Top 10 Things Dickinson Got Factually Right & Wrong



Top 10 Things Dickinson Got Factually Right & Wrong

VOICE OVER: Emily - WatchMojo WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
There are a fair deal of things Dickinson got right and wrong.
One of America’s most famous poets finally has her day. Welcome to MsMojo and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the top 10 things “Dickinson” got right and wrong.

For this list, we’re looking at the things AppleTV+ got right and wrong in their show about famed American poet, Emily Dickinson.

#10: The Woman in White

The show’s first episode pays tribute to Emily’s later life by dressing her entirely in white for its duration. While, like in the show, she wore a range of different colors in her formative years, by the late 1860s she became known locally as “the woman in white.” By some accounts she was completely obsessed with the color and, after becoming a shut-in, the few times she was seen outside she was dressed in white. In fact, the only piece of clothing we have of Emily’s today is a white, cotton dress. No one knows why she did this, with some connecting it with grief over her father’s death, and others making different theories, but it’s true, nonetheless.

#9: Unconventional Poetry

Despite writing roughly 1800 poems, almost none of them saw publication during her lifetime, and the few that did were anonymous. When they finally began to be published,they were heavily edited to fit into the “conventional” poetic standards of the time. Some of her most famous poems had verses changed or even entire stanzas omitted. This was because of her unconventional style, like her extensive use of dashes and lack of titles, and this unconventionality is shown in the show every time we see and hear snippets of Emily’s poems as she composes them.

#8: Ben Newton

The young attorney was a real person who did come and work for Emily’s father for two years in Amherst, and was even referred to by Emily as her “mentor”. But, unlike the show, the two of them likely never fell in love or had any kind of romantic relationship, despite him being an important influence on her and a supporter of her poetic endeavors. In real life, too, he died from tuberculosis, but this did not happen while under Emily’s care at the Dickinson homestead. He instead got married in 1851 and died far away; Emily didn’t even find out about it until a few days after it happened.

#7: Cigarettes

In the very first episode, we see Emily share a cigarette with her friend and wannabe suitor George after she again gets into an argument with her mother. But this is very unlikely to have happened at the time of the 1850s. While people smoked tobacco for centuries, with the practice dating back over a thousand years to South America, mass-produced cigarettes didn’t become popular until 1881. Before this, smoking cigarettes was possible but didn’t become widespread or common until the 1900s, long after Emily Dickinson’s death. So, while technically plausible that George could have an early cigarette, the likelihood of any of the characters smoking is very slim.

#6: Cross-Dressing

The second episode follows Emily’s desire to attend a lecture on volcanoes at the university, a lecture she is expressly forbidden from attending because she’s a girl. She and Sue have the bright idea to dress up in men’s clothes and sneak into the lecture anyway, with a helping hand from George, only to be caught and kicked out. As funny as these scenes are, and as important as the fight for women’s right to education still is today, this unfortunately never happened. Emily Dickinson did not cross-dress and sneak into college lectures, though she did learn about volcanoes by legitimately attending Amherst Academy.

#5: Abolitionism

When the Amherst Shakespeare Club decides to read “Othello” at Emily’s insistence, it serves as an enlightening look at contemporary America. Here, Emily is vocally anti-slavery, as is her brother, and she repeatedly implores her father to try advocate for abolitionism as the Civil War looms. This is most likely true to life. We don’t have much direct evidence, but what we do have suggests that Emily was very familiar with the abolitionist movement and she was close friends with local abolitionists like Thomas Higginson. And it’s also true that “Othello” was one of her favorite Shakespeare plays and characters.

#4: Her Personality

The show is modernized in a variety of ways, especially the music and the dialogue, which is all done to show the audience just how fresh and forward-thinking the real Emily Dickinson was. While it could have gone the way of a very serious portrayal of New England at the time, Dickinson scholars have expressed their support for Alena Smith’s creation. They’re glad that Emily’s reputation as the “cat lady” of American poetry is being challenged, with a brighter interpretation of the poet replacing the idea that she was a Puritanical recluse.

#3: Edward Dickinson

The strange relationship Emily has with her father, Edward, on-screen is very similar to what we know of them in real life. Edward both disapproved of her making any attempts to get her poetry published and was also, going by what Emily wrote in letters, very frightening, often having “dark moods”; she even wrote that she was afraid of making mistakes around him. At the same time, he did want his daughters as well as his son to receive a good education, and really did build her a conservatory to grow flowers in.

#2: Henry David Thoreau

Not content with changing common ideas about one famous American writer, “Dickinson” also took a stab at Henry David Thoreau, influential transcendentalist, now played by legendary comedian John Mulaney. In the show, Emily goes to get his help to save a tree the new railroad threatens to destroy, and finds him to be a selfish hypocrite whose mother does his laundry. The idea that Thoreau was a hypocrite is relatively new among his critics, and very few people believe it – he remains popular. But Emily Dickinson never actually met Thoreau, making the episode lose even more water.

#1: Her Sexuality

“Dickinson” has finally vindicated scholars around the world, who have been arguing that Emily and her best friend Susan Huntington Gilbert were in love for decades. While it’s still tricky to apply modern labels to people who lived a long time ago, there is a very strong case to be made for Emily and Sue, mostly made up of the letters they exchanged, and poetry Emily wrote about her sister-in-law. Susan really was the love of Emily’s life and her closest confidante, even writing Emily’s obituary and being sister Lavinia’s first choice of who should edit Emily’s poems for posthumous publication.