Sunday, May 3, 2009

American Writer

The most recent of Joyce Carol Oates' books I've read is Wild Nights: Stories about the last days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. The title was borrowed by Oates from the famous Emily Dicksinson poem of desire:

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—

Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—

In Thee!

Emily Dickinson (1861)

Joyce Carol Oates in full Emily Dickinson regalia. She's a bit of a character.

I read it in one sitting on a rainy but romantic Nova Scotia evening, perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. After the dark, that was the only sound - the waves - and the occasional turning of book pages as WP and I devoured our respective book.

I read each of the short stories except the one about Henry James. The "last days" of the great American writers is fictionalized, of course, from the fertile imagination of Joyce Carol Oates and in that style that makes her arguably one of the best America writers of our time.

I inhaled the Poe story, the one I chose to read first; entitled Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House.

ollowing is an excerpt from it:

1 March 1850. Cyclophagus, I have named it. A most original & striking creature, that would have astonished Homer, as my gothic forebears to a man. Initially, I did not comprehend that Cyclophagus was an amphibian, & have now discovered that this species dwells, by day at least, in watery burrows at the edge of the pebbled beach: to emerge, in the way of the Trojan invaders, at nightfall, & clamber about devouring what flesh its claws, snout, & tearing teeth can locate. & in this way, Mercury died.

This story is a slow, terrifying account of a descent into madness and hell. Very Poe yet with a distinctive Oates flavor. Which is to say that she can really go over the top at times; either sometimes on the brim of something very shocking and at other times directly and distinctly vulgar, as in a story of hers I read in The New Yorker called Zombie (not in this collection). It is with great imagination that Oates delves into the mind of one of our history's most iconic writers.

But nowhere is her hallmark genius more evident than in the story depicting the last days of the life of Emily Dickinson. EDickinsonRepliLuxe is a fantastical tale set in a future where robots are purchased for the home from a selection ranging from sports figures to, well, poets. In this suburban setting, the wife convinces her husband to buy the latest entertainment for the home in the form of Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson. Emily comes into the home, creating a profound impact on the middle-class couple. Here, Oates does what she is best at: the underlying social themes, rape implications and female independence. It's an incredible story. The story draws heavily, of course, on Dickinson's poems and letters (since virtually everything that is known about her, can be found in those) and from photographs by Jerome Leibling in The Dickinsons of Amherst (2001).

The stories of Mark Twain and Hemingway didn't thrill me much. Having read my share of Hemingway, I can't argue his importance in the world of American fiction but I'm not a fan. I like Mark Twain as an American icon but honestly, I slept through the teaching of several of his novels in school.

The worthwhile reads for me in this collection were the Poe and Dickinson stories. Well worth a read, if you like American short fiction.


  1. Thank you for sharing this post with us! Thank you also for your kind words on my blog! Have a great week!

  2. i would read this book for emily-poe perhaps as he is darkly fascinating but a bit scarey, lol...thank you for the review...she is a beautiful woman if we are to assume that is her? anyway, love the way she dressed up in full regalia as emily, always an interesting enigma.

    much love.

  3. Sounds a good book, and to read right thru in 1 siting, wow.

    Thankyou my friend for all your visits and very kind comments.

  4. Very well done review. Thank you.

  5. love emily dickenson and poe is one of my favorites of all time. 'the murders in the rue morgue' is classic- but i love the macabre and mysterious :) i've not read oates but perhaps that's where van morrison got inspiration? wild nights keeps playing through my head :)

  6. The photo of the girl with the flower in her hair is enchanting. May I try to write a poem about it some time? I'll name you, of course.

  7. Rinkly, you must mean the photograph of my daughter? I emailed you. Thanks for stopping by. Enjoyed your blog

  8. Spadoman: I've seen your comments around. Maybe at Lisa's or Fran's? Anyway, thanks for stopping by. JCO - it's really a trip to read her stuff.

    Betmo: the Van Morrison song kept running through my mind when I first picked up the book at the library! GMTA!

    Mac: I love your photos. You are an artist with a camera.

    Linda: the first photo is JCO and the second one, too. Dressed in ED's white dress. Well, not the actual one, which lives in a glass case in Amherst but one like it, of course. The hat seemed a bit flamboyant, though. I always think of ED as much too austere to wear such a hat. But I don't know the whole story behind the get-up or the photograph. Loves ya, Linda!

    Reader Wil: I always enjoy your visits here.

  9. Rinkly again. The poem is up:

  10. I love Joyce Carol Oates and have read her a lot, Sphinx! That poem by Emily D. is a very sexy, lustful one... who knew?


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