Heart-Wrenchingly Tragic and Unabashedly Gay: ‘Wild Nights With Emily’ Dramatizes Poet’s Love Life
Emma Vejcik ’22
Assistant Arts Editor
“Wild Nights With Emily,” a dramatization of the passionate and untold love life of American poetry icon Emily Dickinson, premieres in Amherst this spring at local theaters. Initially produced as a play in 1999, the film revels in Dickinson’s unacknowledged status as an infamous gay woman. Directed by Madeleine Olnek (director of “Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Fame” and “The Foxy Merkins”) and starring Molly Shannon (“Hotel Transylvania,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), “Wild Nights With Emily” is equal parts wickedly funny, heart-wrenchingly tragic and unabashedly gay.
Despite its intensely moving and visual metaphors, Emily’s poetry is not the centerpiece of the film. (Students of literature have already studied her stanzas for years.) Instead, the film is a reclamation of the story of a woman whose life and writing were warped by the heteronormative historical narrative. The film is resolute in its romantic storyline; it begins with Emily’s blossoming feelings for her future life-long partner, Susan Huntington Gilbert. Actresses Dana Melanie and Sasha Frolova reenact a pure and heartfelt young love that ends in confusion when young Susan is married off to Emily’s brother, Austin. Hope is not lost on the two lovers, however, as Susan contrives to remain with Emily for the remainder of their days in the form of neighboring sisters. The affair continues, growing more ardent as the days pass, with its intensity only matched by Emily’s fervent poetry writing (there are 1,775 preserved poems, to date).
The story of Emily Dickinson most popularly learned in America is that of a dreary recluse sheltered in her room. In stark contrast to this narrower representation, Emily’s life is portrayed as lush and filled with love. Over a third of Emily’s poems are dedicated to “Sue,” also known (via Emily) as “Susie,” “Dollie,” “a breath from Gibraltar” and “an avalanche of the Sun.” The film emphasizes their happiness and the agency with which the two lovers maneuver their conservative environments to create a life for themselves.
In keeping with 19th-century tradition, Emily’s social circle was limited mainly to her family and her few close friends. Her brother, William Austin Dickinson (played by Kevin Seal), begins a tryst with the widowed Mabel Loomis Todd (Amy Seimetz), who would become the foremost publisher and editor of Emily’s work posthumously. Meanwhile, Susan, now Susan Huntington Dickinson, cared for their three children. It is hinted that Austin bore no knowledge of his wife’s and sister’s romance, while the children, who often carried messages between the lovers’ adjacent houses, were privy to the secret. Despite these turbulent family matters, Emily and Susan’s feelings remained constant.
While most characterizations of Emily Dickinson are that of a writer content with obscurity, Emily sought the fame and prestige with which her poetic peers, Helen Hunt Jackson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, were lauded. Despite her inquiries to numerous magazines and publishing companies, clashes between the gendered preconceptions of the time and Emily’s unconventional style were enough to repel any major publication of her works. Most publishers turned away from the lesbian focus of Emily’s writing, considering her femme muse and romantic tendencies towards her to be anachronistic and distasteful. The consequences and ethics of posthumous publication are also weighed heavily in the film, as it was Mabel — who never met Emily in life — who took an eraser, and sometimes a blade, to Emily’s poems, erasing Susan’s name from the majority of them.
Emily’s life is bittersweet. The professed love of her life as well as her greatest literary accomplishments have been buried beneath the prejudices of her era. Despite the inability of those around her to understand both her queerness and the intent of her writing, Emily remained rooted in her love for Susan, her writing technique and her quirky lifestyle.
Olnek’s film is a testament both to the life of Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most acclaimed literary figures, and an investigation into the lives of those concealed by oppressive institutions continue to dominate the historical narrative. Emily Dickinson is a heroine of her own volition, with a passionate love and drive for recognition despite the obstacles placed before her. She is representative of centuries of suppressed women whose voices were muted by the established bigotry that surrounded them. Although Emily died in 1886, after 44 years of love with her partner, Susan, her love story lives on in the tales that continue to be written about her. Excavating Dickinson’s tale empowers the queer individuals of the past as well as those of today.