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Authors: Jerome Charyn

A Loaded Gun

BOOK: A Loaded Gun
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“One of the most important writers in American literature.” —
Michael Chabon

“One of our finest writers. . . . Whatever milieu [Charyn] chooses to inhabit, . . . his sentences are pure vernacular music, his voice unmistakable.”
—Jonathan Lethem

“Charyn, like Nabokov, is that most fiendish sort of writer—so seductive as to beg imitation, so singular as to make imitation impossible.” —
Tom Bissell

“Among Charyn's writerly gifts is a dazzling energy. . . . [He is] an exuberant chronicler of the mythos of American life.”
—Joyce Carol Oates,
New York Review of Books

“A fearless writer. . . . Brave and brazen.” —
Andrew Delbanco,
New York Review of Books

“Charyn skillfully breathes life into historical icons.” —
New Yorker

“Both a serious writer and an immensely approachable one, always witty and readable and . . . interesting.” —
Washington Post

“Absolutely unique among American writers.” —
Los Angeles Times

“A contemporary American Balzac.” —

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson: A Novel

“Daring.” —
New York Times Book Review

“Audacious. . . . Seductive. . . . Charyn has never written more powerfully. . . . A poignant, delicately rendered vision.” —
New York Review of Books

“Through a perceptive reading of Dickinson's verse and correspondence, [Charyn's] re-created her wild mind in all its erudition, playfulness and nervous energy.” —
Washington Post

“Compellingly drawn. . . . I admire Charyn's achievement in lifting the veil of a heretofore mysterious figure.” —
Los Angeles Times

“In this brilliant and hilarious jailbreak of a novel, Charyn channels the genius poet and her great leaps of the imagination.” —
(starred review)

“In his breathtaking high-wire act of ventriloquism, Jerome Charyn pulls off the nearly impossible: in
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
he imagines an Emily Dickinson of mischievousness, brilliance, desire, and wit (all which she possessed) and then boldly sets her amidst a throng of historical, fictional, and surprising characters just as hard to forget as she is. This is a bold book, but we'd expect no less of this amazing novelist.” —
Brenda Wineapple,
author of
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The poet (left) and one of her possible muses, circa 1859
Used by kind permission of a private collector

First published in the United States in 2016 by

Bellevue Literary Press, New York

For information, contact:

Bellevue Literary Press

NYU School of Medicine

550 First Avenue

OBV A612

New York, NY 10016

© 2016 by Jerome Charyn

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
is available from the publisher upon request

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a print, online, or broadcast review.

Cover images courtesy of The Emily Dickinson Collection, Amherst College Archives & Special Collections

Bellevue Literary Press would like to thank all its generous donors—individuals and foundations—for their support.

The New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature
This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Book design and composition by Mulberry Tree Press, Inc.

First Edition


ebook ISBN: 978-1-934137-99-4



Author's Note

:  Zero at the Bone

:  The Two Emilys—and the Earl

:  Daemon Dog

:  Judith Shakespeare and Margaret Maher

:  Ballerinas in a Box

:  Phantom Lady

:  Within a Magic Prison

:  Nothing

:  Cleopatra's Company

:  The Witch's Hour

:  Sam Carlo


Selected Bibliography



Author's Note

. I'd spent two years writing a novel about her, vampirizing her letters and poems, sucking the blood out of her bones, like some hunter of lost souls. I'd rifled through every book about her I could find—biographies, psychoanalytic studies of her crippled, wounded self, tales of her martyrdom in the nineteenth century, studies of her iconic white dress, accounts of her agoraphobia, etc. I shut my eyes, blinked, and wrote
The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson
(2010), like a boy galloping on a blind horse. I never believed much in her spinsterhood and shriveled sexuality. 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 webs, trapping words until she gathered them in a Lexicon that had no equal.

She falls in love with a handyman at Mount Holyoke in my novel. Perhaps she dreams him up in the snow outside her window, a blond creature with a tattoo on his arm of a red heart pierced with a blue arrow—that tattoo is every bit as extravagant and outrageous as her poems. Tom the Handyman could be a phantom and a whisper of her own art. He's also a burglar and a thief, an appropriate accomplice for a woman who burgled the English language; he will rescue her in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she roams around half-blind, and she will discover him again hiding in a circus near the end of her life—Dickinson loved the circus, with its rash of red.

The poet was also in love with Susan Gilbert, as her own letters reveal. And Sue remains the most enigmatic character in the novel—volatile,
brooding, dark. “She was our Vesuvius, who rained hot lava down upon our heads,” as Dickinson says in my
Secret Life.
There are rides to eternity throughout Dickinson's poems, and I wrote about her own last ride as a voyage to her dead father's barn, wearing a bridal gown, all done up in tulle, but she never gets there—discontinuity has always been her habit.

And thus I travel in my Dimity and tulle, but that barn could be in Peru. I seem nearer and nearer, but never near enough. My bridal gown could be in tatters before I arrive.

As Dickinson teaches us, endings have no end. She was a master of quantum mechanics long before that science was ever born.
“People like us, who believe in physics, know the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion,” Einstein once said, and he could have been talking about Emily Dickinson. She was always at the ragged edge of time.

And there wasn't a bit of closure, even after I finished my novel. I knew less and less the more I learned about her. There was no way to shove her aside. Her poems never heal the essential wound of reading her. Even the tales of her life were tantalizing, since they reveal so little. She was an agoraphobic who could dance anywhere on her toes, a reclusive nun who wrote the sexiest love letters, a mermaid who swam in her own interior sea, a shy mouse who could pillage and plunder in her poems. All her life she was a Loaded Gun.

And while writing a novel about Lincoln, in Lincoln's voice, dealing with his staccato courtship of Mary Todd—another nineteenth-century belle who was much too complicated and whimsical for her era—and with all the brutal turns of the Civil War, I dreamt of Dickinson, who wrote some of her finest poems during the years this “still Man” inhabited the White House like a gaunt ghost. And I had to write about Dickinson again, to capture her voice—not as a novelist, but as a hunter in her own field of words.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to Martha Nell Smith for establishing the Dickinson Electronic Archives and for her own careful scrutiny of Dickinson's texts. I would like to thank Margaret Dakin, archivist of the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College, for allowing me to sift through Emily's secrets, those wondrous fragments in which she herself smashed the illusion of time and left little eternities for us all to share; I couldn't have written this book without these late fragments and letter-poems.

I would like to thank Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, who helped me roam through Edward Dickinson's “head-quarters” at the Homestead and to wander into that “Pearl Jail” where his daughter once slept and wrote and hoarded that Lexicon of hers. I would also like to thank Dickinson scholars Polly Longsworth, Christopher Benfey, and Marta Werner, who, with poet Susan Howe, were my partners in crime, helping me unsnarl some of the
of Dickinson's mind. And I'd like to thank poet and public health physician Norbert Hirschhorn, poet Susan Snively, graphologist Susanne Shapiro, and daguerreotype collector Sam Carlo for their own perceptions about Emily Dickinson. Most of all, I'd like to thank prima ballerina Allegra Kent, who shared her reminiscences of Joseph Cornell with me while I watched her dance toward her own “Blue Peninsula.”

BOOK: A Loaded Gun
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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