‘Dickson’: Did the Real Emily Dickinson Meet Henry David Thoreau?

In the Apple TV series Dickinsonviewers get a look into renowned poet Emily Dickinson’s life through a modern, anachronistic lens that blends the line between fact and fiction. While the series tries to recreate the 19th-century setting it calls home, it does so in a way that also feels like it could be set in 2021.

In all, the series is less concerned with portraying what happened and more concerned with capturing the tone of Dickinson’s poetry in a way that’s still fresh and new. As such, certain events, such as her relationship with philosopher Henry David Thoreau, are fabrications made for entertainment. 

‘Dickinson’ is about Emily Dickinson

Dickinson tv shows group shot of cast
The cast of ‘Dickinson’ | Apple TV+

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The series was created by Alena Smith, a lifelong fan of Dickinson’s work. However, Alena Smith wasn’t interested in capturing the real-life events that inspired the poetry but using the poetry to create a fantasized version of the embattled poet, played by Hailee Steinfeld, based loosely on the actual events of the late poet’s life.

The show makes no qualms about its late-19th century setting, but it also doesn’t try to hide its modern sentimentalities. From the character of death, played memorably by rapper Wiz Khalifa, to a soundtrack filled with classical music and Billie Eilish songs, the series provides a wholly unique experience that’s hard to compare to anything else. 

Alena Smith told Vulture that she sees this eschewed timeline as a way to show the similarities between then and now. “The whole intention of the show is to make us lose track of the difference between the present and the past,” she told the magazine.

However, the one thing that she wants to capture more than anything else is the poetry that hat inspired.

Keeping to the words

The episodes are primarily based on Alena Smith and her creative team’s interpretations of the poems. While Dickinson does write many of her most iconic poems throughout the series, the show is about so much more. Alena Smith told Vulture about their mindset going into each episode.

“It’s not that in each episode she writes a poem, but each episode uses one of her poems in order to explore a given theme,” Alena Smith said to Vulture. “She wrote so many great poems that are so evocative and imaginatively exciting that they’re sort of an inexhaustible resource.”

As such, many of the interactions, even those based on real, historical people, are not meant to be viewed through a documentary-style lens, but as a look at Dickinson’s legacy that allowed for such a creative take on what was behind each line the poet wrote.

Did Emily Dickinson really know Thoreau?

Martha Nell Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on Emily Dickinson. While not involved with the show in any way, Martha Nell Smith is taken by its interpretations of Dickinson’s life but spoke to Vulture about the liberties the show brought to convey the message, specifically regarding John Mulaney’s portrayal of Henry David Thoreau and his fictional relationship with the poet. 

“I haven’t seen any evidence that she was entertained in the Dickinson houses in the 1850s. She never met Thoreau either?” Martha Nell Smith said, elaborating on one aspect they did get right. “There were parts of [the show] that I thought were silly. But that was really great that [Thoreau’s] mother was bringing him food and all that — because that’s true.”

Dickinson is among the most unique television shows on television. While the series draws from some of its historical contexts, it operates as a creative exercise that allows them to have creative freedom and bridges the gap between the 19th century and a modern audience.