Review of The Voice at the Door by James Sulzer, featured in The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, May/June 2014
James Sulzer’s The Voice at the Door, modest in length and written in a straightforward, graceful style, begins with Dickinson’s trip to Washington, D.C. in 1855 and focuses on her relationship with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Though the novel covers her remaining 31 years, introducing the expected characters and documented incidents of her life, it is the examination of the love for “[her] Philadelphia” that provides the meat of the book as well as its most startling and provocative imaginings.
Sulzer, a Yale graduate and middle-school teacher on Nantucket Island [see his account of teaching Dickinson, on page 6 of this issue], uses a clever conceit to introduce and frame the story: His imagined uncle, a doctor specializing in infectious diseases and an inveterate admirer of all things Dickinson, has left behind a manuscript that details the poet’s love affair with the married, enigmatic Charles Wadsworth. This “found” narrative describes in dramatic detail how the relationship affected her poetry and significantly altered the course of her life.
Going well beyond the assertion that, in fact, Wadsworth is the “Master” to whom Dickinson wrote, Sulzer offers the theory that he also suffered from syphilis and transmitted the disease to the poet (who, we are told, is aware at the time of this possibility). As Sulzer writes in the fictional introduction, “[My uncle] must have known that his ideas would astound some and dismay others.”
Well, yes, although other biographical and fictional explanations of Dickinson’s reclusiveness and malaise in her later years have occasioned the same kind of reader response. Perhaps even more than the fact of the supposed illness, the scene in the book involving Dickinson’s seduction of Wadsworth does stretch one’s willing suspension of disbelief.
That said, the novel is, as mentioned earlier, well-written. There are poems and excerpts from the “Master letters” placed carefully throughout the book to help account for Dickinson’s behavior. Additionally, the book includes a timeline of Dickinson’s life, list of sources, excerpts and references to the poems (Franklin numeration) mentioned in the book; and a reader’s guide with questions for discussion.