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Was Emily Dickinson gay?

To Jerome Charyn, Emily Dickinson’s “work and life is just as liberating for men as it is for women.”

Charyn is the author of the new book, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson, published by W. W. Norton and Co., which will hit stores Feb. 22.

SDGLN got the chance to speak to Charyn on the phone recently about this intriguing new book.

It should be noted that Secret is not a biography. It is not a compilation of her works. What it is, is a novel based on her life from her own perspective, in her own voice.

How is that possible, you might ask? It wasn’t easy, Charyn said, but after reading her letters, he knew it was what needed to be written.

How was he able to put himself inside her mind?

Charyn said her story and “music” is in her poetry, but it was her letters that spoke the loudest to him. Her letters, all protected by copyright and therefore not available to quote from, were written to various people in her life; her sister-in-law, her sister, her father (while a congressman in Washington), various friends, nieces ... many people.

It was these letters that gave Charyn the courage and guidance he needed to step into her “voice.”

“She has a very particular voice,” Charyn said. “No one else has ever been like her or ever will be like her. She is one of a kind.”

Charyn said Dickinson was not really the “reclusive artist” that most people think, although a series of losses had a tremendous impact on her and caused her to spend most of the final years of her life indoors.

During that time, she rarely, if ever, ventured outside. First, her relationship with Susan went south, then she lost her beloved dog, Carlo, then her dad, then her nephew.

He spoke of her profound imagination – how she could write so vividly about things without ever even venturing outside for those years.

He shared an Emily quote that moved him, “To shut our eyes is Travel,” and pointed out that her choice to write the sentence the way she did, instead of what might be expected (“To shut our eyes is to travel”), proved her genius with language.

“It is an extraordinary statement. It is much more powerful and poignant to say it the way she did, especially capitalizing Travel.”

Charyn, a New York City native and author of 37 other novels, decided it was time to address his lifelong connection with the elusive poet. He felt an instant connection with Dickinson at a very young age when he was first introduced to her poetry.

“She was the first poet I had discovered, and she spoke to me in such an intimate voice – not male or female – but instantly intimate,” he said.

Dickinson was the typical “village poet,” Charyn said. She didn’t write for notoriety and often wrote on the back of recipes. Although she wrote throughout her life, he notes that it appears an especially fertile period was during the Civil War.

Charyn’s story is often comedic but ultimately tragic, as he guides the character of the literary genius from her days at Mt Holyoke seminary school to her final hours as a recluse, still chattering away her thoughts of the world outside on pieces of paper.

Once Dickinson passed away, her sister Lavinia, following her specific instructions, destroyed all of her known letters, although many remain. What Emily did not do is leave behind instructions regarding the mass amounts of poetry organized in binders, which Lavinia later found in a dresser. These were eventually turned over to both her brother’s wife, Susan Gilbert, and her brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Almost a century of angst and fights over the periodic publishings of Dickinson’s work ensued.

One of the more famous depictions of her work came in the final, most poignant scene of the movie Sophie’s Choice. Coming across his beloved friends Sophie and Nathan (played by Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline) on their deathbed after ingesting cyanide, Stingo (Peter MacNichol) picks up a book by the bedside table and reads Emily’s poem, “Ample Make This Bed.” It is a moving moment in the award winning film and Emily’s poem perfectly frames the scene.

Was Emily Dickinson a lesbian?

Charyn doesn’t think so. What he does believe is that she had a very intense, very loving relationship with her best friend and sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert; but we shouldn't try to see too much into it, since that was typical for women at that time.

To support his beliefs, he noted that Susan was her best friend. They came from the same class, they understood each other very well, Susan was very supportive of Emily's writing ... but they were also great rivals of one another. They fought often. Susan was not supportive of Emily’s intimate relationship with a friend of her father; she also thought Emily was an accomplice (by default) in her husband’s filandering. It caused a great deal of stress on their friendship.

“Susan was her muse and definitely the most important person in her life. She guided her through her life, and I believe they were soul mates,” Charyn surmised, "but I don't believe anything sexual occurred."

“We are all male and female and if I hadn’t been female in some way, I wouldn’t have been able to write this book," Charyn said.

The second most important thing in Dickinson's life was her dog, a Newfoundland, that she named Carlo. “She went everywhere with Carlo,” Charyn said. “She took long walks with him through town for years.” Carlo's loss contributed greatly to her social decline in the last years of her life.

Charyn said he hopes people will get to know Dickinson’s work better by reading his personal interpretation of her life. As for whether or not she was gay, find out for yourself. Afterall, maybe Charyn is in denial; but her voice through his pen may tell us otherwise.

The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson will be released Feb. 22, and be available at local bookstores and Amazon.com.