’s easy to see how Emily’s poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment brought by a childhood spent serenading Father with my tiny Tambourine. Emily’s growth is brightly drawn as she progresses from petulant child to a passionate woman with a ferocious will and finally to that notorious recluse.


I have never been someone who could sit and read poetry.  I find this interesting since as a teenager I loved to write it and still have books in my cedar chest filled with my writing from those years.  Still – I find myself fascinated with certain writers of the past and Emily Dickinson would be one that I would like to know more about.  A chance to read about her – fiction or not, was appealing.

The first thing that I noticed was the beautiful writing style. The author’s note in the front of the book was one that explained that Jerome Charyn wanted to write about the fictional Emily – or perhaps the Emily no one really got to know, as she eventually became somewhat of a recluse and towards the end of her days rarely left her room. I suspect there is a lot to Emily Dickinson that we can only guess.

While I mention my fascination in this woman and her prolific writing style (most of her poems had no titles, were unconventional in capitalization and punctuation, and mostly dealt with these of death and immortality) Charyn’s book has little poetry in it.  Instead I found it filled with stories of an Emily Dickinson, who I did not know anything about

While in reality Emily Dickinson never married, and was referred to as an old maid, Charyn writes a very different side to Emily – one where she admires many men and receives many marriage proposals – all of which… she turns down.

At times the book buried me in the words – deep, pungent words…. all written as the author becomes the voice of Emily Dickinson.  I did indeed learn more about Dickinson through this writing, mainly because the book caused me to research Emily further to see what I could sort out as fact or fiction.  In the end while I did find parts of the book interesting, I did find it a bit unsettling with what is referred to as Emily Dickinson’s “secret life”.

This is probably a book that will captivate many readers with its rich Dickinson style writing, it just was not the book for me.

Amazon Rating

The 2011 WHERE Are You Reading map has been updated to include The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson


I received this book for review for the Tribute Books Tour

30 thoughts on “The Secret Life Of Emily Dickinson by Jerome Charyn

      1. Wow, how did you escape that? (I’m kidding, but only kind of. It was one of those things where the teacher’s shoving hidden meanings down the students’ throats. Very unpleasant.) A friend wrote a beautiful song based on one of Dickinson’s poems, though: Mariposa. It’s really sad.

        1. I am always surprised how often I see how people had the opportunity to read some of the old authors and classics – our school made none of that mandatory. At times – I am bummed that I never had these experiences then, and at other times- I am delighted I did not have to read them then! 😀

          1. Yeah, it definitely goes both ways. Some of the classics I read it school — probably most of them, actually — I really loved, and probably moreso because the text was elucidated for me in the classroom setting.

  1. At the start of your review I thought this book had some potential to hold my interest but as I read more about it I just don’t know. I’m not generally a fan of authors who create an almost entirely different character when writing about a specific person in history.

    1. Thats really the way the book started out for me too Bonnie. I was so excited to read it and loved the look of it – even the authors note had me feeling I was going to be in for a treat of words…. as the book went on my enthusiasm tended to fade.

  2. Sheila – I love the pic of you reading “The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson” – very nice touch!

    I also really liked your description: “poetic instincts are born from the shifting sensations of comfort and resentment” – what a fantastic summation of Emily’s relationship with her father.

    Thanks for being a part of the blog tour. If anyone would like to follow along, please visit

  3. I think the cover and the insinuation of the title would turn me off. It gives the impression of Emily sneaking out with men, when actually she chose to be alone. She had a rich correspondence life with friends, some male, but nothing like what this implies. I wonder why it’s suddenly a fad to turn female authors of the 19th century into something they never were?

  4. Poetry is so difficult to read but you made this book sound interesting…not sure it will go in any of my piles but it is worth thinking about…

  5. I’ve always been an Emily Dickens fan and believe it was the first book of poetry I ever bought. I was a bit melodramatic as a teen and often quoted some of her more… tragic poems. I later turned to Sylvia Plath as well. Will definitely have to check this book out (even though I haven’t been reading much adult literature of late).

  6. I adore Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She’s easily one of my favorite – if not *the* favorite – poet. So this book sounds right up my alley. Plus the cover art’s just too cheeky to resist!

  7. I picked this book up from the library but sadly did not get around to reading it before it was due. Still, I do hope to read it sometime in the future. I am fascinated by Dickinson – her poetry is not my favorite, but I have learned to appreciate it in the course of my studies.

  8. What a “tantalizing” cover. I do think that people who have a huge love for Emily Dickinson would like this, although I haven’t read it myself. I think that it would be interesting (especially knowing that it is fiction) to see a different spin on who Emily could have been. Thanks for the review.

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