Dueling Dickinsons

Born this day, America’s great poet, possibly its greatest, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).

Whitman has come to mean a lot to me, but I think Dickinson is possibly more significant. Her tortured and profound midnight scratchings slay the heart and mind but also (rare for a poet) the eye. You don’t just register the words, but you walk away remembering the visual lay-out of the poem. Like the greatest American writers she constituted her own category, at once a Post-Romantic and a Pre-Modern Modernist.

My maximum (and honestly last) period of sustained exposure to Emily Dickinson’s poetry occurred when I was about 19, a point in my life when I was attempting to read everything in the world, and was (not coincidentally) VERY stuck on a girl who admired her a great deal. So I steeped myself in that familiar volume of Dickinson’s complete poems, and it rubbed off, I think. The girl I was crazy about (emphasis on crazy) went on to win a Pulitzer Prize (for real) and my own exertions have garnered the sporadic discerning adherent. In both cases, the results were achieved by making an effort never to read bad books. To learn to write, one could do far worse than to lock oneself in a room and tune in to these psychic transmissions from another locked room, so intimate and immediate in spite of the ever widening gulf of time. I must add that Dickinson is not always a cheering influence, apart from inspiring a strong temptation to generate parodies, full of broken lines, dashes, nature metaphors and John Donne style metaphysics. (My inclinations tending this way head a long list of reasons none of us need hold our breath waiting for MY Pulitzer).

Dickinson is a hero to women of course, but I think it’s important for men to point out and admit such cases when female writers are important to them. She meant a lot to me during a certain angst ridden, barren stretch of my life, and I thrilled in riding down deep whirlpools with her. Decades later I am able to contemplate her life and art with a bit more, shall we say, self-protection. Is it possible NOT to be obsessed with death? I have always been. If anything, more so then than now — probably because now, when it is so much nearer, I dare NOT dwell on it, and prefer to whistle distracting tunes as it approaches.

I was delighted to learn in recent years that she and I share a common colonial ancestor. Both my wife and I have ancestors from the area around Amherst, another superficial reason to take an interest in her biography. But the real intrigue of course lies in that extraordinary life story of solitude and obscurity, and a trunk full of treasures few recognized while she lived. What a delightful challenge for a playwright or screenwriter to solve. Most stories about writers are dreadful. The act of writing itself is static, the dullest thing on earth, which is why so many writers drink. Painters and composers and performers have physical things to do that are fun to watch. Watching someone write on screen is like watching someone sit on the toilet. A shot of them doing it had better be one second long. There are of course great avant-garde possibilities in restricting an entire play or film to one woman alone in a room. Beckett or early Pinter might have done something wonderful, and they would have been able to write in such a way as to plum the character’s metaphysical imaginings. At an earthier level, there’s Larry Cohen’s Phone Booth (2002), an idea with much promise, but not as eventually realized.

And of course, the extent to which Dickinson “never left her room” is generally exaggerated, but still you need to do a lot of work to bring the dramatic events to her. And there were plenty of them. Recently, there have been no fewer than THREE screen takes on the life of the poet, and this being primarily a show biz blog, we thought that the best approach to skinning this particular housecat. Like many, we watched them, of course, when the pandemic kept us…locked in our rooms. Prior to this trio though, there was one famous attempt as well, so we begin with that.

The Belle of Amherst (1976)

Charles Nelson Reilly directed Julie Harris in this one woman show on Broadway to great acclaim, including a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, and even a Grammy (for the spoken word record version). The PBS television version was nominated for two Emmys, but didn’t win. Harris played over a dozen characters in the show which launched a career for playwright William Luce, who later went to write similar shows about Zelda Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, John Barrymore, George S. Patton, and Lucy and Desi. Harris is of course great casting for one’s “idea” of Emily Dickinson, all flighty and fluttery and broken, and it helped reinforce a certain narrative in the public mind that prevailed for decades. At present you can catch it on Youtube. The more recent trio of Dickinson portraits seem to be attempts to unseat the traditional impression of the poet.

