The Anachronistic Joy of Dickinson

Why is television using old settings to tell modern stories lately?

Hailee Steinfeld as Emily Dickinson
Apple / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

Emily Dickinson’s life, according to the show Dickinson, had a lot more gay sex and twerking than your middle-school English class would have had you believe. And, from what we now know of the reclusive poet’s life, at least half of that is true.

The Apple TV+ cult hit—now in its third and final season—retells Dickinson’s life by pairing a modern knowledge of her lifelong relationships with a modern set of anachronisms: The 19th-century residents of Amherst, Massachusetts, dance to hip-hop. They stay in for “novels and chill.” They hook up, curse, and use slang as if they were alive today.

But Dickinson’s not alone in its approach. With shows such as Bridgerton and The Great also blending the past few centuries, why is television using period settings to tell contemporary stories lately? Does the slant of that approach offer something direct storytelling can’t?

Listen to Atlantic staff writers Sophie Gilbert, Shirley Li, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss:

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sophie Gilbert: Today we’re talking about Apple TV’s Dickinson, now in its third and final season. The show is a reimagining of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson’s life in the 19th century, but it’s not a period drama or a pure biopic. I think I described it once as a “bonkers Gen Z fever dream.” It has a modern soundtrack. The dialogue is full of anachronistic 21st-century slang. Characters might say they’re “hella stoked” about the railroad coming to Amherst, or that they’re staying in for “novels and chill.” It’s an unusual show. I remember when it was first announced we were all a bit skeptical about it as one of the leads in Apple’s new slate.

Shirley Li: Yeah, I definitely tweeted something along the lines of “Mad Libs TV strikes again! [Actress] is going to star as [historical figure] in [confusing premise] on [streaming service you hadn’t heard of].”

Spencer Kornhaber: Or it was like Stefon from SNL being like: “This show has everything: Emily Dickinson played by Hailee Steinfeld … Wiz Khalifa as Death …”

Gilbert: “John Mulaney as Henry David Thoreau … Jason Mantzoukas as a bee …”

Li: “Billie Eilish and Mitski on the soundtrack …”

Kornhaber: (Laughs.) Yes, very that energy.

Gilbert: It has an atmosphere where it’s Very Online. And yet it works. And so we’re going to talk today about why it works and also about Emily Dickinson’s relationship with The Atlantic, which features in Season 3 in a fun way. But I wanted to ask you first: Are you fans of the show?

Li: I am a huge fan of using em dashes to the consternation of my editors, so I am indeed a fan of Emily Dickinson and therefore a fan of the show. I went in not sure what to expect. And then the next thing I knew, I had binged all of the screeners in one night.

Gilbert: I do think this is a show that needs to be binged. You really want to stay in its mood once you’re open to it and its characters. Because there’s not an enormous amount of plot. It’s lots of character-driven studies and poetry. Every episode is based around an Emily Dickinson poem. And Shirley, you talked last week on our Spencer podcast about how Spencer is less an accurate historical portrait of Princess Diana than a “soul study.” And that’s such a good way of describing Dickinson too. It’s less a story about Emily Dickinson than it is a kind of attempt to imagine the person who wrote these poems, reimagined within our own temporal context.

Li: The way we’ve learned about Emily Dickinson has always been kind of different from who she perhaps really was. She didn’t really fit into her society all that well, so recasting her as this millennial voice enhances that contrast. That premise is then layered with this overall capital-V Vibe, and the only thing really keeping it grounded is the painstaking detail in recreating 19th-century Amherst down to the costumes and the sets.

Gilbert: Spencer, do the show’s anachronisms and overall vibe work for you?

Kornhaber: I think it sometimes wants to create a reaction and you can see its gears of zaniness turning. While it can be a little slapstick or over-the-top in a way that really connects with me, sometimes it feels like the show is just doing something for the GIFs. Or to have a think piece written about it. It is such a modern show, and such an internet-era show. Even though it’s obviously not set in the time of the internet, it’s playing with the kind of fractured, attention-seeking mentality of content and discourse in our era.

