‘Dickinson’ is Perfect Pandemic Television
All hail Emily Dickinson, the quarantine queen
Why, in this late stage of my first pandemic, have I become so very obsessed with Dickinson, a comedy about the early life of the great American poet who was, as one character says, “the bravest most brilliant nobody,” and as some person on Twitter dubbed her, “the first WFH girlboss”? (Did I just answer my own question?)
Here is a surreal, feminist, funny Emily Dickinson with a Gen Z bent I’m probably too old for. (There’s one party scene where characters in 19th-century gowns twerk to Carnage’s “I Like Tuh” that my tween daughter and I can’t. stop. watching.) Vulture called it a show made specifically for literary weirdos which, honestly, makes me feel very seen. It’s also a show that was over six years in the making (love a long-simmering project). According to Bustle, the show’s creator Alena Smith “was drawn to the idea of ‘achieving the impossible within extreme confinement,’ as Dickinson did, reinventing American verse from her bedroom.” Smith said the show was built out of frustration, and limits.
Frustration, limits: two things we’ve become fairly familiar with over the past year. “As many of Dickinson’s poems argue, the best way truly to appreciate anything is to be denied it,” the scholar Debra Fried writes. We’ve all become experts in being denied things, haven’t we?
So much of the Emily Dickinson mythology focuses on the mystery of why a bright, brilliant writer would choose to live such a circumscribed life — never marrying, never leaving her parents’ house, shunning most society, and scarcely pursuing publishing. “How can remarkable poems emerge from such an ordinary life?” Fried writes, “It’s not really a mystery: many poems reflect ordinary life in such a way that it seems extraordinary.” Remembering this feels like a tonic to me, a writer trying to create within the confines of a Covid-limited life, at my tiny WFH desk I ordered last April (it’s designed for dorm rooms, but I rebranded it my “Emily Dickinson desk” — prescient?!), and in my tiny brain that is often distracted and exhausted by, you know, everything.
I didn’t set out to spend so very much of my current life alone in my living room, though I didn’t exactly not choose it either; a few months before the pandemic started I left my husband, consciously leaving behind the life of a wife, the shelter of being coupled. So of course something I love about Dickinson’s empowered Emily is that we’re asked to see her choosing her spinsterdom; we’re invited to think about the ways in which this actually made her free. This is Emily Dickinson as a hot, queer, goth art-monster, an Emily for whom marriage would be a trap.
The show lays the groundwork for why the vivacious young Emily — who is fun and wild and horny and full of life and also in love with Death (an actual character, played by Wiz Khalifa) — is eventually going to choose to become the Emily Dickinson of our popular imagination; the reclusive, virginal woman in white. As Smith says in one behind-the-scenes segment, “The show explores that being alone can be tough, but perhaps that was the very thing that generated such powerful creativity.”
Is Smith… a prophet? I mean, she couldn’t have known we would be consuming the second season of this show from our own unintentionally Emily Dickinson-esque cloisters. (Okay to be fair the Dickinsons’ estate included beautiful gardens, an orchard, a mystical tree…I don’t know about you but my Brooklyn apartment lacks these amenities. But still.) Many of us have found the past year has been a time of getting to know who we are when no one is looking. Me, I had just gone through a kind of cleansing fire, and expected that the spring of 2020 would be about emerging from the pain of divorce into a life of abundance — I would host dinner parties! I would travel to see long-lost friends! I would flirt in crowded bars! — ha!
It was a small sadness — but surely an instructive one — to lose these possibilities and instead to focus on accessing the dancing bee of my brain. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom the pandemic has been quiet and boring, rather than terrifying — for whom it has felt like an exercise in patience — a Great Pause. In one episode of Dickinson, Emily tells her BFF/sister-in-law/lover (just go with it) Sue, that she feels like the city of Pompeii — trapped, covered in ash, frozen in time. Welcome to the ‘twenties, Em.
As a literary weirdo, I’m forever amused (is that the word? Maybe I mean annoyed) by the way women writers are portrayed on the screen. Last summer I was excited about Shirley, a promising-looking biopic about one of my favorite writers, the spooky, uncanny, and darkly funny novelist Shirley Jackson — and then disappointed to see yet another portrayal of a creative woman as mostly insane. Dickinson’s Emily is a little bit insane, sure, but in a way that causes her friends to say things like “You’re such a weirdo — why am I so attracted to you?” Yes, she hangs out with Death and dances with giant bees — but she’s not fragile. She’s not teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown at all times. As a character, she’s allowed to contain multitudes — she’s both nutty and practical; she loves both men and women; she seeks solitude and cherishes her friendships; she wants to create and to ponder the big questions, and also sometimes wants to bake delicious things and tend to the flowers in her garden. She’s feminine and she looks good in a suit. How often do we let female characters — or actual women for that matter — embody so many contradictions?
Throughout the show’s second season, which was recently released on Apple TV+ (I know, I know, just get it, it’s fine), Emily keeps circling the publisher of the local newspaper, who she sometimes hopes will publish her poems, and other times prays will not. She can’t decide whether or not to pursue a “legimate” writing career. Sometimes people ask her snidely where they might have read her work and she prickles a little, wanting to flex her talents (as a fiction writer, I HARD RELATE to the horrors of being asked “oh, have you written anything I would have read?”) — but on the other hand her father considers literary women to be a little morally suspect, and plus a ghostly fellow keeps popping up and warning her not to seek fame. Confusing! And you can understand her concern: The 1850s and ’60s saw the birth of contemporary celebrity culture, and writers were legitimately famous public figures at the time, a fact hilariously portrayed in the forms of Henry David Thoreau as a self-obsessed fuckboi and a Louisa May Alcott who says, “I’m all about that hustle.”
