Island author Jim Sulzer landed on Nantucket the same way many of us did. It was 1986 when the Yale graduate and his wife decided to come live on the island for “just one year.” Almost 30 “just one years” later, when Sulzer isn’t busy teaching writing to grades 5-8 at Nantucket New School, you’ll find him immersed in his own writing. His most recent novel, The Voice at the Door, offers the author’s answer to a hotly debated literary mystery: the addressee of American poet Emily Dickinson’s Master poems.
Sulzer’s soaring height starkly contrasts his soft-spoken presence. He exudes a quiet dignity that is not unlike that which Dickinson herself must have possessed. Venturing into Sulzer’s sun-drenched backyard, one feels as if it could very well be Emily Dickinson’s famous garden. A few friendly cats scamper through the greenery; one brave emerald-eyed tigress stops for a quick greet-and-sniff. The gardener toils with a smile. And there among the flowers, like a shy beauty just coming of age, stands the author’s workspace. Sulzer quaintly refers to it as a shed, but the interior belies any association with grass-speckled lawn mowers and rusty tool kits. Fragrant cedar mingles with a woodstove to concoct an intoxicating aroma that surely spawns creativity. A classical guitar leans against a handcrafted bookshelf, full of well-worn texts and a half-full bottle of Johnny Walker. It is here, at a tall, elegant table kissed by sunlight–or moonlight, depending upon the hour–where Sulzer does most of his writing.
Sulzer came across Dickinson’s work when he was 16. “I felt her. Boom, right away,” he says, adding that her poetry became the basis for his elaborate senior project in high school. Seasoned eyes take on a youthful glow at the memory. “And in 2001,” he says, “I rediscovered Emily. I had hurt my back and couldn’t move the way I normally do, so I lay around reading. I read every F. Scott Fitzgerald story and didn’t like a single one!” He chuckles and says that this led him back to Dickinson’s pages, and he fell in love all over again. “She spoke to me. And I became a little bit obsessed,” he says slowly, then adds, “But I think that in order to do a book like this, you have to have an obsession with your subject. When you write a novel, you’re creating a world, and you’re living in that world. It comes alive. It grows and flowers and reveals things you hadn’t expected. The end of the book surprised even me!”
Narrated by Suzler’s fictional Uncle William Norcross, The Voice at the Door weaves a love story between Dickinson and famous Presbyterian preacher Charles Wadsworth. “He was probably the second most famous American preacher of the time,” says Sulzer. “The timeline of the Master poems’ writing points to Wadsworth. He’s the only one that seems to fit. Of course, this is just my opinion. I’m not saying it’s the definite truth. But this is a novel, not a biography. You choose a truth and go with it.”
Dickinson, frequently billed as America’s greatest poet, is more often portrayed as a caricature than an individual. Most people know her as a literary figure that brooded in solitude and refused human contact. The natural reaction to those factoids is to think that she hated people. Sulzer disagrees, and says, “I think she lived life so intensely that in order to keep living with that intensity, she had to retreat from society.” In his book, Suzler sets out to give Dickinson life, breath, flesh. Whatever it would take to show her true personhood to people. “She was a generous person with a wonderful, sly sense of humor. And there’s certainly a powerful intellect there. I imagine that when Wadsworth met Emily, he was bowled over. Like, here’s someone who is my intellectual equal. Whoa, maybe more than my equal!”
Though Sulzer doesn’t call himself a Dickinson scholar, anyone who reads his work certainly would. He pulls a volume from the bookshelf. It is Dickinson, of course. Every single page reveals passages that have been marked, highlighted, circled, scrawled upon, loved. It is evident that the word obsession was not far off. He points out her poem “A Bird came down the Walk” as a favorite. “My goal in writing this book,” says Sulzer, “was to take the aesthetic experience that one gets when reading Emily’s poetry and translate that into novel form.” The author’s own fiction is sprinkled with real Dickinson excerpts that move the story along, and spotlight its dancing near the truth.
Sulzer says Dickinson’s economical way with words has steered his own toward compactness. “The growth she experienced as a writer is evident. When she was 18, 19,” he says, “you can see her writing bubbled all over the place. When she reached 28, suddenly she hit her stride. I think it was due to the heat and pressure of the love relationship in her life. People think of Emily as being sad. But her work is not just despair. There’s a lot of ecstasy, too. Reading Emily’s work can teach us to experience life totally honestly and see it in its complexity, feel it deeply. Also, we learn not to underestimate people living different lifestyles.”
In writing this novel, Sulzer was been able to draw inspiration from Nantucket life, which is a window into Dickinson’s small-town world in 19th century Amherst. The author explains, “Amherst was definitely an everybody knows everybody type place. It was a lot like Nantucket, which is a good place for self-sufficient people with rich inner lives. Here, you see everybody all the time; and whether or not you like certain people, you still need to find a way to get along. Living on Nantucket has made me look at people with more compassion and understanding.” Sulzer surmises that Dickinson would have loved winter on Nantucket. “Although this winter,” he says, “may have been too long even for her.”
Fortunately for us, summer has just burst through the door, and it’s time to attend the Nantucket Book Festival! Although we’d love to see Sulzer at the festival, the author has a solid excuse to miss the weekend: his son is getting married in Colorado. Next time you see Sulzer around the island, congratulate him on his new book, his new daughter-in-law, and tell him you cannot wait to see him at the next Nantucket Book Festival. In the meantime, enjoy his favorite Dickinson poem, and one of the pieces that frames his novel:
A Bird came down the Walk (328)
Emily Dickinson, 1830 – 1886
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.