And it’s interesting to think about that in relation to Emily Dickinson, who seemed pretty uninterested, in her life, in getting any sort of notoriety or fame. There are times when they’ll be twerking or swearing or having sex scenes in the orchard, and I feel it taking me out of it with its extremity. But in general, what is so great about it is the way it’s a collage between these different moments that apes the qualities of poetry. It’s more about leaving you with a feeling than about the story.

Gilbert: Like many, I fell in love with the poems of Emily Dickinson when I was a 12-year-old girl. And I think one of the reasons is because she just has that intensity of feeling in her poetry. And when you’re 12, you feel everything so intensely. You’re just like: Oh! Boys exist, and I don’t know any! Maybe you guys didn’t write poems when you were 12, but I did. And I feel like her poetry has this idea of like: Life is out there. I don’t have it, but I feel it.

One of the things that I wondered about the show was how it would marry Dickinson’s poetry with the reality of her life. She was born in 1830 in Amherst, and around age 36, she began staying in her room to the point where, even for her father’s funeral in 1874, she stayed in her room. They had it in the hallway downstairs, and I think she cracked the door open so she could hear it. So I’d wondered: How are you going to make a show about a woman who stayed in her room? That doesn’t sound super scintillating.

But I actually love what they’ve done with Emily, the character. I love Hailee Steinfeld’s performance. And the one thing the show really centers around is her relationship with Susan Gilbert, who married Emily’s brother, Austin. It made me more aware of how, in real life, historians are starting to understand that Emily actually did have this relationship with Susan, that it was passionate, and that it was erased from the historical record by Austin’s mistress.

Li: You say her life didn’t seem all that scintillating, but it’s actually soap-operatic!

Gilbert: It really is. She literally erased Susan’s name from Emily’s letters … And I think, despite the slapstick you mention, Spencer, Dickinson does have serious intent. The creator, Alena Smith, has talked about the show as exploring the idea of the living past. She’s mentioned the show being about the gothic experience of being a woman. Emily feels so trapped and stifled. The real-life Emily Dickinson’s father was very disapproving. There’s a quote from her letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson: “He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.”

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Gilbert: I wanted to talk about this approach of modernizing period stories because Dickinson is by no means alone. We also have recently seen Bridgerton on Netflix and The Great on Hulu. Shirley, you’ve written about both of those shows. What do you make of this trend? What is it trying to do?

Li: I think we, as a culture, have been doing a lot of retrospectives recently. We keep going back to certain pop stars like Britney Spears—reevaluating their place in our larger celebrity worship culture and whether we were unfair. And I think these shows fit into that bubble.

We want to reassess historical figures. We want to reassess our understanding of them. And this isn’t so recent that it’s a completely new genre. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette came out 15 years ago. Before that, you have movies like A Knight’s Tale, which also does a lot of anachronistic things. So these tricks have been used before. I think the reason why we’re seeing all this experimentation in the form of shows like Dickinson, The Great, and Bridgerton is we’ve had a lot of creatives who want to say something more about women and creativity and sexuality and all these really potent themes.

And I don’t want to attribute everything to 2016, but I do think that you had a lot of showrunners who started thinking about gender, politics, race, and privilege at that time. And couching those themes in a modern story sometimes doesn’t quite deliver the message. And one of the strongest messages there is how history repeats itself.

Kornhaber: Donald Trump’s election did knock everyone into feeling like we’re living in history again. Certain moments in our lives, we’re woken up to this feeling like we’re a part of this very long story. And I think we’re also interested in the idea that people who were living through history were just like us. It’s a fascinating idea, a sort of comforting idea. But it’s also a scary idea that not much has changed. The way that the world felt wasn’t that different. In Dickinson’s third season, they’re living through the Civil War, and the show draws an explicit connection between how it feels to live through that and how it feels to live through the pandemic.

