Discretion in the Interval: Emily Dickinson’s Musical Performances


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




Spontaneity suffused nineteenth-century American creative production to an extent now forgotten, so attentive have readers and critics been to the resulting texts and other material productions. The improvised creations of orators, clergy, musicians, and writers informed the production of works now read as fixed and canonical. Emily Dickinson, a skilled piano improviser, also improvised at her writing desk, in ways that matter for reading, reprinting, and understanding that work. Her self-preserved manuscripts function like music scores, incorporating variants that guide poetic performances she extemporaneously customized for specific audiences, often alongside or within letters. Dickinson also engaged in cultural critique of improvisation: in poems, for example, she complicated ideas of birdsong as artless or natural by writing about the communitarian songs of familiar, everyday birds instead of the exotic larks and nightingales of European poetry, and in letters she critiqued performances of simulated spontaneity in musical, religious, and political settings.