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A 21st century 'Dickinson' winds down — and another take on the poet begins

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV's "Dickinson" — the latest riff on the very private, yet world-famous poet who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Courtesy Apple TV+
Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson in Apple TV's "Dickinson" — the latest riff on the very private, yet world-famous poet who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Apple TV's "Dickinson" has just wrapped up its final season. Even with the Civil War underway, it managed to be a comedy about the famous poet from Amherst, Massachusetts. Hailee Steinfeld's Emily Dickinson is a young, free-thinking feminist.

While the real Dickinson's poems were a guide for show writers, the poems were also fodder for fantastical situations.

Steinfeld's Dickinson converses with dead soldiers, giant bumblebees and the character of Death, played by rapper Whiz Khalifa. In New York City, Dickinson runs into Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott (who the real Dickinson may never have met) tending to those wounded in the war.

Matters of now and then

The show managed to be historical and current, exploring limitations imposed on Black men and women — and women overall. Sexual fluidity was another storyline, featuring an on-again, off-again love affair between Dickinson and her sister-in-law, a relationship recently focused on by some scholars.

Apple TV’s version of Dickinson's life is just the latest in a string of fictional accounts. Creatives turn to her repeatedly. Jane Wald, the executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum, said that could be because the poet was such a mystery.

The real Dickinson even had a poem alluding to how every generation needs a way to explain the world around them, Wald said.

The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their

In "The Poet light but Lamps," Dickinson implied "that every age has its own lens and needs its own lens," Wald said.

The 19th century was full of change. Wald said Dickinson’s work stands the test of time.

“It also stands up and speaks to new circumstances," she said. "It's this kind of universality and timelessness of her work that wants us to keep pulling her into the future, pulling her work into whatever circumstances we encounter as we go through our lives and go through our changes.”

TV storylines sometimes out of bounds

Wald loved most of the TV show, including the authenticity of the sets and the costumes. But the storylines, she said, “just go a little bit crazy” when it comes to what the characters are saying and doing, and even how they're moving.

“The first time I saw the episode about [an] opium party, I thought, ‘No, they wouldn't have had an opium party,'" Wald said. "And then I thought, ‘Well, you know what? They were reading all about opium, so why not?”

"Dickinson" ran for three seasons and put Steinfeld’s poet in contact with people she might never have met and in situations that would never have taken place. In a way, Wald said, that's kind of beside the point.

“It’s an interpretation," she said. "So there's [this] show which wants to make points about things that Emily Dickinson or people today need to grapple with. But the vehicle is the script or the plot."

Unwittingly, what if viewers turn to “Dickinson" to learn about the real 19th century poet?

“I can be a bit troubled if viewers think that they're watching sort of a three-season biography of Emily Dickinson. They can be misled about facts,” Wald said. “If they understand they're watching a different kind of show, then I think the series stimulates interest and curiosity.”

Next up — a podcast?

The Apple TV show aired its last episode at the end of December — and a new podcast responding to “Dickinson” dropped its first episode the month before.

Poets Breezy Janae and Jericho Brown host "The Slave is Gone." The title comes from the last line of a Dickinson poem. Janae and Brown said they’re "talking back" to the Apple TV show, with a focus on sexuality and race.

“Breezy and I are attracted to that conversation, partially because we're Black, but really just because that is interesting,” said Brown, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2019 collection of poems, "The Tradition."

Janae, who publishes their poetry as Brionne Janae, also teaches poetry. They said they’re drawn to making “The Slave is Gone” because it’s a way to talk about today’s culture.

“You know, we're really interested in this character who is sort of a victim of her family,” Janae said, “but also still sort of has all of this privilege.”

A flawed character we can learn from

In an early “Dickinson” episode, Steinfeld’s Dickinson chooses to tell her family that she's published a poem, even though she knows her father objects. Janae said she initially wondered why Dickinson wasn't craftier.

“Why isn't she, you know, trying to keep this secret? But it goes back to sort of her naivete and just sort of [the show writers’] willingness to show a character who is flawed and who is still figuring it out,” Janae said, adding that Steinfeld’s Dickinson is surrounded by people who don't seem to want the best for her.

“I'm particularly interested in what this particular expression of Emily Dickinson shows [us] about what we are willing to see in our culture now,” Janae said. “We’re willing to see her with an Irish maid [in the show], but we're not necessarily willing to see her with a Black maid in 2021.”

19th century queer culture

Dickinson and Walt Whitman “are the mother and father of American poetry," Brown said.

"They are also definitely queer people. When we look back on these figures, we're also looking back on the fact that queerness has always been with us,” Brown said.

In “The Tradition,” Brown said he wanted to claim “all of his history, all of my poetic tradition, everything that I had ever learned in school, and everything that I love to read on my own — in spite of the fact that somehow [because of who I am] I and my work might not be associated with that very same tradition that made me.”

There are many writers Brown loves and whose work he loves, but who he said wouldn't even want him to know how to read.

“I mean, we don't even have to go too much further back then than Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot, and we find some figures who would definitely be uninterested in what I have to offer,” Brown said.

"Dickinson" is purposefully anachronistic, Brown said. The show makes use of hip-hop and has a multicultural cast, even if none of this took place in the mid-19th century.

“Those anachronisms are what attracted me to the show, and so this is an opportunity to deal with 'Dickinson' [and Emily Dickinson]," Brown said, "and also to be honest about this nation's history."

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."