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‘Dickinson’ on AppleTV+ Is Ending. But the Props Live On in Archives. – The New York Times

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The Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” is donating scripts, props and other artifacts — including painstaking replicas of the poet’s manuscripts — to the Emily Dickinson Museum and Harvard University.
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The Apple TV+ series “Dickinson” has won raves for its absurdist, existential take on the life of Emily Dickinson, which turns the poet into a passionate proto-feminist navigating a time as tumultuous as our own. But even its most over-the-top flights of fancy have been grounded in historical scholarship and cutting-edge literary theory, garnering it an ardent fan base among scholars.
Now, a show that emerged from the archives is returning whence it came, for — as Dickinson might have put it — all Eternity.
The series, whose three-season run will come to an end on Dec. 24, is donating dozens of costumes, period furnishings and props to the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Mass., where they will be used to flesh out the sense of her daily life at the Dickinson homestead.
And in a twist, it is donating its production archive of scripts, costume and set designs, and paper props to Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Included in the haul: the show’s painstaking re-creations of Dickinson manuscripts, which will be housed alongside more than 1,000 of the Real Thing.
The announcement is tied to Dickinson’s birthday on Friday, which will be celebrated at both places with a virtual party featuring poetry, artistic tributes and some possible enjoyment of Dickinson’s famous black cake (which figured prominently in an episode in Season 2).
“It’s a birthday present for Emily,” Alena Smith, the show’s creator, said of the donations. The show’s collection she said, is a “treasure trove of beautiful things,” which also served its subversive point as much as the up-to-the-minute soundtrack and Gen-Z dialogue.
“Everything you see in the show had to be precisely perfect for the period, so the music and the language could perform their act of rebellion against that perfection,” Smith said.
Jane Wald, the director of the museum, visited the set last spring. She thought she would pick out a few pieces. The museum ended up taking several trucks’ worth, including furniture, lighting fixtures and one of the show’s more fanciful props: the carriage ridden by Death, played by the rapper Wiz Khalifa. They will be used to furnish the house (which is closed for renovations until spring) in authentic 19th-century style, according to a pre-existing furnishing plan.
“It’s one legacy that blends into another, all in recognition of the kind of timeless power of Emily Dickinson’s poetry,” Wald said.
The donation to Harvard’s Houghton Library is the library’s first acquisition from a television show, according to Christine Jacobson, an assistant curator of modern books and manuscripts.
Jacobson first started following Smith on Twitter in 2018, after she got wind of the show when the production requested permission to reproduce a portrait owned by Harvard. They struck up a virtual friendship (bonding over a side passion for Russian literature), and last summer, when Smith asked if Houghton wanted materials from the show, she jumped.
The collection will be useful to Dickinson scholars, she said, but also to scholars of fan culture — an area where Dickinson, thanks to the show, may be catching up with the ever-expanding Jane Austen Universe.
“Anyone can watch ‘Dickinson,’ the show, to see evidence of Dickinson’s enduring cultural resonance,” she said. “But to know what the creators were thinking, what their processes were, what their influences are, you have to come to the library.”
The donation to Houghton includes plenty of items that both document and embody the show’s high-low, old-new collage aesthetic, like scrap-book-like “tone books” (which juxtapose, say, images of swooning Victorian ladies with 21st-century Brooklyn club kids) or another book illustrating the creation of the herky-jerky ersatz Victorian animation of the title sequences.
And then there are the paper items used to enact the real drama of Emily’s life: her writing.
Dickinson, who died in 1886 at age 55, published only a handful of poems in her lifetime. But each of the show’s three seasons includes an instance of publication, along with speculations about its circumstances, and how it contributed to Dickinson’s ultimate decision not to seek renown.
The Harvard donation includes reproductions of 19th-century newspapers (complete with ink smudges), like the Springfield Republican, in which Dickinson published “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” in 1866. There are also copies of The Constellation, a fictional abolitionist newspaper (based on Frederick Douglass’s paper, The North Star) that Henry, an invented African American employee of the Dickinsons, publishes surreptitiously out of their barn.
Those items have already been shown to a class on 19th-century newspapers, Jacobson said. But it’s the re-creations of Dickinson’s manuscripts — including several dozen re-creations of the hand-sewn books, known as fascicles, that her sister, Lavinia, found in a chest of drawers after her death — that may set scholarly hearts on fire.
“The Dickinson materials are so fragile that they’re hardly ever available to be looked at,” said Deidre Lynch, an English professor at Harvard who has written about book history and 19th-century literary fan culture. “When the collection arrived at Houghton, it felt especially wonderful therefore to walk into a room upstairs and see the show’s papery props spread out on a table, three-dimensional and actual size.”
“The show has been wonderfully attentive to the many forms in which writing could be encountered in 19th-century America,” she added.
For all its precision, the prop team also made adjustments. For example, at the end of Season 1, when Emily sews her first fascicle, she stitches together poems written on envelopes and oddly shaped scraps (which Dickinson did often write on, particularly later in her life). The poems in the real fascicles, which were disbound by editors, were copied out on folded stationery sheets.
“When I first saw the prop fascicles, I was blown away,” Jacobson said. “But I’m really interested in the departures, the times the show eschewed the historical record, and why.”
Smith, originally a playwright, said the idea for the show really jelled in her mind in 2015, during a visit to the museum, when she stood in the bedroom of Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia. “I just felt some kind of spirit,” she said. “Suddenly, I could access the tone of what this show wants to be.”
But it also could not have happened, she said, if Harvard and Amherst College (which also owns a large Dickinson collection, and has sometimes been at odds with Harvard over copyrights) hadn’t joined forces in 2013 to create the online Emily Dickinson Archive, which makes high-resolution images of her manuscripts freely available to anyone, anywhere.
Being able to see Dickinson’s words, as she wrote them, was crucial. “For the entire time, that has been my No. 1 bookmark,” Smith said.
In Season 2, “Dickinson” explored the effect of new communications technologies. The echoes with the current streaming revolution, Smith said, are fully intentional.
Still, when it came to the donation, Smith (who has signed a multiyear overall deal with Apple) turned down Harvard’s offer to accept digital materials, which are an increasingly common part of 21st-century archives.
For all the promise of the streaming model, there’s “something a little bit unnerving,” Smith said, about making a show that exists only in the cloud.
“One of the best things for me, about both of these donations, is that there’s something material to touch and hold,” she said.
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Hamza Chohan

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