I Had a Terror Since September

How much do we know about Emily Dickinson as personality, as a living person? I can’t say that we know much at all. Originally, she was marketed as cypher, an enigma, a hermit/shut-in, and this reflected a valid aspect of the later parts of her life. The self alone is not a no-place, but it’s a hard-to-know place. In my lifetime there’s gradually been an understanding that it’s not the whole picture however.

Her youth seems to have included an above average circle of experiences for a woman of her class, time, and place. And her most productive writing years, those of her early thirties, seem a middle ground, with some travel amid mysterious and undetailed accounts of illnesses.

Her poetry, still revolutionary, no longer needs the biographical mystery to market it, but that doesn’t stop us. Its domestic strangeness makes some of us look for a Baedeker to help figure out the sites and landscape.

I say this because it appears that yet another attempt to portray a living Emily Dickinson is upon us. In 2017 we had A Quiet Passion  portraying an intellectually vital person dealing with a rigid society, and only this year we had Wild Nights with Emily  which tried to illuminate Dickinson’s emotional life and the revolutionary artistic aspects of her work. Both of these films have to deal with issues that any biopic about an author will: watching people write is boring second-unit stuff, connecting written work designed for the page to a visual performance is not straightforward, and what writers record in books is not a one-to-one reflection of their own personality and character. I’m willing to cut filmmakers some slack because of these unavoidable issues.

None-the-less, Dickinson,  one of the tentpole series that Apple TV+ has announced for its nascent Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming video competitor this fall, is raising eyebrows and guffaws. Here’s the trailer.

Midway through Emily and Lavina rock-out in their underwear on ukulele and banjo.



Let me summarize some comments the trailer has drawn:

“That’s crazy pants”

“Instead of the classy story-telling Apple has promised for its new video service, this looks like a CW* series.”

“What were they thinking?”

“Portraying a famous recluse as a wild child? Really?”

Well I’m not going to predict anything (I’m bad at it). The hyper-fast cutting of the trailer should almost come with a strobe-light seizure warning and makes it even harder to determine how the series will work than a run-of-the-mill promotional clip, a form already infamous for misrepresentation. I’m not going to throw stones at the EDM soundtrack of the trailer though. Indeed, I’d hope Dickinson is as audacious as I’ve been here in mixing “wrong” music with older art.

A worry is that if it tries to modernize Dickinson without comic awareness and savvy, it could be unintentional comedy that goes nowhere. As with previous Dickinson movies, I suspect it will give in to the dramatic temptation to compress and confuse the time-line of Dickinson’s life. I know nothing of the show-runner’s previous work, but title-role-actor Hailee Steinfeld was great with vitalizing 19th century dialog in the Coen Brothers’ version of True Grit.

A list of recurring characters gives hope that the show will try to deal with some of the formative influences on Emily Dickinson: Susan Gilbert, the eventual sister-in-law and possible romantic partner, Benjamin Newton, generally recognized as a mentor to the young Dickinson who died at age 32, and George Gould, who Genevieve Taggard identified as once engaged to Emily and who might have continued to serve as a connection to outside literary and cultural forces per Taggard’s biography.

I’m even more heartened by the presence of actor Chinaza Uche in the regular cast, which indicates that Amherst’s African-American presence will be included. How complex will they allow that element to be?

Much of what we know about these people comes from Emily Dickinson’s letters, a form in which Dickinson performed, taking a series of personae. Within a variety of frames and masks understood and puzzling to the recipients, she herself remains unrevealed while revealing. The letters don’t tell us how Emily was like to be around, they tell us the ways that Emily wants to express herself on paper. Tantalizing and frustrating for biographers—when Dickinson writes of her life, the enigmatic poet side comes out.

Today’s piece is an example. Indeed, if one wants to contrast Walt Whitman to his fellow American mid-19th century poetic innovator Dickinson by saying that Whitman was able to write free verse while Dickinson was content to write irregular stanzas with looser than “proper” rhymes, passages like this from a letter from Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the spring of 1862 are vers libre without being published as such.

