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‘Wild Nights’ goes beyond the Dickinson myths

"Wild Nights With Emily," a new look at the life and career of the poet Emily Dickinson, continues this week at the Magic Lantern. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

Most of us are familiar with the name Emily Dickinson, even if only those with a degree in literature can say precisely when she lived – which was between the years 1830 and 1886

I’ll admit that I had to look up those dates. I earned my own literature degree some 45 years ago and have forgotten most of the specifics both of the writers I studied and their respective works.

In Dickinson’s case, though, that may be for the better. Recent scholarship has revealed things about the woman referred to in William Luce’s 1976 stage play as the “Belle of Amherst” that conflict with the so-called facts – some would say myths – that Luce and others have perpetuated.

Myths that include Dickinson being perpetually depressed, about her living as a shut-in, about her pining away for someone – generally considered to be a man – she referred to, only and mysteriously, as “The Master.” 

A refutation of those “myths” serves as the basis for the film “Wild Nights With Emily,” a look at Dickinson’s life that flows in tone from the comic to the serious – and back again. Written and directed by Madeleine Olnek, the film explores Dickinson’s upbringing in Amherst, Massachusetts, and emphasizes two basic points:

One, that the person whom Dickinson loved was not a man but was instead her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson; and, two, that most of the references to “Susan” were erased, presumably by Mabel Loomis Todd, the woman who both carried on an affair with Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin – Susan Gilbert’s husband – and who served as the editor of the poet’s posthumously published works.

In interviews, Olnek has referred to the “spectrographic studies,” described in a 1998 New York Times article, that she says offer proof of the erasures of Gilbert’s given name – if not the identity of who did the erasing. And, too, Olnek refers to the full scope of Dickinson’s work, which – along with published accounts written by the poet’s niece – she insists reveals a character far more lively than the lonely spinster of Luce’s imagination.

Through Olnek we see Dickinson as a young woman, fully in love with her friend Susan Gilbert, yet bereft when Gilbert leaves to take a teaching job. When she returns, Gilbert shocks her friend with the news that she intends to marry Dickinson’s brother Austin, adding – quickly – that it’s part of a plan that will allow them to live next door to each other and thus carry on their love affair.

Olnek reveals all this in a style that plays with chronology, exploring the long-term relationship in between scenes that show Loomis Todd exploiting – and rewriting – Dickinson’s poems in an attempt to further her own literary ambitions.

The tone Olnek affects does feel, at times, a bit like a “Saturday Night Live” comedy routine – a comparison made all the more believable because of Olnek’s choice of actress to fill the title role: former SNL cast member Molly Shannon.

But while that tone certainly doesn’t fit a traditional view of Dickinson, it just might be closer to reality than we’ve always been led to believe.