Guest post by Campbell Hannan, ’21
“This show could never have been made if there wasn’t this digital archive.”
When I posted a side-by-side comparison of George Gould (Class of 1850) and Samuel Farnsworth, the actor who plays him on the Apple TV+ show Dickinson, as the weekly installation of my Fridays with Emily feature on the Digital Collection’s Instagram page (@frostfinds), I did not anticipate the whirlwind that would follow. Dickinson has been one of my favorite TV shows since its premiere in 2019, and this Fridays with Emily series was more of an indulgence to my own fascination with the show’s interaction with the Emily Dickinson Collection than a true attempt to gain @frostfinds a wider audience from show-related content and hashtags. So, when I posted that George Gould comparison and tagged the actor, the show, and its creator, a part of me was definitely looking for some engagement from the people who make this incredible program possible. 140 likes, shares from both Samuel Farnsworth and creator Alena Smith, and a handful of DMs later, I more than fulfilled my secret wish.
On Thursday, February 18, I got the chance to sit down on Zoom with Alena Smith, the show’s creator, head writer, and show runner, to discuss her research in the Emily Dickinson Collection. I was physically vibrating with nerves, and she only had twenty minutes in the middle of a busy afternoon, but we had an engaging and eye-opening conversation about Emily, her archival presence, and the importance of allowing such an enigmatic figure to live on through her digital archive in 2021.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Alena Smith: I feel like people at Amherst and in the surrounding schools are in some ways the most special audience for this show and understand it on such a unique and specific level. I have always wanted to be able to do a screening of the show there, and maybe in a post-pandemic world, we’ll somehow make that happen, because I think it would be very fun. Obviously, we have a great relationship between the show and the Dickinson museum, and also the Harvard library, which has an important collection of Dickinson materials. Gotta spend some time in New England with this show!
Campbell Hannan: I remember reading you pitched Dickinson as a three-season arc, so you obviously did a lot of research at the outset. I would love to hear your process for figuring out the stories you wanted the show to tell.
AS: I was always interested in Emily Dickinson as a young writer, a young poet at some point myself, and I read a biography of hers, the Alfred Habegger biography, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, that just really captivated me. Especially about her coming-of-age years and her close and very complicated relationship with her family. I think specifically as an artist what I responded to so much about Dickinson is her ability to capture the infinite in the small, and this incredible paradox of a woman whose outer life was so restricted and confined, but her inner life was so wild and rich and vast.
And one of the reasons I was so excited to talk to you was because the Dickinson archive is where this show has come from.
When I use that word “archive,” I include her poems, the biographical research that there is about her, as well as the material culture of her, her poems, her life; the historical, literary, and cultural context of the 19th century Amherst, New England; where she lived and worked. All the literary theory and discourse that has come after her and the way that the myth of Emily Dickinson has found its way all the way to us in 2021. Emily, she’s really mysterious, and you can look at her poems, or pictures of her town, or just that one photograph of her that exists, and there’s always these delicious gaps and holes in the narratives, asking to be filled in.
But I really do see the show as being a translation or a re-staging, or almost like a re-collaging of the archive.
Every single piece of it really came from research. We’ve put it together in unexpected or surprising ways, as we’ve aimed to tell a story that is somehow both sort of a telling of Emily Dickinson’s life, but really a story for now about a group of characters that we can all see ourselves in. That happens to be made of basically this found material, I really found the objects in the archive, and then built the show out of them. There’s a real magic to Dickinson and the scraps and the remnants that I think touches everyone that interacts with what she left behind.
CH: I can’t imagine how fun it is to create a world out of those bits and pieces!
AS: Exactly, sometimes I think of it as being like this magical dollhouse! I guess the Homestead is the dollhouse, and the Evergreens is another dollhouse, and it’s just like, what do you find in this dollhouse? And who comes in and out? I started working on this idea in 2013, so this has been almost a decade that I’ve been enraptured with this material. It’s funny because I think people who don’t know very much about Emily Dickinson assume that the show is dispensing with facts, but the show is made out of facts, and people who know about Dickinson find such joy in it because they know those things are true.
It’s like these little nuggets and special Easter eggs for the Dickinson obsessives.
She’s really one of a kind! Who else’s life could you do this with? She just has such an oddity and specificity to her story, which again I think is marked by paradox, like the paradox of seeming boring on the outside, but being so crazy on the inside. Or being so brilliant and talented, but not being known until after you were dead. Or in some ways being sort of fundamentally unrequited, or marked by loneliness, and yet surrounded by these circles of intimates that stayed part of her life for decades, and each were, in their own ways, responsible for her legacy. The stories about her are just really, really fascinating, and she always will remain this sort of elusive absence at the center of the stories.
CH: She is such an interesting person, and also, through the show, so relatable to us. It is fun to be stuck in my bedroom on campus, less than a mile away from the bedroom she was “stuck” in!
