Dickinson and the Anachronism Problem
Dickinson, which just wrapped up its third and final season, is a witty and loving show, created, according to Alena Smith, to make renowned poet Emily Dickinson relatable to modern audiences. Smith has done this by writing a coyly anachronistic retelling of Emily Dickinson’s biography, interpreting and portraying the elements of Dickinson’s life in a way designed to make the poet most palatable to the present: Emily’s a lesbian! She and her friends take drugs at parties! Men — lazy, dumb, and oppressive, amirite! I’ve been grumpy about Dickinson since the beginning, not because the show is badly made or worthy of any antipathy, but simply because it has become the realization of all my nagging discomfort with anachronistic art.
Anachronism, a word meant to label an error in chronological representation, is the centerpiece of much historical adaptation. As audiences, we could spend a lot of time arguing about historical inaccuracies in movies or TV shows, but that is for the small minds who write the IMDb Goof pages; the rest of us have mostly agreed to stop caring and to enjoy the work on its own terms. As we’ve done so, artists and audiences both have come to champion anachronism as the predominant literary device through which we portray historical reproduction on screen.
Rather than seek to surround people of the past in worlds of the past, in anachronistic fiction we divinely bestow the past with the knowledge and understanding — the sensibility — of the future. We emphasize or create the audience’s relatability to the past: in Dickinson, Emily is passionate, so are we. She writes about death in an occasionally morbid way; we similarly wore black eye makeup and clothing during our formative years. Emily has horny crushes on her best friend while simultaneously being an unrecognized genius buffeted by the obstacles of life. Is that not our own status?
Even Dickinson’s critiques of Emily’s limitations are still about us (the white ladies watching this show, the white ladies raised on Ann Rinaldi and Dear America diaries): we are fortunate in the historicity of Emily Dickinson’s abolitionism, but, of course, Emily is still a white lady who has to be reminded, Alison Romanesquely, of the blindness of her privilege.
The freedom anachronism grants is certainly more fun than caring that the 2005 Pride and Prejudice adaptation calls the three youngest Bennet sisters Miss Bennet, or that human exploiter P.T. Barnum gets reconceived as a romantic dreamer and captivating entertainer in The Greatest Showman. I know that I often enjoy anachronistic storytelling: PBS’s soapy period pieces, historical romance novels where women argue for their own agency, Baz Luhrmann’s gaudy monstrosity of a Great Gatsby adaptation.
But the more anachronistic storytelling I consume, the more I’ve begun to feel as if there’s something ugly about sanding down the edges of historical reality, especially when, in the case of shows like Dickinson, historical reality — the world that enclosed actual, live, women — is modified, softened, or even erased in order to tell modern feminist parables about empowerment.
It matters to me that Emily Dickinson was a real woman, and it matters to me that she was, as a woman, subject to the same passions and emotions that we are, but also that she was, as a historical figure, bound by an environment that is not a setting. She is not a woman ahead of her time in any literal sense, whatever that phrase may mean figuratively. We don’t understand her better by placing ourselves into her world — it is not a move that benefits her — we understand ourselves better.
I’m a teacher, so I understand the seductive promise of bedazzling children into caring about works of art by bending over backward to make it relevant to them. But I’ve also learned it doesn’t really help them. Anything I say or do to cajole them into liking art at best makes them willing to try; at worst, it makes their connection to the art about me. Whether or not you like artists is going to have to be up to their works. Believing that Emily, like, really hated getting her period does not predispose your heart to stop when you read a line like “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” It’s not going to be the difference between whether you read right past “Dilapidation’s processes / Are organized Decays — ,” or whether you stop and reread until you’ve memorized the feeling of each syllable in your mouth.
Maybe getting someone to try something new is reason enough to ply the currency of relatability. I’m not convinced it works though. (Is the audience navigating to poetryfoundation.org? Cracking open a poetry anthology? Is anyone watching the show not a person of a certain age with a professional interest in letters?) If I try to tell students that a classic work of literature is sexy, rather than expand their definition of sexy, I disappoint them when they read the book and don’t find it sexy. Just the other day a student came to me frustrated that someone had promised her 1984 would be full of violence, and she is 100 pages in, desperately looking for what she understands violence to be. This kind of educational championing is marketing misconduct: we’re selling students fake goods. These students don’t have the experience or knowledge to understand a work on its own terms, and now we’ve added an expectation of connection to the world as they understand it, a connection that the work itself is not invested in supporting. This is not a strategy that leads students into thoughtful appreciation of artists’ work.
And when this strategy does work — when I do enjoy anachronistic art — my enjoyment is restricted by my solipsism. I have made myself, with all of my limitations, the confining frame for a world of experiences, ideas, and realities. The experience of enjoying art is personal, and art can and will matter to me as an individual, but engineering relatability is not the same as trusting that a connection will happen. There’s no humility or patience when engaging with art through the lens of relatability, which means that something difficult or complex can rarely be explored.
Perhaps this does not matter. It’s not as if I think Dickinson deserves any artistic censure. People should be able to consume whatever they want™, etc., forever and ever, amen. Perhaps it is hypocritical of me to dislike Dickinson when I enjoy the deliberately fictive silliness of Shakespeare in Love or the rigorously fictive tragedy of Jackie. I’m not sure. What I do know, though, is that I no longer want to work out ideas about art and literature and female agency on the backs of already disenfranchised women by fundamentally misrepresenting what their lives were like.