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Book Review: ‘The Voice at the Door’

By TINKY WEISBLAT

“The Voice at the Door” by James Sulzer (Fuze Publishing, 216 pages, $13.95)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of our country’s foremost poets. This Amherst writer’s verse appeals to schoolchildren and scholars alike because it offers wonderful words and rhythms — and because one can exhaust decades trying to interpret it.

James Sulzer lives, writes, and teaches on Nantucket. He has, according to his publicist, “spent the past 40 years of his life reading, living with and cherishing the poetry of Emily Dickinson.”

His novel “The Voice at the Door” uses historical facts and many of Dickinson’s writings to try to recreate parts of her life. A framing device attributes the novel to the author’s uncle, William Norcross, but the voice of the book is clearly Sulzer’s own.

The book focuses on Dickinson’s relationship with Charles Wadsworth, a prominent Presbyterian minister whom she met a few times. She corresponded with him for years, although their letters no longer exist.

Many scholars have argued that Wadsworth may have been the love of the poet’s life: the “master” to whom she wrote mysterious letters that still exist in draft form, and the inspiration for some of her more romantic and dramatic poetry.

Sulzer takes this argument one step further in his novel by creating scenes in which Dickinson and Wadsworth interact, as well as scenes between Dickinson and family members.

He explains in an afterword that he hopes that the “plausible conceit” he proposes to define the relationship between the poet and the clergyman addresses three intriguing facts about Dickinson’s life.

These facts are the existence of passionate love poems in the spinster writer’s work from the early 1860s, partial blindness from which she suffered in the mid-1860s, and Dickinson’s withdrawal from society during the final two decades of her life.

Sulzer comes up with an unusual and controversial explanation for these biographical facts. Some readers may find his interpretation of Dickinson’s life hard to accept. Nevertheless, he makes a good case for it — and by choosing to write a novel rather than a biography, he allows himself a fair amount of license.

He does a commendable job of entering into the mindset of two well known yet fundamentally private individuals. Wadsworth and Dickinson interact in the present tense in “The Voice in the Door.” Sulzer works hard to render their words — and their relationship — true to the 19th century yet understandable in the 21st.

We’ll likely never know whether this author’s interpretation of Dickinson’s life and loves is accurate. Sulzer clearly has a feeling for the poet as a person and a wordsmith, however. His book is at its best when it weaves Dickinson’s innovative words and thoughts into its swiftly moving narrative.

Signing Aug. 9

Sulzer will sign copies of “The Voice at the Door” on Saturday, Aug. 9, from 4 to 5:15 p.m. at the World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of “The Pudding Hollow Cookbook” and “Pulling Taffy.” Visit her website, www.TinkyCooks.com.

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