Bringing long-dead literary characters to life for a contemporary audience is a challenge, but that is the mission of the Emily Dickinson Museum. Today, the 19th-century poet’s house in Amherst has reopened after a major renovation. It includes a bonanza of props donated from an irreverent streaming series that reimagines the writer’s early adulthood.
When we meet Emily in the first episode of “Dickinson” on Apple TV, she is feverishly writing by candlelight in her bedroom. Then his sister Livinia interrupts the poet’s flow by saying that Emily – not their brother – must fetch the morning water. She huffs like a frustrated teenager and replies, “It’s such bulls—!”
This expletive kicks off this mad dash of a show. It’s a wacky, witty mix of popular culture from the 1800s to today. While her Dickinson (played by Hailee Steinfeld) seems spot-on for the times, she acts, talks, and curses like a modern-day rebellious teenager. Emily Dickinson museum director Jane Wald said that’s not how most people imagine the poet.
“What she was called in her day was the Amherst mythos,” she explained. “That she was this poet withdrawn, isolated, confined and, in some interpretations, even almost imprisoned.”
While Dickinson was reclusive and eccentric as an adult, Wald said that over time these lingering myths erased a more three-dimensional Emily. The old faded paint colors on the walls of the museum did that too. Now, as part of an extensive two-year makeover, they’re covered in vibrant, historically-accurate wallpaper. Wald said animating Dickinson’s most intimate spaces will help visitors connect with the poet in a more authentic way. So will a treasure trove of around 300 sets from showrunner Alena Smith’s brilliantly absurd series.
“The show has generously given us some of their tools,” Wald said, “that can be our tools here to interpret Dickinson’s life.” They will do this, she added, by filling in the gaps in the museum’s historical collection to make the poet’s house look more lived-in.
When the show ended last year, Smith and his team had no plans for the treasure. “It occurred to me and some producers and designers that the best thing to do would be to donate to the Dickinson Museum,” she said. “What really cracks me up is that the museum takes the carriage of death.”
This carriage is Smith’s clever play on Dickinson’s obsession with death. Throughout the series, the poet spends a lot of time with the grim reaper, played by rapper Wiz Khalifa.
Some of the more utilitarian accessories include bookcases, tables, linens, and plenty of fountain pens. These household items are a way for the production to thank the museum for its help over the three seasons of the series. Staff responded to emails from the writer’s room, greeted the production crew and cast, and shared floor plans with set designers. Smith recalls visiting Dickinson’s home early in the show’s development to commune with the poet’s spirit.
“Because she lived there so intensely as a poet, the house is a metaphor, the house is a poem, her bedroom is a line of poetry, her bed has meaning,” she said.
At the time, Smith was struggling to write a dramatic script, but sitting in Dickinson’s bedroom was a turning point for the show’s tone.
“When you dig into the scholarship and research around Dickinson, what you find is a passionate, rebellious, hilarious and ironic artist who had enormous ambitions,” she said. “And a big part of the reason there’s this misperception of her is that Emily Dickinson’s kind of trademark was created right after her death by her early publishers as a way to popularize her work and basically to sell books.”
Smith reflects on the strange and fascinating poems that Dickinson conjured up in this piece. Nearly 1,800 were discovered in the house after her death in 1886. The way this underrated performer had long been misunderstood convinced Smith that her show should be a subversive black comedy.
When the museum’s program director, Brooke Steinhauser, heard this and discovered the cast that included Khalifa and Jane Krakowski, she was amused. “I was starting to feel like, okay, this show is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen at the museum yet.”
Steinhauser loves the show’s pop music soundtrack and the way young people use contemporary slang. Perhaps his favorite visual storytelling device nails something the museum does every day, which is to celebrate Dickinson’s creative process. The name of each episode is a line of his poetry, including “Wild nights”, “Fame is a capricious food” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” As the lines emerge in Dickinson’s mind, they are animated as fiery handwritten lines that float across the screen.
“You can kind of see them coming from Dickinson’s brain and out into the ether,” Steinhauser said.
Steinhauser is eager to display the costumes donated to the show at the museum and hopes to use Death’s Carriage as a poetry recording studio. She said Smith’s rowdy, coming-of-age series introduced Dickinson’s groundbreaking work to a new generation. It also stimulates interest in the museum’s virtual programs and collection of over 8,000 original family heirlooms.
With its reopening, Steinhauser expects visitors who have seen the show to ask a lot of questions, especially about its impassioned, sometimes steamy portrayal of Dickinson’s relationship with his sister-in-law, Sue. This is nothing new for the showrunner.
“There is no fixed, determined image of Emily Dickinson,” Smith said. “She left behind voids and spaces that people will always feel invited to come and dance inside.”
Dickinson wrote, “Tell the whole truth but tell it obliquely,” which Smith said was the mantra for his series. Museum director Jane Wald believes the poet’s sentiment allows the show and the museum to channel the poet’s life so that it speaks as powerfully as possible to today’s audiences.
“We spoke with Alena Smith about how we share the same goal,” Wald explained. “We have different tools to achieve this goal, but we really feel like partners with Emily Dickinson.”
The museum’s support has been tremendous for Smith. She’s sad her show ended last year, but she’s thrilled the beautiful accessories from her 10-year passion project will help her hero’s historic home feel as alive as Dickinson did in his tumultuous days. .
“It was the 1850s and it was a scary, convoluted, erotic, prosperous, thrilling world,” Smith said. “She was really there.
And Smith hopes Dickinson fans will visit the museum — as she did — for generations to come.
The Emily Dickinson Museum reopens Tuesday, August 16, with timed entry and cannot guarantee entry for the walk-ups.