“Dickinson” is just another example of pop culture rewriting history. This new depiction of Dickinson might stretch the truth in some ways, but at least it underscores the poet’s powerful intellect and wry sense of humor, which earlier portrayals too often ignored.
The best gossip about famous writers always has a grain of truth. By the end of her life, Dickinson really did dress in white. She rarely left her house and seldom agreed to meet visitors. Neighbors called her “the myth” because she was so elusive. She published only a dozen poems during her lifetime, all anonymously, but soon after her death, in 1886, Mabel Loomis Todd edited the first books of her poems. Todd, the mistress of Dickinson’s brother, cast the poet as strange and solitary to style herself as a liberator, bringing to light the work of a cloistered genius.
Until recently, this conservative version of Dickinson mostly held sway. The most famous photo of her makes it easy to think of her as inexperienced, because it shows her at 16 years old. In 1976, William Luce’s one-woman play “The Belle of Amherst” reaffirmed the view of Dickinson as sheltered and self-effacing. Terence Davies revived this familiar image with his 2016 biopic, “A Quiet Passion,” which most viewers found long on quiet and short on passion. In that very slow film, Cynthia Nixon plays a dour poet whose family sits in dim parlors, staring blankly at books and one another.
To give us a secluded and depressive Emily Dickinson, these works ignore how clever, energetic, funny and erotic her writing can be. Such an uptight poet could not have written the impassioned lines of “Wild nights — Wild nights!” that blaze on-screen in the “Dickinson” trailer. That poem ends with a racy wish: “Might I but moor — tonight — / In thee!”
The “Dickinson” trailer casts the poet as a rebellious young woman, happy to let loose and flout social expectations. Her snide remarks and risque gestures, backed by a hip-hop beat, suggest a punky take on period drama, recalling Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” (2006) or Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” (2013). Such attempts to inject funk into bygone times can easily backfire. They give mundane scenes a cartoonish flair and make historical details look decorative, cheesy and contrived.
Regardless of whether “Dickinson” avoids these pitfalls, many viewers will enjoy its quirks. Rapper Wiz Khalifa plays the role of Death, who kindly stops for Dickinson and gives her a lift in his carriage. “Dickinson” caters to readers and viewers who prefer a more wildly imaginative protagonist, a poet who knows how to dream, party and joke around.
Amid efforts to liberate Dickinson from her corseted reputation, attention has inevitably fallen on her sexual orientation. A 1951 biography was the first to claim publicly that Dickinson had romances with women. That book focused on the poet’s relationship with a family friend named Kate Turner. A recently discovered photograph shows Turner in 1859, seated beside a woman who many believe to be Dickinson. If authentic, this photo of Dickinson would show her at about 30 years old, near the peak of her creative powers. The picture alone proves nothing, but it seems telling that Dickinson has a subtle smile on her lips and a hand on Turner’s back.
Scholars have more thoroughly documented the poet’s intimacy with her sister-in-law and neighbor, Susan, the wife of her cheating brother. Some of Emily’s letters imply romance with men as well, but few Dickinson experts view her as simply a straight spinster. Although it’s not easy to prove who slept with whom more than a century ago, the letters between Emily and Susan provide indisputable evidence of a strong intellectual and emotional connection.
This past spring, the film “Wild Nights With Emily” focused on the poet’s romance with Susan, as well as the playful wit of her poems. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek and starring Molly Shannon, “Wild Nights” provides a funny and moving antidote to the strait-laced portrayals of decades past. The film draws extensively from Dickinson’s letters and poems to stay grounded. But by staging a romance whose details must remain unknown, the film also reminds viewers that even the greatest writers are human, prone to awkwardness, vulnerability and jealousy.
Judging from the trailers and prerelease buzz, the makers of “Dickinson” do not worry too much about historical accuracy. But neither should we. John Mulaney plays Henry David Thoreau, which raises some questions. Dickinson and Thoreau were contemporaries and lived only 75 miles apart, but there is no evidence that they ever met. Nonetheless, if “Dickinson” concocts an interesting encounter between them, and if it turns some viewers into readers of Dickinson and Thoreau, then perhaps it’s worth bending the truth.
Just as improbably, ads for “Dickinson” command, “if the rules aren’t fair, break them.” Dickinson probably would not have agreed. Her life and work are unorthodox in many ways, but she often preferred to rework and remix traditional expectations instead of openly rebelling. Her poems use conventional forms that echo Christian hymns. In fact, they have such predictable rhythm that you can sing them to the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island.” Just try it with “Because I could not stop for Death —” or “I dwell in Possibility — .”
Viewers familiar with the poet might be tempted to criticize “Dickinson” for its historical inaccuracies, but they should resist the urge. It would seem odd to expect authenticity from a show that features such supernatural elements as a carriage pulled by ghost horses. Although Dickinson the poet might not have believed that unfair rules should be broken, “Dickinson” the show suggests exactly that. It invites us to accept that Dickinson has long been whatever her audience makes of her. So we might as well let her have a bit more fun than she has in the past.
Seth Perlow, the author of “The Poem Electric: Technology and the American Lyric,” teaches English at Georgetown University.