A Quiet Passion (2016)

As with Harris, Cynthia Nixon is terrific casting, and she gave a fairly shattering and more multi-layered portrait of the character, which benefits from a supporting cast that includes Jennifer Ehle (daughter of southern writer John Ehle and Rosemaryy Harris) as Emily’s sister Lavinia, Keith Carradine (less well cast) as her father, and others. As in The Belle of Amherst it draws from Dickinson’s poetry, correspondence, diaries and other historical material, but it contains a good deal more sturm und drang, sex and fire and chest beating, and even humor. A British production, it offers an objective, outside perspective which an American sensibility would ironically lack. Americans often take things for granted when telling American stories. Foreigners often spot and report details we might leave out. It runs a full two hours, but rewards the investment of time and patience. This film is also extremely good on period detail — I’m not sure its possible to be more accurate in terms of how it looks, though some of the dialogue and behavior are anachronistic (though nothing compared to the next two we’ll discuss). As a side benefit, there is a companion piece called My Letter to the World (2017), a documentary with Nixon reading Dickinson. We happened to watch this a year or two prior to our recent screening of A Quiet Passion. I recommend it — you’ll appreciate any of these films more with a grounding in the facts (and naturally some exposure to her writing, if you haven’t read her.)

Wild Nights with Emily (2018)

Nearly two decades after it first premiered at the WOW Cafe (New York’s premiere downtown feminist/lesbian theatre), Madeleine Olnek was able to bring this ribald and irreverent script to the big screen starring her longtime collaborator Molly Shannon, with whom she had first worked at NYU, in the title role. This was Oknek’s third film, following Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011) and The Foxy Merkins (2014). Where A Quiet Passion had merely hinted at same-sex romantic feelings, Olnek (justified by some pretty unambiguous writings of the poet) dives right in and makes these tendencies explicit, exploding the traditional image of a chaste and timid recluse. Its anachronisms are of course intentional, but they have a kind of poetic truth. Shannon’s take on Dickinson isn’t the slightest bit shy, in fact she’s downright ferocious. And naturally frequently funny.

Dickinson (2019-2021)

At present there is kind of vogue on for anachronistic history. It has its origins, I think, with women’s studies and queer studies, and when it is clearly informed by those agendas in an explicitly articulated form, it can have value. The technique can also be powerful strictly for the cases of comedy and burlesque, as has been done since time immemorial (even by me) — provided the audience knows what the facts are and how the portrayal is either exaggerating facts or comically working against them. At present I fear the genie is out of the bottle, and the whole thing has completely eroded. I’m quite confident that the average American knows little history, and the little they know is wrong, so I get extremely nervous about the idea of the masses mistaking comedy for facts. It is no longer intrinsically funny to hear historical characters speak in modern day lingo. Sometimes it is, but not always. But what’s happened now is that the public is walking around with wildly inaccurate ideas about attitudes, manners, and behaviors of people who lived in the past. Why would not knowing the truth be a good thing, in a world full of people who don’t believe in evolution or vaccines or elections? (I could fill an entire book with examples of this burgeoning subgenre, frankly they’re too numerous to mention, though I might wring an article or blogpost of it some time). Naturally, I’m in favor of feminist, or queer, or racial or class revisionism. Please, of course, bring other perspectives to storytelling and refresh the pool of knowledge. I’m talking about clarity. So I have a real hard time with writing historical characters who sound and act like 21st century American teenagers. I don’t think you learn anything that way. I think Emily Dickinson would come roaring out of her grave and fill the earth with a poison death cloud if she saw how she was depicted in the series that ran for three seasons on Apple+ TV. The speech and behavior of the 19th century were aspirational and elevated. I’m not sure what the purpose is of helping young people “relate” to a historical figure you have altered so much it is no longer the actual historical figure. All you’ve done is debase reality. If the nation’s greatest poet doesn’t talk like a poet, you have dragged her down, sullied her, made her “anyone”. She wasn’t anyone. She was a genius, one anchored inextricably to HER time. If you don’t get or understand the era in which she lived, why do this to us?

These are the words of someone who couldn’t stand more than five minutes of this nonsense. Other people like this show; maybe you will too. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch any more than the few seconds that offended me.

Fortunately, Dickinson is not the last word on the poet. The Emily Dickinson Museum is. And no doubt there is more Dickinsensia to come in the not-too-distant future, for the bicentennial of the poet’s birth is coming up in 2030. You know that we will participate in celebrating that!