A Quiet Passion and Donuts and Death


Jasmine learned about a showing of A Quiet Passion, a biopic about the poet Emily Dickinson, at Salem Cinema and suggested it as something we could do. I said of course, since Dickinson was one of the writers we studied in my American lit. class this semester. At 4:30, we went to Omega Pizza, our favorite pizza place in Salem, and then caught the 5:50 shuttle downtown. When we got there, we still had about an hour until the movie so I passed the time by playing Jasmine some of my latest musical obsessions. The movie began at 7:20 and was shown in the tiny theater where we saw The True 1692.

A Quiet Passion is a visually stunning and beautifully made film. It’s cinematography is exquisite, combining the natural beauty celebrated in Dickinson’s poetry and the prim mid victorian domesticity in which she and her family lived. It was also a brilliant choice to include voice overs of her poetry. The film was a fascinating psychological portrait of this most enigmatic of American writers, showing her as a rebellious school girl, an old maid who still harbored some hopes of romance, then as a sickly recluse. Cynthia Nixon gave a compelling and nuanced performance as Emily Dickinson, managing to be both a shy, uptight, nineteenth century spinster, and a feisty, outspoken protofeminist. I could easily sympathize with the trials that Dickinson went through: her literary ambitions, health problems, and romantic frustrations.

Some of my biggest complaints with the movie are that the movie was very short on coherent story and mostly seemed to be series of vignettes. It also had a tendency to drag. But the thing which stuck in my throat was how the adulterous affair of Emily’s brother Austin is pretty much dismissed as “he’s only human” and her outraged reaction to it is treated as her needing to lighten up.  Adultery and its casual treatment and justification are things which I cannot abide. 

I had to attend the Massachusetts Poetry Festival as part of the requirements for my creative writing class and I decided to attend an event called “Donuts and Death. Jasmine and I took a taxi to the Hawthorne Hotel, where the event was held. It was called “Donuts and Death” because it focused on Emily Dickinson’s sad poetry and was held in the morning (9:30 to be exact) and donuts were served. The speaker puts these poems in the context of real life events in Dickinson’s life, her romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, one of her father’s friends. Dickinson almost married Lord late in her life but health problems and distance prevented it (marrying Lord would have meant taking a gruelling journey from Amherst to Salem). Also discussed was the divide in the Emily Dickinson scholar community between the version of her poems edited by her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and the version edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother Austen’s mistress.

Gingerbread donuts made from Emily’s own recipe (apparently she was quite the baker) were promised but were not provided. In their place were some delicious treats from a celebrated Amherst bakery. The speaker was hysterical and made the event a blast. I was inspired to go to Wicked Good Books and buy a book of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  At eleven o’clock, I was picked up by my dad; Jasmine stayed beyond to explore more of the festival. As dad and I drove away, I read from my favorite Dickinson Poem “some keep the Sabbath…”  




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