My first glimpse of the Apple TV show “Dickinson,” which centers on the life of American poet Emily Dickinson, came from a wandering music video I saw on TikTok.
I probably would have scrolled if I hadn’t seen a comment surprised that it was based on a real person.
I laughed at her revelation, but then realized that I didn’t know much about her either. All I could pull out was a ninth-grade English memory of a fascinating line from one of his poems: “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”
This line happened to be the title of the pilot episode – and I ended up skimming the show. I liked a lot of aspects of it, but what interested me the most was its fusion of modernity and era.
At first glance, Hailee Steinfeld’s Emily and supporting characters clearly belong to pre-war America: they dress in 19th-century garb, ride in horse-drawn carriages, struggle against restrictive societal norms and debate secession from South.
However, watch the show for more than a few minutes and the frame is less defined.
The background music often features hip hop. The writers Emily encounters – especially Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman – come across as eccentric caricatures. Emily’s sister, Lavinia, congratulates Emily’s first post, telling her she “killed”. The Dickinson’s former employee Henry tells the soldiers he trains that they “ate this”.
In a trippy episode that takes Emily and Lavinia into the future (to 1955!), Lavinia bemusedly counters the rumor that Emily was a lesbian by clarifying, “No, she was American” — a joke that probably falls flat on non-Gen Z ears.
In a double-edged joke about Emily’s poetic aspirations and this timeline mismatch, Emily even thinks she was born in the wrong era.
Dickinson isn’t the first period drama to blur the time lines. “Bridgerton”, a show set in Regency England, also incorporates elements of contemporary life. Some find this new trend hilarious; others find it confusing. Although I agree with both parts to some extent, I think Dickinson’s style has merit.
For one thing, the show is a comedy — it never claimed to be a documentary. Those who want to learn more about the real Emily Dickinson will have no trouble finding an educational source.
Dickinson’s homage to contemporary culture appeals to audiences missed by these educational sources, young people who would otherwise not know Emily Dickinson and her work. While the show certainly dramatizes her life for entertainment value, it often quotes her poetry and without embellishment. Each season begins with a voice-over on existing historical documents; all oblivious TikTok watchers are quickly caught up.
Plus, a relatable Emily Dickinson who acts and speaks like us invites us to identify with her and, by extension, her poetry. We are also asked to ask ourselves if we are still struggling with the issues Emily encountered in Amherst’s pre-war era – are women still stifled by societal norms and male skepticism? Do people still feel obligated to hide same-sex relationships?
The aforementioned episode where Emily and Lavinia are teleported to the future deals with Emily’s legacy. A sarcastic Sylvia Plath informs them that most of the country does not know Emily Dickinson, and those who do know her remember her as a miserable woman. As someone whose mental image of the poet was that of a lonely old woman obsessed with death, I cannot say that is an unfair statement.
Obviously, “Dickinson” should not be considered a documentary. But by infusing Emily Dickinson with the vitality that her image is drained from in our modern minds and making her accessible and close to us, the show offers a captivating introduction to one of America’s influential poets whom many would otherwise not have encountered.
Lily Wu is a student at Hatboro-Horsham High School in Pennsylvania. She is the editor of the student newspaper, a member of the women’s varsity tennis team, and runs a book club with friends. She loves Greek mythology.