“I believe the Emily Dickinsons of the 21st century are sitting in this room,” Alena Smith told Amherst’s new students at the annual DeMott Lecture on Sept. 3.
And she should know: Smith is the creator, writer, showrunner and executive producer of Dickinson, the Apple TV+ series that uses the young life of the 19th-century poet as a lens through which to examine the issues of today.
To imagine the original Emily Dickinson herself sitting in Johnson Chapel (where she now resides in portrait form) is not too far off from historical fact, as her family and legacy are closely tied to the Town of Amherst and the College. Smith noted a scene from Dickinson that is set in the chapel, and how several of the show’s characters were students at Amherst—including Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson (class of 1850). After the series wrapped in 2021, the production team donated some of its furniture and props to the Emily Dickinson Museum, which is owned by the College.
“I would certainly score higher in a trivia contest about Amherst than about the college I actually went to,” said Smith, who graduated from Haverford College with a major in philosophy more than 20 years ago. She went on to reflect upon some of the technological, socioeconomic and cultural shifts that have taken place since then, from the War on Terror, to the rise of social media, to the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike, in which performers and writers like herself are collectively asserting the value of their creative work in the face of A.I.-generated content.
“Emily is a superhero,” Smith said, and her superpower is the “unmatched quality of her attention.” From the outside, Dickinson’s life appeared sheltered and quiet, but—perhaps in part because of this—her inner life was extraordinarily vivid, as shown, for example, in her poem about the “finite infinity” of solitude. Amid a fast-moving modern world full of distractions, Smith told the students, their most important job in college will be to put down their phones, attend to and support one another’s work, and spend time in “the Emily Dickinson’s bedroom of your soul.”
“You need to grow a strong, capable, independent, flexible mind,” Smith said. “Grow your inner garden; tend to the soil; plant the seeds that will sustain you for the rest of your life.”
After the lecture came a full hour dedicated to audience Q&A. Students asked Smith about, among other topics, her favorite Emily Dickinson poem (“The Grass so little has to do—”); the TV series’ storyline about real-life Civil War casualty Frazar Stearns, son of Amherst College president William Augustus Stearns; and, if the three-season series had continued, what the fourth season’s theme might have been (ecology, Smith said: “It would have somehow been about climate change”).
One student asked how, in this era of corporate ownership of digital material, we can prevent creative works from being lost forever. The internet changes and decays just as humans do, Smith answered, so don’t rely on it for archiving; build your own library and take good care of your own work. This was why she lobbied for Dickinson to be preserved on physical discs: of the mere four Blu-ray copies now in existence, she announced, one is at the Emily Dickinson Museum and another will be housed in the Amherst College Library, for future generations of students to discover.