After Ted Lasso, the most talked-about series on Apple TV+ has been Dickinson, the moody historical dramedy very loosely based on Emily Dickinson’s life, which returned for a second season last Friday. A good number of critics considered the show's first season a fresh and brilliant reimagining of the life of America’s most important poet. I was originally baffled and a little offended by its distortions of history (notably, slandering the good name of Henry David Thoreau), but I’ve come around, and I recommend Season 2.
The new season goes deeper in exploring what is, for me, Dickinson’s core emotional drama — how a reclusive woman who rarely left her house came to write such astonishing verse. Set in 1850s Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson is a weird concoction of period costumes, Civil War-era history, and modern dialogue that effectively turns twenty-something Emily Dickinson, played by Hailee Steinfeld, into a proto-millennial beset by many of the same emotional issues as her 21st-century counterparts. She has social anxiety. She lacks self-esteem. She likes boys and girls. And all the while, she is pouring out her feelings and aspirations in astonishing verse, scribbled on scraps of paper nearly all of which will go unpublished in her lifetime.
The man who printed Emily’s poems
If you were going to become famous in 19th-century America, you’d best get your name in the newspaper. Among northerners of an abolitionist bent, which the Dickinsons were, the leading daily of the time was Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, copies of which are shown at the local newsstand. In Massachusetts the best-known daily was the Springfield Republican, published by Sam Bowles, played by Finn Jones (Game of Thrones). He hears about Emily and comes to Amherst hoping to meet her. In time she trusts him with not only her poetry but, the show strongly suggests, her heart as well.
In fact, the real Sam Bowles did print seven Dickinson poems, and her letters do suggest that the romance in Season 2 is no lie. In 1862, while Bowles was touring Europe, Dickinson wrote him, “It is a Suffering, to have a sea - no care how Blue - between your Sould [sic] and you,” she wrote, adding, “The Hills you used to love when you were in Northampto [sic] miss their old lover.” You don’t have to be a literary critic to interpret that. The show suggests that these bursts of emotion were not appreciated by Sam Bowles, whose wife often opened his mail.
Season 2 sees Emily struggle with the notion of being recognized as a poet. This struggle was largely internal, but the writers suggest there were external forces, namely sexism, working against her. “I don’t think women should be published — it’s scandalous,” says a priggish minister at a party where Emily has just revealed that she’s about to be published in the Republican. This is historically inaccurate, because by 1859 (when the episode takes place) Northern newspapers and literary journals were full of women’s voices. Novels written by women were among the bestselling books of the era, led by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s multi-million-selling abolitionist melodrama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. No self-respecting minister of that day was opposed to both slavery and women writers, since women were the engine of the abolition movement. (Or as Abraham Lincoln was reported to have said upon meeting Stowe, “So this is the little lady who started the big war.”)
Indeed, women authors were often outperforming their male counterparts, leading Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived not far from the Dickinsons, to complain in a letter, “America is now wholly given over to a d--- mob of scribbling women!”
Did Emily hold a seance?
In Episode 3 Emily is unsure about whether to allow her poems to appear in the Springfield Republican. So she convenes a “moon circle” of the sisterhood to ask her dead ancestors what they think. Though there is no evidence that Emily took part in a seance, I have no trouble believing she did, because that was a thing you did in mid-19th-century New England. Emily was raised Congregational but stopped attending church in her thirties. Like most religious liberals, she would’ve been open to spiritualism, the practices of communicating with the dead that started as a parlor trick but soon caught on with religious liberals who found church doctrine insufficient to dealing with death, which afflicted many households thanks to cholera pandemics and the like. Spiritualism really took off after the Civil War, which left few American families unscathed by loss.
Did the Dickinsons know anything about John Brown’s raid?
(Slight spoiler ahead, as this episode drops later in the season.) Episode 9 strongly suggests that Emily’s brother Austin, who lives next door, had a hired hand who took part in the John Brown raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. This disastrous event — depicted in the recent Showtime series The Good Lord Bird, which was great — lit the fuse for the Civil War.
In fact, Brown enjoyed a great deal of northern support, particularly from a group of well-connected abolitionists known as the “Secret Six” who funded Brown’s harebrained scheme to take a U.S. armory with less than thirty men. One of the Secret Six was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a colorful character I hope we get to know in Season 3 of Dickinson. A failed Unitarian minister and man of letters, Higginson led one of the first all-black regiments in the Civil War. He was as a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, which is how he became acquainted with one Emily Dickinson, and eventually published a handful of her poems.
The first three episodes of Dickinson Season 2 are now streaming on Apple TV+. New episodes drop Fridays through February.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.