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Irreverent pop culture and history join forces at the reopened Emily Dickinson Museum

The Emily Dickinson Museum. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Emily Dickinson Museum. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Bringing long-dead, literary figures to life for contemporary audiences is a challenge, but that’s the Emily Dickinson Museum‘s mission. Now the 19th-century poet’s home in Amherst has reopened after a major renovation. It includes a boon of donated props from an irreverent streaming series that reimagines the writer’s early adulthood.

When we meet Emily in episode one of Apple TV’s “Dickinson,” she’s feverishly writing by candlelight in her bedroom. Then her sister Livinia interrupts the poet’s flow saying Emily — not their brother — needs to fetch the morning’s water. She huffs like a frustrated teen and replies, “This is such bulls—!”

That expletive kicks off this wild ride of a show. It’s a whacky, witty mashup of popular culture from the 1800s and now. While its Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) looks period-perfect, she acts, speaks and curses like a modern-day, teen rebel. Emily Dickinson Museum director Jane Wald said that’s not how most people picture the poet.

“What she was called in her own time was the myth of Amherst,” she explained. “That she was this withdrawn, secluded, confined, and in some interpretations, even almost imprisoned poet.”

While Dickinson was reclusive and eccentric as an adult, Wald said over time those enduring myths erased a more three-dimensional Emily. The old, pale paint colors on the museum’s walls did that, too. Now, as part of an extensive two-year makeover, they’re covered in vibrant, historically-accurate wallpaper. Wald said enlivening Dickinson’s most intimate spaces will help visitors connect with the poet more authentically. So will a trove of about 300 set pieces from showrunner Alena Smith’s brilliantly absurdist series.

“The show generously gave us some of their tools,” Wald said, “that can be our tools here in interpreting Dickinson’s life.” They’ll do that, she added, by filling gaps in the museum’s historic collection to make the poet’s home look more lived in.

When the show concluded last year Smith and her team didn’t have plans for the trove. “It occurred to me and some of the producers and designers that the best thing we could do would be to make a gift to the Dickinson Museum,” she said. “What really cracks me up is that the museum is taking Death’s carriage.”

That horse-drawn carriage is Smith’s clever play on Dickinson’s obsession with death. Throughout the series, the poet spends a lot of time with the grim reaper, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa.

Some of the more utilitarian props include bookcases, tables, linens and lots of fountain pens. These household items are the production’s way of thanking the museum for its help over the series’ three seasons. Staff answered emails from the writer’s room, hosted the production crew and actors, and shared floor plans with set designers. Smith recalled visiting Dickinson’s home early in the show’s development to commune with the poet’s spirit.

“Because she lived so intensely in it as a poet, the house is a metaphor, the house is a poem, her room is a line of poetry, her bed has meaning,” she said.

At the time, Smith was struggling to write a dramatic script, but sitting in Dickinson’s bedroom was a turning point for the show’s tone.

“When you dig into the scholarship and the research around Dickinson, what you find is a rebellious, hilariously ironic, passionate artist who had huge ambitions,” she said. “And a lot of the reason why there is this misperception of her is because the sort of brand of Emily Dickinson was created right after she died by her first editors as a way of popularizing her work and basically selling books.”

Smith reflected on the strange, fascinating poems Dickinson conjured in that room. Nearly 1,800 were discovered in the house after her death in 1886. The ways this underappreciated artist has long been misunderstood convinced Smith her show should be a subversive, dark comedy.

When museum program director Brooke Steinhauser heard that, and learned about the cast that included Khalifa and Jane Krakowski, she was amused. “I was starting to get the sense of like, okay, this show is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen yet at the museum.”

Steinhauser loves the series’ pop music soundtrack and how the young people use contemporary slang. Perhaps her favorite visual storytelling device nails something the museum does every day, which is to celebrate Dickinson’s creative process. Each episode’s name is a line from her poetry, including, “Wild nights,” “Fame is a fickle food” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” As verses emerge in Dickinson’s mind, they’re animated as fiery, handwritten lines that float across the screen.

“You can just sort of see them coming from Dickinson’s brain pan and into the ether,” Steinhauser said.

Steinhauser can’t wait to display the show’s donated costumes at the museum, and hopes to use Death’s Carriage as a poetry recording studio. She said Smith’s raucous, coming-of-age series is introducing Dickinson’s revolutionary work to a new generation. It’s also boosting interest in the museum’s virtual programs and collection of more than 8,000 original family objects.

With its reopening, Steinhauser expects visitors who’ve seen the show to ask a lot of questions, especially about its passionate, sometimes steamy portrayal of Dickinson’s relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue. That’s nothing new to the showrunner.

“There is no fixed determinate picture of Emily Dickinson,” Smith said. “She left behind gaps and spaces that people are going to always feel invited to sort of come and dance inside of.”

Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” which Smith said was her series’ mantra. Museum director Jane Wald believes the poet’s sentiment gives license for the show, and the museum, to channel the poet’s life so it speaks as powerfully as possible to audiences today.

“We’ve talked with Alena Smith about how we share the same goal,” Wald explained. “We have different tools by which to arrive at that goal, but we feel like we’re very much partners in Emily Dickinson.”

The museum’s support has been huge for Smith. She’s sad her show ended last year, but is thrilled her 10-year passion project’s beautiful props will help her hero’s historic home feel as alive as Dickinson was in her own tumultuous time.

“It was the 1850s and it was a scary, complicated, erotic, thriving, throbbing world,” Smith said. “She was really there.”

And Smith hopes Dickinson fans will nerd out at the museum — like she did — for generations to come.

The Emily Dickinson Museum reopens Tuesday, Aug. 16, with time-entry admission and cannot guarantee entry for walk-ups.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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