The 10-episode series Dickinson, from AppleTV+, takes a bold and comical look at the experiences of a teenage Emily Dickinson. But how does it play in the poet’s hometown?

The first season dropped on Nov. 1 with the launch of Apple’s new streaming service. The show centers on the young Emily, played by Hailee Steinfeld. But this isn’t a stiff 19th-century parlor drama. In the premiere, Emily takes a nighttime carriage ride with Death (Wiz Khalifa), and in a later episode, the Dickinson children throw a wild house party, during which she takes opium and dances with a human-sized bee. Twerking happens.

An illustration of two people in coats and top hats from the 1800s walking into a theater

Reality Check

The Plot

In Episode 2, Emily Dickinson and Susan Gilbert don men’s clothes, transforming into “Lysander Periwinkle” and “Sir Tybalt Butterfly” to sneak into a men-only lecture by Amherst’s third president, Professor Edward Hitchcock. “Hey, do up my tie,” Dickinson asks Gilbert. Professor Karen Sánchez-Eppler corrects the record here: “The basic plot structure of this episode is wrong. Women could attend Hitchcock’s lectures.”

Days ahead of the poet’s 189th birthday in November, I watched the show with Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the L. Stanton Williams 1941 Professor of American Studies and English, who teaches a course on Dickinson, and Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. Joining us were museum workers Madeline Clyne ’18, Brenna Macaray ’21 and Anna Plummer ’20.

We picked the second episode, “I Have Never Seen ‘Volcanoes,’” for the prominent part the College plays in the plot. “Women are forbidden at Amherst, so Emily and Sue get creative to attend a lecture,” goes the episode synopsis. Donning men’s clothes, Dickinson and her soon-to-be sister-in-law Susan Gilbert sneak into a lecture by Edward Hitchcock, a geology professor and the third Amherst president.

Throughout the show, historical inaccuracies run side-by-side with details that only Amherst eyes are likely to catch.

With the six of us gathered in a classroom in Chapin Hall, I turn on the computer projector. It doesn’t take long for Sánchez-Eppler to make a correction: “The basic plot structure of this episode is wrong,” she points out. “Women could attend Hitchcock’s lectures.”

In the accurate column: The classroom displays drawings by Orra White Hitchcock, who made large-scale scientific illustrations—“works of art in their own right,” according to a recent article in Smithsonian magazine—for her husband’s lectures.

In the partially accurate column: The lecture hall looks like a mashup of Johnson Chapel and the Octagon.

In the likely column, from a scene outside the lecture hall: “I actually think the two young men in their shirtsleeves boxing seems pretty right,” says Sánchez-Eppler.

Later, Wald notes that one of her favorite characters so far is George Gould, a real member of Amherst’s class of 1850 (as was the poet’s brother, Austin). Gould was a suitor of Emily’s, and scholars think he played a role in the publication of one of her poems in the student magazine The Indicator. It is one of the few Dickinson poems published during her lifetime, and the earliest.

At 6 feet, 8 inches, the real Gould “was notably, extraordinarily tall,” Macaray says—“a solid foot taller” than Samuel Farnsworth, the actor who plays him.

An illustration of a woman dancing with a giant bee

Reality Check

The Party

In Episode 3, the Dickinson children throw a wild house party, during which Emily takes opium and dances with a human-sized bee. Our expert panel judges that to be fiction. Still, says Brenna Macaray ’21, who works at the Emily Dickinson Museum, “the playfulness and the sort of snark and irreverence feel very right. Emily Dickinson’s spontaneity and intense personality are things that I love about her. A lot of general conceptions miss that.”

Our viewing group seems especially impressed by the costumes and the recreation of the poet’s Main Street home.

“It’s beautiful,” Clyne says of Emily’s bedroom on the set. “It’s not the exact wallpaper that we have up in there, but it feels like it could be there.” Keen viewers will see in the home a portrait of the Dickinson children, a copy of which is at the museum, and a reproduction of the museum’s painting of Dickinson’s mother—but with the face of Jane Krakowski, who plays Emily Norcross Dickinson in the show.