The first “tutor” she mentions in this letter is usually identified as the doomed Ben Newton, and the second may be Gould, who had to leave Amherst to seek a living, eventually traveling overseas. Other dramatis personae: Emily’s famous dog, Carlo, and her piano, the instrument she was known to have played in the home with some skill. But what is the terror since September? Illness? Artistic sturm und drang? It’s tempting to say that the letter-passage’s sundown and the hills reference another famous Dickinson poem, but what is the noise in the pool? Is it “public—like a frog?”

So, regardless of how entertaining, enlightening, or disastrous Dickinson  turns out to be, there’s evidence for presenting a rather outrageous, self-dramatizing, and rapidly thinking person who relates her own poetry to her life. That is, if the Dickinson of the letters is like the young, living, social Dickinson.

No dance-oriented Dickinson today listeners, and I had to be literal and include some piano due to the reference in the text, though no singing pond-frogs or dogs. The player gadget to hear me perform part of this letter is below. The full text of the letter to Higginson is here.





*The CW is a minor American broadcast TV network that targets its programming at younger audiences. Just to go on the record: as long-time readers here might suspect, I’m not immune to meta-rich transformation of historical subjects with references to modern phenomena. I love Upstart Crow  because it sitcom-frames Shakespeare’s life as if it was The Dick Van Dyke Show  (which itself was a Sixties recasting of Carl Reiner working on Sid Caesar’s show in the Fifties) with lots of wink-wink anachronisms. Dickinson may not have yet reached the level of dead-white-male canonization that allows Shakespeare to be deconstructed for laughs though.

6 thoughts on “I Had a Terror Since September

    1. Valley Girl? Hmm. I hadn’t thought of that, but now I do, and yes there’s that element, or the self-consciously goth. Valley girl? Particularly the verbal energy and wit that Moon Unit Zappa and Martha Coolidge identified as they introduced the type to wider culture–I can see that. The stereotypical materialism, no. Emily seems as puritan as her father there. Another type (one I find myself falling into to my embarrassment) the person deeply interested and enthused by something who will babble on about it. OMG! Gag me….just gag me,,,,

      Higginson seemed to avoid additional face to face meetings with her, and later remarks on Dickinson’s odd nomination of him as her “preceptor” while admiring the strength of her art. Since he was a person who knew the leading abolitionists and feminists of his time, there may be more to his unease than simple intensity of opinions. His testimony would feed the “Emily on the Spectrum” theories.

      I’m unsure of just how intellectually rich Amherst was in Emily’s era (as opposed to Concord, which must have been a great place to be an Alcott). One thing I’m fairly sure about Emily Dickinson’s mind is that it was highly active and inquiring, and at times I get a feeling for a Blakean visionary side that she tries to mask, something that might be associated with the mysterious illnesses and possible aura like symptoms (the epilepsy, migraine, or the like theory). If it was barren in Amherst for a smart woman creating unprecedented art, anyone that would seem to be open to that might get a stored-up over-dosage of Emily.

      I see hints that the makers of the Apple TV series are planning a smart girl/square world story with a dose of the “Master letters” and the unsigned published valentine to add a teenage lust element. That too is a stereotype (can it rise to a respectable archetype?) How smart and creative will they be in working that? I can’t tell yet.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Frank – You pose a good question, what do we know about Emily? Her father was a successful politician, her poetry reveals a broad range of experiences and empathy. By my account she lived a compelling life. I have always found it interesting that she choose not to publish anything in her lifetime. The question is why? Did she think it unnecessary as a writer? Unnecessary as an artist? Maybe Emily possessed the thing that eludes most artists, contentment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for reading, and I enjoy what you’re doing over at 14 Lines.

        There seems to be some division on this, but there is side that thinks the Dickinson became content to not publish, at least after a certain point, and that this decision allowed her greater freedom in creating her unusual forms. But I still can’t tell what’s mask and stance with her. That she’s from a family of lawyers, one wonders if the ability to cite positions and find their rationales might be something she absorbed from that.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I don’t really know Dickinson but when I was reading the text of her letter, what came to mind was Neal Cassady. Since I don’t know Dickinson, it’s not clear she’d approve, never mind what Cassady would think, but it would surely fit the Apple TV series.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah. I thought Whitman in reading some of her letters–but then Whitman is the first Beat poet just as Transcendentalism is the first draft of some kind of American Taoism/Buddhism/Confucianism.


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