Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway

by Joyce Carol Oates

Wild Nights!: Stories about the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco Press
Year: 2008
Pages: 238

Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, Samuel Clemens (“Mark Twain”), Henry James, Ernest Hemingway—Joyce Carol Oates evokes each of these American literary icons in her newest work of prose fiction, poignantly and audaciously reinventing the climactic events of their lives. In subtly nuanced language suggestive of each of these writers, Oates explores the mysterious regions of the unknowable self that is “genius”—for Edgar Allan Poe, a belated encounter with bizarre life-forms utterly alien to the poet’s exalted Romantic aesthetics; for Emily Dickinson, resurrected in the twenty-first century in a “distilled” state, a belated encounter with blundering humanity and brute passion of a kind excluded from the poet’s verse; for the elderly, renowned Samuel Clemens, a belated encounter with impassioned innocence, in the form of “the little girl who loves you”; for Henry James, an aging volunteer in a London hospital during World War I, a belated encounter with the physicality of desire and the raw yearning of love long absent from the master’s fiction; and, for Ernest Hemingway, the most tragic of these figures, a belated encounter with the “profound mysteries of the world outside him, and the profound mysteries of the world inside him.”

Wild Nights! is Joyce Carol Oates’s most original and haunting work of the imagination, a writer’s memoirist work in the form of fiction.


  • Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House information
  • EDickinsonRepliLuxe information
  • Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish 1906 information
  • The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital 1914-1916 information
  • Papa at Ketchum 1961 information

Book Covers


Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee!

Emily Dickinson (1861)


  • Shirley Jackson Award Finalist: 2008, Collection


From “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House”

1 March 1850. Cyclophagus, I have named it. A most original & striking creature, that would have astonished Homer, as my gothic forebears to a man. Initially, I did not comprehend that Cyclophagus was an amphibian, & have now discovered that this species dwells, by day at least, in watery burrows at the edge of the pebbled beach: to emerge, in the way of the Trojan invaders, at nightfall, & clamber about devouring what flesh its claws, snout, & tearing teeth can locate. & in this way, Mercury died.

Primarily, Cyclophagus is yet another scavenger; tho’ the larger specimens, clearly males, & magnificent tyrants of the beach they are, reaching the size of a wild boar, will attack & devour—living, & shrieking!—such creatures as very large spider-crabs (themselves a terror to contemplate) & a greatheaded fish, or reptile, with astonishing phosphorescent scales, I have named Hydrocephalagus, & the usual roosting sea-birds, gulls & hawks, lapsed into unwary sleep amongst the boulders; &, as it happened the other night, poor Mercury, who in a terrier blood-lust had unwisely blundered into the domain of one of these nightmare beasts. I can scarcely record it in this Diary, I had once hoped to express only the loftiest sentiments of humankind, how, wakened from sleep, I heard my companion’s piteous cries, for it seemed to me that he cried “Master! Master!” & that my beloved V. cried with him, that I might save him. & so, casting aside my disgust for the Charnel House, I stumbled to Mercury’s side, as the doomed fox terrier struggled frantically for his life, trapped in the masticating jaws of a Cyclophagus male intent upon devouring him alive. Desperate, I struck at the monstrous predator with rocks, & tugged at Mercury, shouting & crying, until at last I managed to “free” Mercury of those terrible serrated teeth—ah, too late! For by now the poor creature was part-dismembered, copiously bleeding & whimpering as with a final convulsion he died in my arms …

I cannot write more of this. I am sickened, I am overcome with disgust. The shadowy regions of Usher are no more, Cyclophagus has invaded. Not the gothic spider-fancies of Jeremias Gotthelf himself could withstand such hellish creatures! In a nightmare vision my beloved V. came to chastise me, that I have abandoned our “first-born” to such a fate. My astonished eyes saw V. as I had not seen her since our wedding day, when she was but thirteen years old, ethereal & virginal as the driven snow; & I heard her weeping voice as I had never heard it in life, in this curse:

“I shall not see you again, husband. Neither in this world nor in Hades.”


""Columbus Dispatch, April 6, 2008 information

Q: Your new collection of stories imagines the last days of some famous authors. How did you arrive at that concept?