“In general, I’m pretty impressed with the amount of research they’ve done,” Wald says. She mentions that designers and others associated with the production visited the museum during the past few years. Indeed, though Wald says the actors were urged against it (possibly to avoid having their performances influenced), most of the main cast came to the museum to soak in its atmosphere.

All in all, our expert audience approves. Alongside the bending of the chronology, the modern slang (which elicits laughter from the group) and the swearing, the accurate details keep coming, too. And more importantly, Dickinson gets the big picture.

“The notion that Emily Dickinson’s educational opportunities were constrained by her gender is right,” even if it wasn’t exactly as shown, Sánchez-Eppler says. For example: the poet’s father did indeed write an essay against higher education for women, which Edward Dickinson (played by Toby Huss) brandishes at his daughter in the episode.

Macaray says she especially enjoys the soundtrack, which features Lizzo’s song “Boys’” as the women get dressed in men’s costumes. “If its goal is to make Dickinson feel contemporarily alive,” Sánchez-Eppler notes, “that’s a really good goal. I share that goal.”

“The playfulness and the sort of snark and irreverence feel very right,” adds Macaray. “Emily Dickinson’s spontaneity and intense personality are things that I love about her. A lot of general conceptions miss that.”

The script is clearly influenced by contemporary scholarship about Dickinson, such as Martha Nell Smith’s writings about the poet’s intimate relationship with Gilbert, and Aife Murray’s Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, which posits that Irish immigrant Margaret “Maggie” Maher and other Irish, Native American and African American servants and laborers influenced Dickinson’s cultural outlook and poetic style. The episode portrays an ongoing sexual relationship between the poet and Gilbert, and continues a storyline in which Edward hires Maher (Darlene Hunt) to allow Emily more time to write.

An illustration of Emily Dickinson surrounded by household objects

Reality Check

The House

“It’s beautiful,” museum tour guide Madeline Clyne ’18 says of Dickinson’s bedroom on the set of the show. “It’s not the exact wallpaper that we have up in there, but it feels like it could be there.” Museum Director Jane Wald says production designers and most of the main cast visited the museum to soak in the atmosphere of the poet’s house. “In general, I’m pretty impressed with the amount of research they’ve done,” Wald says.

Dickinson “sits at this intersection of gender oppression and class privilege and also race privilege,” Clyne says. “This interpretation is tackling that in the form of Maggie, even though Maggie, I think, was in her life much later.”

In the words of Sánchez-Eppler: “I’m glad to have a show that has the erotic passion of Susan and Emily’s relationship just be part of the story, and not embarrassed or sensational about it.”

The show, they all agree, also holds up against two recent movies about Dickinson, the more subdued A Quiet Passion (2016) and Wild Nights With Emily (2019), which focuses primarily on the relationship with Gilbert. “Both with this and with Wild Nights, I was happier than I thought I was going to be,” Sánchez-Eppler says. “They took a lot of care and have a lot of emotional sensibility. And I think I like Wild Nights with Emily much better than A Quiet Passion for the same reason that I liked this, which is that it has a sassy, alive Emily Dickinson, as opposed to—I don’t know—a ‘passionately attached-to-death’ Emily Dickinson.”

And in Wald’s opinion: “Wild Nights with Emily was really funny. This television series, it’s amusing, but it’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny—which is not a criticism.”

With a second season now in production, Sánchez-Eppler hopes that over time, viewers will grow to care about Dickinson and her family and friends. “You carry them inside of you between one episode and the next,” she says at the end of the viewing. “So there is a kind of deepening development of a relationship.”

The emotional immediacy of this Emily as a character—and the Easter egg hunt of, as Plummer puts it, “having fun with the inaccuracies and having fun with the surprising accuracies, too” may make viewers curious about the poet in new ways. “That,” says Sánchez-Eppler, “bodes well for future readership.”

Bill Sweet is a news writer at Amherst. He wrote the Fall 2019 magazine story on the Dickinson portraits in Johnson Chapel.

Illustrations by John S. Dykes