Wild Nights

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

I found Oates’ collection of fictional stories about the last days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, James and Hemingway to be creative and engaging. She encapsulates the personality of the five writers within her fictional characters and creates a setting, plot or fate, wildly improbable, but somewhat related to the life they actually led.

In the first story “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light House,” the fictional Poe has agreed with his patron to isolate himself in a lighthouse and keep a diary to record his activities as part of an experiment. Oates creates a mystical, dark, gloomy setting and mimics the “fated/doomed/ecstatic quintessential voice of Poe.” From this story, I learned about the importance of voice to develop character and portray changes in personality. The story provides a good example of how the setting also becomes a character. I’d like to emulate her techniques in developing the interaction between the character and the setting.

In the second story, “EDickinson RepliLuxe,” physical replications of famous people reliving specified periods of their lives are available for purchase. The Krims, hoping to brighten up their stale marriage, purchase Emily Dickenson, from age 30 to the year of her death at age 55. I was enthralled with the premise of this story and the powerful narrative utilizing parallel time periods– the Krims living in one version of story time and the fictional Emily Dickenson reliving the years 1830-1886.The tension and violence between the characters resulting from their different personalities and lifestyles drives the narrative. From this story, I learned a clever technique for manipulating time. Oates derived her fictional version of Emily Dickenson’s character “… so teasingly inward, elliptical, female-mystical…” from Dickenson’s poetry, letters and photographs. I can see that research yields impressive results.

In the third story, “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,” Grandpa Clemens “collects” pretty girls between ten and sixteen. They become his “angelfish.” His own daughter is incensed by his unsavory behavior, and in the end, Grandpa Clemens ends up being taunted and mocked by his angelfish which leads to his death. Again, Oates has done her research drawing on Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910 edited by John Cooley, and other published biographical information, to create a fictional version of reality. I enjoy reading literary biographies but hadn’t thought of looking for story ideas in the foibles of the subjects. Now, I’ll be looking for story ideas based on the unsavory qualities of my favorite authors—preferably dead with no living relatives as appears to have been the case with Twain.

The fourth story, “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” revolves around a fictional Henry James as an old man who attempts to volunteer at a hospital to help veterans. Despite his stature as a famous author, he grovels before the nurse supervisor and accepts odious assignments that weaken him physically. He worries about dying but won’t give up. Eventually, he succeeds in establishing a friendship with a veteran, a relationship that reverses when James becomes infirm. Oates’ high regard for James is evident by the theme and characterization in this story. In her notes, she comments that James hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged for his impact on the work of other writers including. Oates’ has motivated me to read more literary biographies and experiment with characterization by exaggerating traits and habits of successful authors.

In the fifth and last story, the fictional Hemingway plays with his gun and thinks about his life. His contempt for women is evident and also his dependence on “the woman” he lives with. Oates captures Hemingway’s narcissism, recklessness and anger and mimics his “tautly written, minimalist, and deeply ironic short stories.” In her notes, she credits him for creating an American vernacular and for developing “the deadpan understatement of a hurt too painful to be acknowledged.” This story serves as a good example of a complex narrator/character who uses denial and self-injurious behavior to deal with the painful situations in his life, arising in good part from his biased and flawed perceptions of both himself and the world around him. I’d like to emulate her techniques in characterization when creating unreliable narrators.

Because of Hemingway’s notorious machismo, I’ve read little of his work and failed to fully appreciate his influence. I didn’t enjoy reading the story but it served as a good example of how to create a narrator with biased and flawed perceptions.


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