Master Figure: Tony Magistrale on Daniela Gioseffi’s Wild Nights, Wild Nights


Wild Nights! Wild Nights! The Story of Emily Dickinson’s “Master,” Neighbor and Friend and Bridegroom, Daniela Gioseffi, Plain View Press, 2010

Daniela Gioseffi has produced a novelization of Emily Dickinson’s life.  While it manages to capture the nuances of Dickinson’s time and particular place, it is more focused on highlighting instances and relationships where the iconoclastic poet and unconventional woman broke from 19th century strictures and comportment.  Dickinson’s poetry peppers the text in places appropriate to furthering the story. One example is the use of the poem: “Wild Nights – Wild Nights! // Were I with thee// Wild Nights should be // Our luxury!….” in both the title and the text regarding Dickinson’s erotic love poems.

Dickinson’s rebellion against the strictures of Victorian comportment is most apparent in her struggle and eventual failure to adhere to her father’s oppressive brand of Calvinist Puritanism, which Gioseffi emphasizes early in her novelization.  Even more dramatic is the poet’s apparent love affair with a married man—botany and chemistry professor of Amherst College, William Smith Clark—who served as Dickinson’s male muse just before and through the time that Colonel Clark was at the front in the Civil War.  Relying on recent Dickinsonian scholarship in the identification of the “Master figure” – in Dickinson’s letters and poems, a figure who inspired the poet’s best work in the 1860s, Gioseffi then proceeds to breathe erotic life into their affair. Her dramatization of this relationship is the crux of Wild Nights! Wild Nights!

There are no fictional characters in the book, as Gioseffi characterizes only people who actually existed in relationship to Dickinson and her biographically known details. How much of this biographical novel is based on absolute fact is really a moot point, though there is a compelling non-fiction afterword, ‘Lover of Science and Scientist in Dark Days of the Republic,’ which cites many authoritative biographies and articles on the iconic poet, and Daniela Gioseffi is with the Dickinson Scholar’s Registry. The fiction is great fun and a sharp reminder to all of us that Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry was far from the spinster-recluse stereotype to which many readers still adhere. There is a whole new image of America’s greatest woman poet to be had from the book which shows her as part of the American Enlightenment known as The Transcendental Movement, with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, and Margaret Fuller of ‘The Dial,’ at its helm. The book is well worth the reading for the new light it casts upon the most iconic woman poet of our American culture, and for the renewed reading of her texts within a nineteenth century context that it affords within its pages.

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Tony Magistrale is Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English at the University of Vermont. He has also taught at the Breadloaf Young Writers Conference and as a visiting professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany, and the University of Stockholm, Sweden. Prior to teaching at the University of Vermont, he taught at the University of Milan, Italy as a Fulbright post-doctoral fellow. Magistrale is an internationally known Stephen King scholar and has published analysis of the films of Stephen King and contemporary American horror fiction. He has published two volumes of poetry and won the 2007 Bordighera Poetry Prize for his collection of poems, What She Says About Love, 2008.

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