historic lithograph depicting the nineteenth-century circus

"Theatricals of Day"

Emily Dickinson and Nineteenth-Century American Popular Culture

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In her own private ways, Emily Dickinson participated in the popular entertainments of her time. On her piano, she performed popular musical numbers, many from the tradition of minstrelsy, and at theaters, she listened to famous musicians, including Jenny Lind and, likely, the Hutchinson Family Singers. In reading the Atlantic Monthly, the Springfield Republican, and Harper’s, she kept up with the roiling conflicts over slavery and took in current fiction and verse. And, she enjoyed the occasional excursion to the traveling circus and appreciated the attractions of the dime museum. Whatever her aspirations were regarding participation in a public arena, the rich world of popular culture offered Dickinson a view of both the political and social struggles of her time and the amusements of her contemporaries.

“Theatricals of Day” explores how popular culture and entertainments are seen, heard, and felt in Dickinson’s writing. In accessible prose, Sandra Runzo proposes that the presence of popular entertainment in Dickinson’s life and work opens our eyes to new dimensions of the poems, illuminating the ways in which the poet was attentive to strife and conflict, to amusement, and to play.

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