A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

I make an effort when reviewing books to not be too negative. However there are times when I am so opposed to an author’s point of view that I am compelled to speak out about it. Such is the case with Jerome Charyn’s A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century.* Charyn has obviously done his research and knows his subject matter. But the more I read, the more I found myself taking issue with his approach.

I don’t fault Mr. Charyn for being enthralled by Emily Dickinson. In fact I’d recently started to come under her spell myself. I’d come across a brief commentary about her and suddenly wanted to know more. Shortly thereafter Jerome Charyn’s book was in my hands.

A Loaded GunCharyn’s main premise is that the Emily Dickinson that America fell in love with is not the “true” Emily. He asserts that she was not the shy, agoraphobic recluse she’s been made out to be. It’s unlikely that anyone could be that one-dimensional. But Charyn insists that he knows definitively both what Emily Dickinson was not and what she was.

He takes it as a matter of fact that Dickinson was bisexual, and names a couple of women she was “in love“ with, including her sister-in-law, Susan. Dickinson may well have been bisexual; but we simply don’t have enough information to conclude that. But in Charyn’s mind, it’s a given, as though the poet had written …

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The carriage held us, coupled with –

Throughout the book, Charyn seems to be describing Emily as he wants her to be, calling her witch, seductress, mermaid, Jekyll and Hyde, warrior, outlaw, Scheherazade, carnivore, alchemist, enchantress, huntress. He paints her as mysterious, sizzling, mythical, and magical. Wow. I’m glad Emily’s not alive to have to live up to all that; that’s quite a high pedestal to stand on. Maybe she wasn’t certifiably agoraphobic. (We don’t know that for certain either.) But why insist that if she’s not A, she must be X, offering no options in the middle? If she’s not an agoraphobe, she must be a seductive carnivore? If she’s not shy and reclusive, she must instead be a bisexual minx? These extremes appear to me to be products of Charyn’s … err … vivid imagination. (Is there a cable channel for literary porn?)

The author seems to be trying very hard to use his own unique, descriptive language. But perhaps he’s trying just a little too hard:

“ … we can sense her plumage gather, like some songbird startled by the sound and texture of its own song.”

“… she might shift a word or a line to suit a particular correspondent, like some poet-tailor.”

“[Her lines of poetry] … flew into her letters like some strange missile, torn from a poem about human guilt, and some hidden Crime …”

“She communed with us, like some clairvoyant, as if she had found a melody and a cadence to speak for the dead …”

“And yet Dickinson thrived in that cosmic sense of hers, in some hot cauldron at the edge of chaos.”

“And so she smashed the pillars of that Protestant ethos, like some Samson in a white dress …”

“And she reported her mental state like some cosmologist of the soul.”

“’The Brain is just the weight of God – ‘ Dickinson noted 150 years ago, like some neurologist in advance of her time.”

“It was here, alone, in the turbulence of her own mind, she created poems and pictograms that are works of art, like some cave dweller of the nineteenth century with her own hieroglyphics.”

Do you get the feeling Charyn is trying to manifest some unmet poetic dream of his own, like some frustrated writer who overuses the word, “some?”

It’s not to say that I learned nothing about Dickinson from Charyn. He explored at length her relationships with her maid, her dog, her family, and her significant friends. He also discussed the works of several other writers and artists who had delved into her life. And he certainly did present a fresh angle for consideration. I just wish he’d not tried so hard to convince me that he must unequivocally know who Emily Dickinson was.

Toward the end of the biography, he at last concludes, “However unstable she might have been, moment by moment, she was fearless in her own work … since she was as much an explorer as a poet, delving into landscapes where no one else had gone. And it’s futile to define Dickinson in terms of gender or social station, or the topography of her time.“

That may be the most practical comment in the entire book.


*A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century by Jerome Charyn.
255 pages, softcover. Bellevue Literary Press, 2016.

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2 Responses to A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century

  1. This sounds pretty awful. I am always uncomfortable with books that try to reveal some “shocking” truth about a historical figure, presenting as fact what is just as much speculation as the commonly-held view. It just seems to me like they’re exploiting the person a bit? Coupling a famous name with some titillating speculation to sell books? It could be totally not the case, but that’s what it comes across as to me. Anyway, I absolutely lost it at your little altered Dickinson poem. Really great review!


  2. ohioladyj says:

    Of course it is so important to make everyone a lesbian or gay in today’s society. I am sure someone in Hollywood will grab this book and salivate over it until it becomes a twisted movie with special effects and some actress who is known for being oversexualized to play the role. Quite frankly, I find this disturbing and I won’t read it now. The ignorance of this writer is that people’s relationships to different words and objects of that time were different than they are now. I can’t explain all of these sentences above but I certainly did not get the feeling that it made her into this person you have explained that he had done. I think he is reaching for straws.


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