A new television series takes a bold and comical look at the experiences of a young Emily Dickinson. But how does it play in Amherst, the poet’s hometown?
The 10-episode series Dickinson dropped in November with the launch of Apple’s new streaming service, AppleTV+. A second season is in production.
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 house party where she takes opium and dances with a human-sized bee. Twerking happens.
Days ahead of the poet’s 189th birthday this week, 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, Emily and her soon-to-be sister-in-law Susan Gilbert sneak into a lecture by Edward Hitchcock, geologist and third president of Amherst College.
Throughout the show, historical inaccuracies run side-by-side with details that only Amherst eyes might be likely to catch.
“The basic plot structure of this episode is wrong,” said Sánchez-Eppler. “Women could attend Hitchcock’s lectures.”
But the lecture hall displays drawings by Orra White Hitchcock, and the room itself is a mashup of Johnson Chapel and the Octagon.
Wald said one of her favorite characters so far is George Gould, a real member of Amherst’s class of 1850 along with the poet’s brother Austin. Gould was a suitor of Emily’s and is believed to have played a part in one of the few instances of her poems being published in her lifetime, in a student magazine called The Indicator.
At 6 feet, 8 inches, the real Gould “was notably, extraordinarily tall,” Macaray points out—“ a solid foot taller” than Samuel Farnsworth, the actor who plays him.
The viewers were especially impressed by the costumes and the recreation of the Homestead.
“It's beautiful,” Clyne said about Emily’s bedroom in the show. “It's not the exact wallpaper that we have up in there, but it feels like it could be there.”
Despite the modern dance moves, bending of the chronology and swearing, the viewers were pleased. The accurate details kept coming, and Dickinson seemed to get the big picture, they said.
“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 said. Her father did indeed write an essay against higher education for women, which Edward Dickinson (Toby Huss) brandishes at his daughter in the episode.
Our audience laughed the most when the characters broke into modern slang.
“If its goal is to make Dickinson feel contemporarily alive, that's a really good goal. I share that goal,” said Sánchez-Eppler.
“I also really enjoy the soundtrack, personally,” Macaray said. “That whole scene where they’re getting dressed up in men’s costume and they’ve got [the song ‘Boys’ by] Lizzo playing—I was just, This is a great time.”
“The playfulness and the sort of snark and irreverence,” said Macaray, “feels very right.”
There are references to modern scholarship about Dickinson, they said, as the episode we viewed both portrays an ongoing sexual relationship between the poet and Sue and continues a storyline in which Edward hires a maid, Maggie (Darlene Hunt), to allow Emily more time to write.
Dickinson “sits at this intersection of gender oppression and class privilege and also race privilege,” Clyne said, “and I am really glad to see that this interpretation is tackling that in the form of Maggie, even though Maggie, I think, was in her life much later.” “I’m just really 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,” Sánchez-Eppler said.
“Both with this and with Wild Nights, I was happier than I thought I was going to be,” Sánchez-Eppler said. “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.”
“I thought Wild Nights with Emily was really funny,” said Wald. “The television series, it’s amusing, but it’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny, which is not a criticism— it’s just a difference.”
Sánchez-Eppler said that having a television series about Dickinson—instead of a movie, which you can see once and move on—can allow viewers to grow to care about Dickinson and her family and friends over time.
“You carry them inside of you between one episode and the next,” she said. “So there is a kind of deepening development of a relationship.”
“That bodes well for future readership,” she added.