Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance by John J. Healey

Source: Arcade Publishing
Hardcover, 238 pages
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Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance by John J. Healey begins with the pretext that the author finds the manuscript among his deceased grandfather’s belongings and that the author’s name has been concealed.  The manuscript is set during the period in which Herman Melville is writing Moby Dick and is enticed by his sometime-mentor Nathaniel Hawthorne to take a trip to Boston and onto New York.  But on the way, which logistically makes no sense, they stop in Amherst to pay a visit to Hawthorne’s friend, the father of Emily and Austin Dickinson.  But the elder children are the only ones at home.  Barely age 20 and far from the hermetic woman she becomes, Emily Dickinson’s imagination is running wild as her esteemed guests propose a journey outside of her home town, an adventure she has a few reservations about, but ultimately decides to go for her brother’s sake, if not her own secretive yearnings to see more of the world.

The Dickinsons having been raised in a stern, Christian home are much more reserved than Melville, who has a reputation for his sea-faring adventures and his amorous encounters with natives.  Hawthorne is slightly less reserved, but still bristles at some of Melville’s more controversial statements about religion and humans’ animal instincts.  Meanwhile, Austin has a secret life outside the home in which he has been sowing his wild oats before committing fully to his soon-to-be betrothed — a more proper fit for the reserved Dickinson family.  Emily, on the other hand, enjoys reading as her escape and her solitude, until she glimpses what life could be outside of her cloistered existence in Amherst.

“‘If I were to answer with honesty, I would say there is wild within all of us, lurking underneath as you say.  It is perhaps our most irksome, mysterious and profound characteristic.'” (page 30)

Based upon the “Master” letters found among Dickinson’s belongings — letters which were never sent — an imagined relationship blooms between Melville and Dickinson.  They match wits on an intellectual level, and Melville finds in her a naive, but thoughtful young woman who is eager to learn and grow beyond what she has been taught.  Despite the changes around them, Dickinson is still confined by the role of a woman and her ruin can come from even just a whiff of scandal — something she is very much aware of even as she speaks most boldly about religion, animal instinct, and more.

The novel’s strength lies in the intellectual connections made over literature and the discussions they have about the world and its machinations.  When Whitman and an escaped slave William Johnson enter their path, even more of the changing world around them is revealed.  While there are some transitional moments that are bumpy, like when William Johnson is first introduced and when the narrative shifts from Hawthorne to Melville and the Dickinsons, the multiple perspectives help to round out the story.

Healey’s novel is graphic about certain sexual encounters, which could be troublesome for some readers — particularly those who do not wish to see Emily Dickinson or any author as objects of desire.  In some ways, perhaps the novel would have been better served had it been told from Dickinson’s point of view, looking backward on her affair with Melville.  The novel raises a number of questions not only about the differences between love freely given and the love codified by marriage vows, but also about how change can be a long, arduous process.  Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance by John J. Healey is more about the world as it changes from one in which strict puritan ideals are the only way to live to one in which slavery is slowly becoming less acceptable.

About the Author:

John J. Healey is the author of the recently published novel EMILY & HERMAN, (Arcade), a love story between Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville. He has been published in the Harvard Review and has directed two documentary films, ‘Federico García Lorca’ and the award-winning ‘The Practice of the Wild’. He lives in the United States and Spain and is currently working on a new work of fiction: ‘riverrun’.

This is my 48th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.


  1. Dear Serena,

    I have just stumbled over your review, the subsequent comments and your patient replies just now. Wish I’d seen it sooner. I am so very grateful for the care you took in thinking about it and I so hope more and more people learn about ‘Emily & Herman’ and keep on buying it. Very touched. Yours, John (the author)

  2. I have to admit I’m not a huge fan of either writer- having only read one or two books by each- but the novel sounds intriguing nonetheless. I think I’d be interested in it as a historical perspective, but feel like I ought to read more by them, especially Dickinson, before getting into this.

    • I think if you have read or heard of Moby Dick and some of Dickinson’s poems, you’d be fine. I think this is more about them personally and their imagined relationship rather than their work.

  3. I would pick this one up if I saw it in the library for sure and give it a shot. And the graphic sex scenes do not bother me whatsoever.

  4. I love Dickinson’s work, so I’m not too sure about those graphic sex scenes but this book sounds worth reading!

  5. I’m curious about this one since Dickinson is my favorite poet. I’m not much of a Melville fan, though. Still, it sounds fascinating!

  6. This novel sounds very intriguing and one I might enjoy.

  7. Sounds like an interesting historical novel. Not so sure about the graphic sex scenes but the rest of it sounds intriguing.

    • It was interesting look at the time period, but not too many graphic sex scenes…just wanted to alert people who don’t like that type of thing.

  8. Except for the graphic scenes, my mom would probably love this!


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