Emily spends a lot of time stressing — even having a seance in a quest for answers — about whether or not she should publish her poems or keep them to herself. Part of her problem is that the closer she inches to a public literary life, the harder she finds it to actually write. She lives every writer’s dream/nightmare in an episode in which one of her poems is finally published in her local paper, and she becomes literally invisible, and is thus privy to what everyone, including her friends and family, really think of her writing. In a hilarious and heartbreaking scene, townspeople hypothesize that this poet must be a genius and/or a slut, that the poem is about everything and/or nothing; one of Amherst’s proto-influencers says, “I don’t get it…that’s why I love it,” before hurling the paper on the floor and forgetting all about it.
I get it. With every novel I publish — including the most recent, a ghost story that came out during the pandemic and then, as books seem to do even in the best of times, evaporated into the ether — I am struck by the twinned and opposite selves a novelist has to have: You have to be able to access both the sensitive, curious, open, receptive version of yourself who is capable of writing a book; and then, once the book is on submission/being edited/being published/out in the world, you have to become a thick-skinned, tough, self-promoting type, willing to talk about your creation as if it were a product like a bar of soap, and able to withstand whatever readers and critics may say. You wait for months — years, sometimes! — to find out if a book you’ve poured yourself into will ever even be published. Then — best case scenario! — it’s published, and you talk to your former coworker’s book club who didn’t get the symbolism, and pretend, when your prim elderly neighbor says they read your book, that neither of you knows it was you who wrote the sex scenes. It’s a strange kind of double life. I’ve often thought of how smart Elena Ferrante is, to be anonymous — how freely one could write! Could Emily Dickinson have written such strange wonderful work out in the open? I think we all know the answer.
The way I’ve metabolized Dickinson reminds me of the giddy near-high I got from Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women. (Look, I accept that I am very much the audience for costume dramas about writing women, all of them, I’m shameless.) It was the last movie I saw in the theatre before the pandemic shut everything down, an outing accompanied by a mini-matriarchy — my daughter, her friend, and her friend’s mother and grandmother. It was around Christmastime, and my daughter didn’t yet know that her father and I were separating, but behind the scenes I was mired in the worst part of it. I felt like a raw nerve disguised as a regular mother. It meant something to go see that movie then. This Jo (in my interpretation of the ending, I know there are others) chose writing and work and art and freedom and possibility over marriage. I liked this vibe, as the kids say. In that moment I didn’t actually feel empowered or optimistic, I felt scared and sad and perhaps mortally wounded. I felt I was living a double life and not a fun kind: Between meetings with the divorce mediator and sad scenes with my soon-to-be-ex, I was taking my kids to movies, I was preparing Christmas celebrations, I was acting, when I could, like everything was fine. As Alena Smith has said of Dickinson, “every woman’s life is a Gothic story.”
It’s not totally age-appropriate, but I’ve loved rewatching some Dickinson episodes with my 12-year-old daughter. For one thing, the casual way it approaches Emily and Sue’s intense romantic love for each other makes total sense to a contemporary Brooklyn tween. And the way its young women choose lives outside of the typical housewife paradigm — well, it feels especially eloquent when we watch it together, in the apartment I live in, apart from and totally different in mood and tone than where her father lives.
I guess that’s the real key to the magic of Dickinson — for me, anyway. I have a weird theory of storytelling that I call the Pippin Paradox (because it came to me after seeing, of all things, the 2013 Broadway revival of the antic musical Pippin). Basically, I think that readers love a story that offers some element of escapism — throughout the play, the dissatisfied Pippin tries on every kind of life there is — but then ends up concluding that, given all the choices in the world, any character would choose a life that was, in the end, not unlike the audience’s, or reader’s, life. Given any possibility — Fame! Greatness! Sex! Wealth! — our protagonist would prefer a simple, quiet, domestic life. We see this in so many of our culture’s most beloved stories — look at any of our existentially tortured superheroes. Gosh, do they wish they could just have a normal life like, well, you do. It’s satisfying, isn’t it? It’s just a slight tweak on the marriage plot, and a cynic might say it’s a way in which even our fictional narratives continue to establish the (capitalist, heteronormative, patriarchal) narratives that keep the wheels of society smoothly rolling along.
Dickinson employs the Pippin Paradox, but tells it slant. Emily could get married to a number of suitable suitors and have a nice house and cute babies. Or — maybe also? — she could publish her poems and have her work validated and celebrated. But at some point we know she’s going to decide — spoiler alert — to say “I prefer not to.” In a totally anachronistic rant that made me laugh very loudly, Emily’s sister Lavinia tells her would-be husband: “Okay well, I’m not normal, okay? I am a twisted, witchy, creative, horny woman, and you can’t accept that!” In this universe, there are other options — and personally, I can’t get enough narratives of women saying, essentially, “Oh wow, yeah, fuck allllll of this.”
On a smaller, and perhaps more widely relatable, scale, the idea that someone would choose to stay at home all the time, spiritually disconnect from the rat race, and just basically do their thing — well hey, that’s the world we’re all living in, and some of us have found it to be pretty edifying after all. A story that celebrates — with a wink and a nod — the ways in which we can access the extraordinary possibilities of the every day — I mean, among other things, it’s perfect for right exactly now.