Wild Nights, Wild Nights: The Story of Emily Dickinson’s “Master,” Neighbor and Friend and Bridegroom

by Daniela Gioseffi. © 2010. Plain View Press. 372 pgs.
ISBN: 978-1-935514-44-2.
A Review by Grace Cavalieri

This is a “biographical” novel with a scholarly non-fiction afterword on Emily Dickinson’s life. The title of the book is taken from the first line of a poem by E.D. These are not the first words we attribute to the staid and formal image of the poet we’ve been accustomed to. In fact, all previous concepts are broken in the unfoldment of Emily Dickinson’s passionate love affair with the mysterious “Master.” Gioseffi supports the theory advanced by Ruth Owen Jones that the love of E.D.’s life, and the fuel for her poetry was William Smith Clark. Colonel Clark was a Civil War hero and founder of the Univ. of Massachusetts at Amherst, as an agricultural college. More than relying on the claims by others, Gioseffi tracks the historically accurate times and places where the two lived and most probably met.

Once we have our heroes – our Romeo and Juliet, author Gioseffi converts fact to fiction embarking upon a beautifully rendered tale of love found and lost, and turned into an immortal legacy. The great attraction in reading this book is in the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson, suitably enhancing mind and motive. It is not difficult, once a blueprint is established, to fill in the historicity, passion, and prose. The idea of Emily as a “hot” rather than “cold” Emily took me a minute, but not much more, as myth after myth is unveiled (and that is not all being uncovered. )Never salacious, always tasteful, there are indications of sexual encounters. These would be easily debunked if the poetry did not track – as evidence – each place Emily occupied, connected to each event in William Smith Clark’s own life.

Like a detective story, clue after clue is revealed and then substantiated. It is a fascinating journey and a terrific read. Admit it, in college we never thought we’d consider E.D. anything but a repressed spinster—her wit rusting away in family salons. Jungian scholars will champion Daniela Gioseffi for capitalizing on every psychological hint of fulfilled womanhood and emotion unleashed.

The resonance in Wild Night, Wild Nights is most certainly because the writer’s voice is so real. The author, a poet herself, makes our hero someone we feel we’ve spoken to ourselves…a far thought from the glass encased image we once knew. The anarchic spirit of Dickinson and the delicate impropriety is frankly a delight. We find E.D. accountable for all her actions—some calculating, others manipulative, to be with her “Master” Clark, even after his marriage. We hear a background hum saying (In addition to conflict) Is not this what I chose. I cannot emphasize this point enough. It is Dickinson’s responsibility in the act of love that is consistent with her life, ethics, beliefs, and poetic declamations.

The aesthetic capital for Gioseffi is in finding the essence of Dickinson, her transcendental thought and scientific adventure. This tracks the journey until Clark’s and Dickinson’s deaths within weeks of one another.

Emily Dickinson’s poetry and writings incorporated in this fictive love story are what we will lovingly remember. We have Emily’s sadness, her glorifying God through nature, her vision of each moment as a spectacle that must come to an end, and therefore must be made permanent. Throughout the book we feel a clamor of thought is it better to leave or to be left, and “leave” she never chose. Finally, with forbearance, William ends the long affair.

The line of vision holding the book intact is E.D.’s psychological motivation in the presence of repressive family and societal mores. She observes moderation with elegance, even when behaving immoderately. This storied Emily is easier to love than the daguerreotype imprinted on fractious memory.

There are no maladroit characters in this book—an occasional drunk printing an occasional Emily valentine in the newspaper, causing her trouble at home. Mostly it is a story of proper folk behaving properly, but for their FEELINGS!

Grief and habit walked hand in hand with Emily throughout her days, her imagination always the locomotive, her poetry written with clarity of purpose. Daniela Gioseffi shows us not a lonely febrile woman but a vibrant being whose solitude was surrounded with rich cultural practices.

If you think you know Emily Dickinson than you will be surprised to find you don’t really find a treasure until you examine the new box it came in. I recommend reading the nonfiction afterword first. The historical detail is a priceless compass to this “fictional work,” or should it more truly be called “biography?”

Daniela Author Daniela Gioseffi is a scholar, poet and novelist. Among other honors she holds the American Book Award.