AS: That’s so awesome! I hope that getting to watch the show in a snowy dorm room in Amherst in COVID… that’s actually ideal viewing circumstances for this show!
CH: What has your experience been like working with digital archives, rather than physical archives, for this show?
AS: This show could never have been made if there wasn’t this digital archive.
The number one bookmark on my computer is the searchable index of her poems, and I can go look for a word, and see when Emily used that word, and be able to see the poems both as text, and as the handmade part of the fascicle. so always feeling her spirit so close as I am encountering the poem. I’m always reminding my writers’ room the fascinating fact about Emily which is that she never experienced her poems in printed type, other than the one or two times that they were published, with or without her permission, while she lived. Her own experience of her poems was her own handwriting, the unfinished scraps of paper, leaving options for different words, binding them together the way that she did, or folding them in an envelope and mailing them to Sue, or some other correspondent. There’s a ghostly, haunted quality, to all of that because her physical presence is right there with you, she’s writing it on the page.
So yeah, that digital archive has been my best friend in this process.
It’s an important moment in Dickinson scholarship, that the two collections, Harvard and Amherst, which had always been kept separately, and that goes all the way back to the crazy story of Mabel and the family feud, that they became all online has allowed for the resurgence of interest in Dickinson and really awareness of the grandiosity of her project. So yeah, I love that archive. And we’ve also used for our research a blog that somebody has about Amherst that gives a lot of details about Austin and George Gould and their college class.
CH: Emily really is right there with you in the collection, especially since everything is handwritten. I’d love to hear more about how you decide to feature certain poems, especially integrating them with linear plots, despite being unsure when many of her poems were written.
AS: I definitely don’t worry about the dates, because that would make my life even harder than it is. Oddly, though, it does sometimes work out, I think that most of the poems we used in season one are actually from earlier in her life. It just happened that way. Maybe not coincidentally, because I do think Emily ages up significantly from season to season, and maybe those were closer to a younger version of herself.
The answer to this though, is really complicated, because it can go in a million different ways, because it could be that I just fell so in love with the first line of a poem that I knew I wanted to title an episode after that, or it could be that I was writing an episode without a title, about whatever, and then I had to go back into the digital archive and find a poem that fit. For example, for episode seven for season one, We Lose Because We Win, that was one where I was like, “let’s find a poem that has something to do with an election,” because it’s about an election.
But also, in that episode, we have a circus, which comes from two things, one being a diary entry that Emily wrote where she said, “the circus came through Amherst today,” the other being her poem I’ve Known a Heaven, Like a Tent, so she’s talking about circuses. So that’s just an example of how the poem that the episode is called is not always necessarily the poem that’s being addressed in the episode, or the only one.
Again, I really do think of it as a collage, and the poems are a significant piece of the collage, but they are not the whole thing.
We also quote real things that Emily said that aren’t poems, like the joke with mom about a leaf upstairs in the fireplace makes her panic, that was a real thing Emily said to make fun of her mom. A lot of her conversations with Ben Newton, those are real things that they said to each other, either in letters, or about him, or whatever. Again, I’m always trying to use these bits of the truth, and the poems are valuable to me for as well just the images they open up. Obviously, getting to go on a carriage ride with Death, she’s the one who made me see that, because she wrote a poem where that happens.
The handwriting, we worked on that with our visual effects team. We looked at a lot of different examples of her handwriting, which does change over time, we settled on a bit of a middle age version of it. The one thing I knew is, I said I don’t want it to look like bubble handwriting, that we associate with middle school girls today. There’s a sophistication to her handwriting that unexpected. We also wanted it to be legible, but I also said it doesn’t matter if it’s totally legible because we’re always going to be hearing it at the same time as we’re seeing it anyways. The most important thing was that it’s made of smoke. That it comes on, and then it fades away, and we’re really suggesting the ephemerality of thought and the presence of poetic inspiration in the creative process.
CH: Yeah, wow, you can really feel that.
AS: We call it “ghostly font” in the scripts. It’s cool how it also is like Death’s ghost horses, and in this season Emily is being haunted by this ghost, and he has a bit of “ghostly font” to him as well. I like the fact that you can just say “of course there are ghosts, this is New England in the nineteenth century!” It’s haunted! We all know that!
As a fan of Dickinson and a student of the archive, I could hardly have asked for a better conversation. Emily is a truly mysterious and fascinating figure, and it is a never-ending project riddling her out. It’s certainly been a joy to do so for @frostfinds, and it clearly has for Alena Smith to an even greater degree. Be sure to check out @frostfinds for the weekly Fridays with Emily series, as well as more great features from the Amherst College Digital Collections, and tune in on Apple TV+ for the season finale of Dickinson!
Campbell Hannan ’21 is a senior at Amherst College. She is originally from Chapel Hill, NC and is majoring in Political Science and History, writing a Political Science thesis. She has worked for the Digital Programs Department since Spring 2018.