A Loaded Gun: Emily Dickinson for the 21st Century
by Jerome Charyn.

Bellevue Literary Press, 2016.
Paperback, 255 pages, $20.

The first part of Jerome Charyn’s title alludes to one of Emily Dickinson’s most enigmatic and powerful poems, which begins, “My Life had stood—A Loaded Gun—[.]” Generations of critics have interpreted the poem in different ways, including, for example, that the “Owner” and “Master” who carries away the female speaker might be a lover who has released her pent-up energy. Charyn prefers to think of that loaded gun as her poetic gift, which has made her explode with a power readers have still not been able to reckon with. If there is an Emily Dickinson for the twenty-first century, it is because she is still well ahead of our understanding of her—and Charyn counts himself among her bemused followers. For Charyn, she is not the recluse of Amherst, retiring and timid, but instead a bold writer who needed the world far less than it has needed her. His Dickinson wrote for herself—and occasionally for family and friends—but not for posthumous fame or recognition. This sublime independence is part of what makes Dickinson great, and also makes her such a challenge to scholars and critics, who look for the key to her mythology, so to speak, and the wellspring of her biography.

Charyn’s book can be compared favorably to other recent books that might be called metabiographies, which concern how biographies are composed, generation by generation. I have in mind Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth (2004) and Sarah Churchwell’s The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2005), books that do not merely assess earlier biographies, but also show how biography itself becomes a cumulative and incremental enterprise. Charyn is intrigued by the hermeneutics of biography and literary criticism. He is steeped in the work of Dickinson scholars and readers, including Christopher Benfey, R. P. Blackmur, Susan Howe, Thomas H. Johnson, Jay Leyda, Rebecca Patterson, Camille Paglia, Adrienne Rich, Richard Sewall, Marta Werner, and others. In a sense, for Charyn the poems are Emily Dickinson, the vital part of herself that as a woman in nineteenth-century Massachusetts she could only fully express by keeping to herself—not as someone shy of society so much as one who knew society simply could not reciprocate what she had to offer. In other words, Charyn’s Dickinson is not agoraphobic, not a neurotic, but a writer in charge of her destiny.

To Dickinson scholars, part of Charyn’s story will, of course, be familiar, especially the parts about how Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson tried to regularize Dickinson’s unorthodox lines—those dashes, for instance, that looked so jagged and unkempt to their conventional minds. The scholar hero of Charyn’s narrative is Jay Leyda, the dogged chronicler of Melville who did much the same for the poet in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (1960). Leyda revealed, for example, how important Dickinson’s dog, Carlo, was to her, and Charyn shows how the dog’s absence deforms the work of various biographers and critics:

Most Dickinson scholars have paid scant attention to Carlo, even though that big brown dog haunts her letters and her poems. Carlo isn’t even listed in the index of Cynthia Griffin Wolff’s six-hundred-page biography. And John Cody, who spends page after page analyzing Dickinson’s psychic dilemma as a love-starved woman and poet, mentions him only once. “Carlo seems to have accompanied Emily on all her rambles, and it is clear that she became fond of him.” But he finds no connection at all between Carlo and the poet’s “inner life.” I suspect that Carlo occupied more psychic and physical space than any other creature; she couldn’t have thrived without him. With all her aristocratic mien, she was little more than an expensive chattel who couldn’t even buy her own writing paper and pens without her father’s funds.

Charyn is not indulging in idle speculation. Dickinson owned this Newfoundland for sixteen years. She took the pet with her on social visits. In her letters she makes a point of identifying him as her companion. The dog probably weighed about 150 pounds and was as big as herself, as Dickinson claimed. “I started Early—Took my dog—” one of her poems begins, “And visited the Sea—[.]” In the poem, the speaker seems to become a creature of the enveloping sea until “The Sea withdrew—[.]” Charyn calls her a “poet-wanderer” and this poem “a reckless version of herself.” And why not? He adds, “[S]he can afford to be reckless in this poem—she has her dog.” There are almost as many entries in Charyn’s index for Carlo as there are for Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s impresario to her contemporaries. Unreconciled to Carlo’s death, Dickinson wrote to Higginson, “I wish for Carlo. I explore but little since my mute Confederate [died].” In fact, in Charyn’s words, the poet seemed to go “underground” when Carlo could no longer accompany her.

Reading Jerome Charyn sometimes evokes the sensation of seeing Dickinson arise from her poems, at once liberated from a domineering father, a purblind society, and even from the well-meaning ministrations of Higginson, Todd, and Todd’s daughter, Millicent. In Charyn, Dickinson emerges in the Manhattan peregrinations of Joseph Cornell, who puts the poet in his theater boxes as he communes with Jay Leyda about how adventuresome she was. Cornell constructed her in bits and pieces in imitation of Leyda’s “assemblages” of her life. “Cornell and Dickinson were intensely secretive and private souls. But she wasn’t ‘the eccentric, quivering, overstrung recluse’ that Deborah Solomon writes about in her 1997 biography of Cornell, nor was she trapped in her Amherst prison-house, as Rebecca Patterson would have us believe,” Charyn contends.

These quotations from Charyn might leave the impression that he goes out of his way to quarrel with biographers and critics. Not so. Just as often he shows how he has learned from them. But he is very good at showing how perceptions of artists get encrusted into the boilerplate of other biographies of other subjects. Thus, for example, biographers simply repeated a catechism about an obese, self-loathing poet when considering Amy Lowell, when in fact her life was a triumph—and a loving one, as well. Just so Charyn relieves Dickinson of her neuroses and gives her life back to her, treating her with a dignity and respect that decades of psychologizing have lacked.

Charyn is not aiming for new, definitive readings of Dickinson poems. Instead, he is about the work of enlarging the universe of her person and her poetry while he shows how much more there is still to do in fathoming her depths and contours. Too often criticism seems to drain the work it seeks to explicate. Charyn, on the other hand, revels in Dickinson’s elusiveness. He does not believe in solving her mysteries, but rather exhibiting how much more we have yet to encompass. After a perceptive account of the efforts to identify her image in daguerreotypes of doubtful provenance, he concludes, “She will continue to fuel our hunger and to baffle us, no matter how many portraits of her we uncover, or how many interpretations we have of every image. She’s still out there ‘opon Circumference,’ where she’ll always be hard to find.”  

Carl Rollyson is the author of Amy Lowell Anew: A Biography, American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, Confessions of a Serial Biographer, and with Lisa Paddock, Emily Dickinson: Self-Discipline in the Service of Art.