Everyone knows Emily Dickinson; she’s one of the greatest poets in American history. Apple’s new comedy “Dickinson” wants to explode everything you thought you knew.
Born in 1830 in Amherst, Michigan, Emily Dickinson as a person is known primarily in broad strokes: Her literary genius, her prolific output, her life as a recluse, her extremely close relationship with her sister-in-law, which may or may not have been more than platonic.
But by and large, Dickinson exists far back enough in the fog of history that many aspects of her life remain open to imagination. Premiering on Apple TV+ on Friday, “Dickinson” aims to shade in those details and bring Dickinson alive for a modern-day audience — with a twist.
“I had always had this idea to do an experimental half-hour series about Emily Dickinson. I just didn’t know what that would look like,” series creator Alena Smith said in an interview with TheWrap. The seeds of the idea, she said, were first planted in her head after reading Alfred Habegger’s tome of a biography, “My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson.”
What that would look like is a funhouse mirror of a biopic that plays almost like historical fan fiction. It’s at once meticulously faithful to Dickinson’s biography and uninterested in the realities of her existence, opting instead for a more modern sensibility and a version of Dickinson who says things like, “What up?”
And as if to underscore its central anachronistic conceit, the series’ titular poet is played by one of the biggest stars of the current era of Young Hollywood, Hailee Steinfeld, who brings the same disaffected-millennial impetuousness to the role that defined her performance in 2017’s “Edge of Seventeen.”
“At its core the show is quite dramatic, but I wanted it to have those comedic elements, and Hailee is really able to nail those turns,” Smith said. “And aside from being just an amazing actress, she’s able to speak to this younger generation of fans.”
Steinfeld’s Dickinson stomps through 19th century Amherst as if in protest of its very existence. She bears deep affection for her family and friends, but detests the social structures that confine her. And she’s hardly the kind of woman one would describe as a “recluse.”
In the show’s third episode, their parents go away for a night and she and her siblings throw the American Victorian equivalent of a rager, complete with opium-laced punch and a 19th century contredanse set to an EDM-trap banger. At one point, she and her sister-in-law-slash-lover dress up as men to sneak into a science lecture at the Amherst Academy. She breaks out of her house in the middle of the night to go for a carriage ride with Death.
“Dickinson’s” Dickinson is contemptuous of the burdens and protocols of what would be considered a proper social life, especially when that time could be better spent writing or doing literally anything else. That’s in line with Habegger’s biography, which suggests that the real Dickinson was perhaps less of a recluse and just simply busy writing the thousands of poems and letters she would author in her relatively short life.
When her mother (played as if her sanity is held together by a thread by “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s” Jane Krakowski) brings home a suitor in the first episode hoping to get her insouciant daughter out of the house and off of her hands, Steinfeld’s Dickinson has no qualms about making her disdain for the courtship ritual known. She twirls into the room like Samara from “The Ring,” then, once she realizes the suitor is a friend, plops down onto the sofa with the rubbery posture of a teenager about to throw on an episode of “Riverdale.”
“A lot of what ended up in the whole thing, but those first two episodes specifically, were things that we were just trying out,” Steinfeld said of working with director David Gordon Green to develop Dickinson’s attitude in her physicality. “That was our time to figure out what we were doing with this show.”
“Emily Dickinson was — and this was a fact about her — she was known to fight back about constraints and she wanted to break the rules,” she said. “To sit properly like a lady and sit up with shoulders back, that is not who she was, that’s not who she is in this show. So sitting down in front of a suitor that mother is introducing me to, there was no world in which Emily was going to sit up and straight and be intrigued and interested in this situation, you know? So it was fun to play against what was expected of her.”
The real-life Dickinson never found fame in her lifetime, and it remains unclear how much she actually sought to be known though her writing. What’s even less clear is how much can be understood about Dickinson through her writing.
Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published while she was alive, all of them under a pseudonym. It wasn’t until her sister Lavinia discovered a cache of her sister’s writing after her death that Dickinson’s work was widely published for the first time. Many of her poems weren’t even shared with friends or family, suggesting at least some ambivalence about putting her writing up for mass consumption.
One of her most quotable works puts it simply: “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man … reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price -.”
Steinfeld’s Dickinson, on the other hand, seeks out notoriety. She pursues a friend to have her work published despite her father’s strong disapproval, responding to the friend referencing one of her poems back to her with, “Nice. I love it when people quote me.”
Eventually, of course, Dickinson’s poems were published posthumously, but those early editions contained none of Dickinson’s stylistic idiosyncrasies — the seemingly arbitrary capitalization and punctuation, as well as what would become her signature dash. In some places, entire words were replaced and her meaning was changed entirely.
Nearly a century later, her style would be restored, but a look at her handwritten work reveals even that might not be sufficient — that “dash” actually encompasses a huge variety of strokes, with no indication that they were all meant to be interpreted in the same way. It’s possible no single typeface can capture the full scope and musicality of Dickinson’s writing.
In his biography, Habegger warns against the restrictiveness of trying to confine or categorize Dickinson either as a person or as a writer.
“What must be noted here is the dubiousness of construing this profoundly one-of-a-kind writer by first enrolling her in any group at all,” he wrote, going on to apply a quote from George Steiner to all of Dickinson’s work: “At certain levels, we are not meant to understand at all, and our interpretation, indeed our reading itself, is an intrusion.”
Smith’s show clearly takes the same attitude. Costumes and sets and other period details are rendered perfectly. In terms of place, “Dickinson” exists wholly in the the 1850s. The character and her attitude, though, is very much of the year 2019, and the show revels in that dissonance. The soundtrack is filled with the likes of A$AP Rocky and Billie Eilish playing over characters reading by lantern light or fetching water from a well.
“This show is us reading her poetry and being inspired in a different sort of way. It’s not a straightforward biopic,” Steinfeld said. “Alena has taken the facts that we do know to be true about her and her life and her family, and incorporated all of them, or the majority of them into the show. But this is unlike any Emily you’ve seen before.”
“It was really important to me that those details all be period accurate,” Smith said, “But, in a way, the show has a lot more to say about the present day.”
It’s an echo of the way Habegger notes in his book that an attempt to parse Dickinson’s writing inevitably reveals more about the reader than the author: “One of Dickinson’s paradoxes is that she both invites and deflects such intimacy. ‘Not telling’ was one of the things she did to perfection.”
So perhaps, Smith and Steinfeld seem to suggest, the best way to understand her is as a funhouse mirror.
“Emily Dickinson lived in a time where being creative was forbidden. Having a creative mind and having an intellectual desire was forbidden,” Steinfeld said. “But this character, Emily, she’s unapologetically herself. She knows that she’s different, and she knows that, creatively, she’s on a different level than those around her. And she’s okay with that.”
She continued, “I hope that young women can watch this show and feel like their voices deserve to be heard. That they feel like they can do or have to do whatever they need to do to make themselves heard.”
New episodes of “Dickinson” premiere Fridays on Apple TV+.