Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) is one of the two great quintessential American poets, along with Walt Whitman. Although she wrote 1,789 poems, only 10 of them were published during her lifetime, all anonymously and some perhaps without her knowledge.
In American society during Dickinson’s time, most women’s social context revolved around the house and home. They served in subjugated roles overseen by the establishment patriarchy: wives, mothers, servants and caregivers. These roles often were the only ones open to an entire gender forbidden to legally own property, enter professions that could sustain them and provide independence from men, or have any say in laws and politics and decisions that affected them.
Dickinson lived almost her entire life in her family’s houses in Amherst, which now serves as the Emily Dickinson Museum. In 1840, she attended nearby Amherst Academy, a former boys’ school which had opened to female students just two years earlier. She studied English and classical literature and learned Latin.
In 1847, at 17 years old, Dickinson began attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which would later become Mount Holyoke College. Austin Dickenson (1829–1895), her brother, was sent to bring her home after less than a year at the Seminary. She refused to sign an oath stating she would devote her life to Jesus Christ, and realizing she no longer wanted to be there, went home and never returned.
After that, she left her home only for short trips to visit relatives in Boston, Cambridge, and Connecticut. For decades, Dickinson was portrayed as an agoraphobic recluse.
Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson (1803–1879), served on the Massachusetts General Court from 1838 to 1842, the Massachusetts Senate from 1842 to 1843, and the U.S. House of Representatives from 1852 to 1958. Her mother was chronically ill.
Austin Dickinson married Dickinson’s most intimate friend, Susan Gilbert, in 1856, and they moved in next door. Dickinson’s romantic and sexual experiences have brought much controversy among biographers, scholars and fans, even though Dickinson’s passions can certainly be inferred through her poems and letters. She seems to have had a romance with Gilbert, her closest friend. Dickenson asked Gilbert to read her poems, at which she had been working harder than ever.
Dickinson died in May 1886. After her death, her family found 40 hand-bound volumes containing 1,779 of her poems.
Whether Dickinson had romantic feelings for women or not, it is important to note that her writings were heavily edited by several people before being published posthumously. Austin Dickinson had a longtime affair with editor Mabel Loomis Todd and together they reworked Dickinson’s unpublished work, erasing Gilbert’s name and removing all references to her. There were lines of poems that were completely scratched out. Todd was involved in the editing of all three volumes of Dickenson’s published works.
No one received more writing from Dickinson than Gilbert. There were hundreds of letters between the two very close friends. Dickinson’s few friendships were all very close, especially with Gilbert. Some of the letters are very, very passionate. Dickinson’s letters and poems are highly charged and erotic. In one letter to Gilbert, dated June 11, 1852, reads, in part:
”I have but one thought, Susie, this afternoon of June, and that of you, and I have one prayer, only; dear Susie, that is for you. I would it were so, Susie, and when I look around me and find myself alone, I sigh for you again; little sigh, and vain sigh, which will not bring you home. I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away. I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round and calls for Susie. I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?”
Dickinson has some modern-day LGBTQ associations (besides those lesbian college American Literature majors): A Quiet Passion (2016) is a slow building, lyrically evoking, dreamy biopic directed and written by gay filmmaker Terence Davies about Dickinson. The film stars gay actor/activist Cynthia Nixon as the reclusive poet. Madeleine Olnek‘s Wild Nights With Emily (2018) has Molly Shannon as a decidedly queer Dickinson with plenty of girl-on-girl action, plus it’s a comedy. The film is a whip-smart romp that helps re-vamp Dickinson’s image as a reclusive spinster, a myth that helped sell her work to a sexist reading public and that has been widely disputed by Dickinson scholars. Wild Nights With Emily spotlights her long term romantic relationship with Gilbert.
Dickinson, one of the first original series from the new Apple TV+, covers some of the same territory, but with a bigger budget and more screen time. Dickinson stars Hailee Steinfeld as a teenage Dickenson and offers a stylish, witty, contemporary portrait of her life in mid-19th century Amherst, with anachronistic music choices, passionate lesbian sex, an opium party, and funny Jane Krakowski as Dickinson’s mother. In addition to upending the spinster myth and showing her queerness, the image of Dickinson’s sense of humor is another step in remaking her myth. Season Two is set to start streaming on January 8, 2021.
Most screen portrayals of Dickinson, such as Nixon’s in A Quiet Passion, go starkly in the other direction. Dickenson, a dreamy show about queers, for queers, plus it has a score by Billie Eilish.
What mystery pervades a well!
That water lives so far —
A neighbor from another world
Residing in a jar.
Whose limit none have ever seen,
But just his lid of glass —
Like looking every time you please
In an abyss’s face!
The grass does not appear afraid,
I often wonder he
Can stand so close and look so bold
At what is awe to me.
Related somehow they may be,
The sedge stands next the sea —
Where he is floorless
And does no timidity betray.
But Susan is a stranger yet;
The ones that cite her most
Have never passed her haunted house,
Nor simplified her ghost.
To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.