Hear the name Emily Dickinson, and you’ll probably think of the virginal woman in white, the reclusive Belle of Amherst who died with her “letter to the world” — as she wrote in one of her enigmatic poems — unsent.
But “Dickinson,” a half-hour series that premieres Friday on Apple’s new streaming service, aims to banish any idea of the poet as the emotionally crippled cat-lady of American literature.
Forget baking bread and making friends with flowers. This is a Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld, who takes midnight carriage rides with Death (the rapper Wiz Khalifa), and denounces the patriarchy as — to use a genteel paraphrase — bunk. It’s also one who throws raging parties (complete with a hip-hop playlist and twerking), experiments with opium, makes out with her bestie (and future sister-in-law) and gets her period.
Alena Smith, the show’s creator, describes it as “a coming-of-age story about a radical young female artist who was ahead of her time.” It’s also one whose anachronisms and other liberties are intended to underline a serious point.
“She wrote nearly 2,000 poems which are one of the greatest bodies of work ever written in English, almost none of it published and recognized in the way we think of as being recognized in the time she lived,” said Smith, a Yale School of Drama graduate who has written for “The Affair” and “The Newsroom.”
“I use that as my excuse,” she said. “If she wasn’t that well understood in her time, can we understand her better in ours?”
“Dickinson” arrives on the heels of two recent feature films about the poet. But if Apple’s loosened-up, and sexed-up, young Emily takes things way over the top, scholars say they are here for it.
“I really love seeing pop culture waking up to a spunky, strong, bold, funny Emily Dickinson,” Martha Nell Smith, a Dickinson scholar at the University of Maryland, said. “That character is not made up.”
Christopher Benfey, a professor of English at Mount Holyoke who has written frequently on Dickinson, said that the cultural role of “the bad-girl of 19th-century American literature” had been waiting to be cast. And the new show — which Apple has aggressively marketed — is just the latest sign that Dickinson has claimed it.
“I don’t think there’s a hotter American poet right now,” Benfey said. “In a way, having a billboard of her in Times Square makes perfect sense.”
While the life of a woman who spent her last two decades confined to the family home may seem to lack obvious outward incident, Dickinson’s was hardly without worldly drama or luridly gothic — if not downright soap-opera-ish — elements.
For example: The first collection of Dickinson’s poetry, published in 1890, four years after her death, was coedited by her brother’s mistress, who took over the task from Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan, who was also, scholars argue, the object of her nearly lifelong erotic passion.
And yes, she did a lot of baking. But according to family lore, she was also known to have drowned “superfluous” kittens in a vat of pickle brine, a slice of 19th-century vérité it’s hard to imagine the Apple show touching.
The effort to create a more presentable, understandable Dickinson began almost immediately after her death in 1886, when her sister, Lavinia, found almost 1,100 of her poems in a trunk, carefully copied out on folded sheets, and mostly bound into hand-sewn books known as fascicles. (Today, scholars count about 700 more, some written on envelopes and scraps of paper, or embedded in the thousands of letters she wrote.)
The first published collection of her poems, from 1890, cleaned up her eccentric punctuation and spelling, cut stanzas and created titles, presenting her as a more conventional poet than she was.
Her physical image was also manipulated. In the late 1890s, her sister hired an artist to alter the now-famous daguerreotype of a teenage Dickinson (still the only authenticated photograph of her), softening her severely pulled-back hair and simple black dress by adding curls and a lacy collar.
Over the course of the 20th century scholars have scraped away the Victorian overlay and restored the radically original poet underneath. But on the biographical front, the popular image of Dickinson as a fragile, fey, romantically disappointed recluse has been harder to shake.
The idea was given sturdy legs by “The Belle of Amherst,” William Luce’s 1976 play (later made into a TV movie starring Julie Harris, who originated the role on Broadway).
But that same year, in her influential essay “Vesuvius at Home,” the poet Adrienne Rich argued against the (mostly male) critics who had reduced her to “quaintness and spinsterish oddity,” burying her “unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities.”
Instead of the Dickinson of “little-girl” poems like “I’m Nobody! Who are You?,” Rich put forward the ruthless, dangerous, philosophical Dickinson of “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.”
The Apple series tips its hat to the Vesuvian Dickinson in its second episode, “I’ve Never Seen ‘Volcanoes,’” which ends with an exuberant carnal eruption. (All 10 episodes of the first season, each named for the first line of a Dickinson poem, will be available at once.) But popular versions of Dickinson have continued to vacillate between the sedate and the riotous, while also offering different takes on the long-debated question of her sexuality.
Terence Davies’s sober biopic “A Quiet Passion” (2017), starring Cynthia Nixon, got strong reviews from critics. But Dickinson scholars gave the film mixed marks, with some saying it missed her humor and wildness, and all but erased her passionate attachments to women while emphasizing her unrequited love for a married minister.
There was a warmer response among some scholars to “Wild Nights With Emily,” Madeleine Olnek’s irreverent, romantic comedy take, starring Molly Shannon. Based on the scholarship of Professor Smith, it features a committed, lifelong, lesbian relationship between Emily and Susan (as well as a rendition of the poem “Because I could not stop for Death” sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”).
Today, the idea that Dickinson had an erotic passion for her sister-in-law is broadly, if not universally, accepted among scholars, even as some caution about applying contemporary labels for sexual orientation to the 19th century. Dickinson, they note, also wrote passionate letters to men, and in her 40s, may have had a romance with a judge 40 years her senior.
“Dickinson” takes a less definitive line, offering a Dickinson who’s queer in the broadest sense. She declares in the first episode that she will never marry, and dedicates herself to winning the undying love of Susan, whom she kisses passionately (and unself-consciously), but also kisses a male suitor.
Alena Smith said she expected some would criticize the depiction as “not gay enough,” but wanted to lean into her idea of a “millennial Dickinson,” comfortable with sexual fluidity.
It’s an idea very much of our moment. And so, in our age of oversharing, is the central Dickinson mystery: Why didn’t she publish more than a handful of poems in her lifetime?
The show’s first season gives one answer: the patriarchy. Smith said the show could go on to explore alternate hypotheses, but she said it was not her intention to offer definitive answers, about that or anything else.
“People feel very possessive about Emily Dickinson, for a good reason,” she said. “Because nobody understands her, everybody feels like their little keyhole into her is the right one.”