Gilbert: I wanted to talk about the show’s portrayal of race, because it’s very specific. And it’s very intentional. It does a really good job of telling a story about 19th-century America that is accurate to what was happening in America at that time. It’s not just about the white characters who Emily Dickinson might have occasionally met in her living room before she went up to her bedroom and never came out. It’s also about the Black characters around her.

Li: This series tries to be really specific about its portrayal of race. And it’s different from The Great in not using color-blind casting. Dickinson very deliberately casts its white characters in history as white, and its Black characters in its history as Black, while also incorporating characters of color who were part of the historical record like the Japanese character on the show who represents an actual Japanese man who graduated from Amherst College.

And what I find fascinating about Dickinson when it tackles race is: It really wants this thread to be this authentic element compared to the rest of its heady conceptual understanding of time and modernity.

Kornhaber: Right, it’s going out of its way to give story lines to Black characters, and I think you feel the show trying to not just be about Emily Dickinson, but about America in this time period and America now. It places these characters in a time when they were thinking about race all the time. The Civil War is brewing through the first two seasons and then breaks out in the third. Characters actually do talk about slavery over the dinner table all the time.

Li: And the way they talk about the Civil War and about race is funny. The characters use modern parlance, so a lot of conversations end up in this region of where they don’t know how to talk about race.

Kornhaber: In this new season, there’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson, our Atlantic colleague from way back. He’s a kind of enlightened white woke bro. It’s sort of cringe to watch him trying to be a good white guy in the 1800s.

Li: In his meeting with Henry, the editor of an abolitionist newspaper, he spouts all of these words that he’s probably heard in his DEI classes. And at the end of it, when Henry doesn’t embrace him, he just keeps saying: “I’ll do better.”

Gilbert: That episode is one of my favorites. I think it’s an example of how the show’s tricky tonal balance actually really works. And it might not. It’s risky because you’re telling a story set against the backdrop of the Civil War, and so there’s no way to do that without really exploring what the Civil War was about. You run the risk of making it all about a bunch of rich white people mourning people who have gone off to fight. And you have this portrayal that is rich and complex and trying to be serious, but then you have this parody of Thomas Wentworth Higginson that counterbalances it all so well. You have these absurd moments of modern parlance, but you also understand that there’s a serious story beneath it. There’s a grain of truth within the craziness, right? I’m thinking about Zosia Mamet’s portrayal of Louisa May Alcott.

Li: So good.

Gilbert: “I’m just trying to get paid, you know? I’m just about that hustle.” And it’s true. Louisa May Alcott did write Little Women and compromise her artistic standards for money. Among other great guest stars, there’s John Mulaney as Henry David Thoreau in Season 1. One of my favorites from Season 2 is Timothy Simons as Frederick Law Olmsted.

Li: I really liked Billy Eichner’s take on Walt Whitman this season. He wasn’t really veering outside his usual shoutiness, but it fit what the show was trying to do with Walt Whitman.

Kornhaber: There is this tradition in the show of doing wild guest-casting for the other literary celebrities of the time, and they’re all completely bonkers. They’re the most over-the-top characters in the show other than Emily. And it reminds you: These artists in their time were just not normal. They’re truly weirdos.

Gilbert: I worry we’re uncomfortably denigrating the founders of our magazines.

Kornhaber: This did send me down to the Atlantic archives rabbit hole, and we really do have the goods on her. So props to us, though, though I guess we failed to publish her poems in her lifetime. Oops.

Gilbert: She only published 10 out of 1,800 in her lifetime. Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote about her after her death. She was one of those artists who people became just crazy about after she died. And he wrote, I think, that the passion really surprised even him, and because no one knew anything about her, she was this great mystery.

Li: The creator of the show, Alena Smith, has said she was obsessed with Emily Dickinson and spent years developing this show. I read an interview with her where she said the one question that kept knocking around her mind was: How did this privileged New England woman become this rocket ship of passion doing things with language that no one had done before or has ever done since? There’s almost no way to answer it. So then you’re just like: “Well, here’s a Billie Eilish track to try to draw what was happening in this woman’s prescient, ignited brain.”