A: Years ago, I’d been invited to write a “short life” of Ernest Hemingway. But I had little interest in a formal, detail-laden biography, so I decided against the project.

In imagining how I would write it, however, I began with exactly the beginning of Papa at Ketchum: 1961, that is, the last scene in Hemingway’s life. I found the material deeply engaging, powerful, disturbing. I knew that I wanted to write about Hemingway some day.

I’d also had the idea, for years, of writing a prose piece that springs from the single sheet of paper titled “The Light-House” that was found in Poe’s papers after his death. And I’d also wanted to write about Sam Clemens’ obsession with young girls.

These various strains came together wonderfully, I thought, if I focused on the last years and days of their lives when so much that has been scattered and undefined is brought into a dramatic perspective.

Q: A Booklist reviewer referred to Wild Nights! as an “audaciously subversive” collection of stories that “undermines iconic figures.” How do you respond?

A: I would not have said that my portraits “undermine” iconic figures but rather that the portraits deepen and enhance them.


“Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House” has been suggested by the single-page manuscript titled “The Light-House,” which was found among the papers of Edgar Allan Poe after his death on October 7, 1849, in Baltimore.

“EDickinsonRepliLuxe” draws generally upon the poetry and letters of Emily Dickinson and visually upon photographs by Jerome Leibling in The Dickinsons of Amherst (2001).

“Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906” is a work of fiction drawing, in part, on passages from The Singular Mark Twainby Fred Kaplan; Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angeljish Correspondence 1905-1910,edited by John Cooley; and Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain by His Thirteen-Year-Old Daughter Suzy.(At his death in April 1910, at the age of seventy-five, Samuel Clemens was survived by his daughter Clara, who eventually married and had a daughter, Clemens’ sole descendant, who committed suicide in 1964.)

“The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” is a work of fiction drawing, in part, upon passages from The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, edited by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers; and Henry James: A Life, by Leon Edel.

“Papa at Ketchum, 1961” is a work of fiction suggested by passages in Hemingway by Kenneth S. Lynn and Hemingway’s “A Natural History of the Dead,” which is briefly quoted.


Donna Seaman, Booklist, November 1, 2007, p. 6
5 stars

Sam Coale, Providence Journal-Bulletin, May 11, 2008, Features, p. 6
5 stars
Here are five splendid stories, imagining five major American authors on the verge of death each rooted in biographical facts and presented in the authors own particular style that are harrowing, heartfelt, incredibly moving, that cut to the depths of the psyche, probing with such laser-lean, honed prose that it’ll take your breath away.

Carol Herman, Washington Times, April 6, 2008, p. B5
5 stars
“The title of the book, “Wild Nights!,” is taken from an Emily Dickenson poem, but the measure of this book is kin to the poet’s oeuvre as well. There is loneliness here. Also depth and character in ample measure. And there is a reminder here about what literature and its best practitioners teach us about mortality.

Brenda Wineapple, New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2008, p. 9
5 stars

Publishers Weekly, October 15, 2007, p. 34
4 stars
This brutal turning of Hemingway against himself sparks a torrent of rage like that of early Oates novels such as Them . It marks an explosive ending to Oates’s peculiar fantasy game, one that begs to be treated at length.

Joshua Cohen, Library Journal, December 1, 2007, p. 107
4 stars

Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2008
4 stars

Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 6, 2008, p. G5
4 stars

Tom Beer, Newsday, April 6, 2008
4 stars

Dale Singer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 6, 2008, p. D11
4 stars

Tom Henry, Toledo Blade, April 27, 2008
4 stars

Geoff Pevere, Toronto Star, May 4, 2008, p. ID8
4 stars

Nancy Klingener, Solares Hill, May 30, 2008, pp. 14-15
4 stars

Jose Teodoro, Ottawa Citizen, October 3, 2008
4 stars

Brigitte, Frase, Star Tribune(Minneapolis-St.Paul), April 19, 2008, p. 14F
3 stars

Janice Kulyk Keefer, Globe and Mail (Canada), May 10, 2008, p. D5
3 stars

Image: “The Daughter of Time” by abstractartangel77


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