The frequency and detail of representations of performance (oratorical, theatrical, social) in Dickinson’s poems reveal the depth of her intellectual engagement with public culture, even after her physical retreat from it. More than a useful metaphor for social life, the performance stage was central to public space and intercourse in mid-nineteenth-century America. In this essay, poems on sermons, the circus, mourning rituals, theater, child’s play, musical concerts, auctions, and ballet are contextualized with content from Dickinson’s letters, textbooks, biography, and related cultural histories in order to provide a more complete view of the poet within her contemporary moment. Her participation in public life was shaped as much by formal training and period practice as any personal idiosyncrasies. Dickinson shows that the theatrics of performance remain consistent, whether in the form of a sermon inviting conversion, a ritual enacting social inclusion, or a stage play soliciting applause. With polite social convention indistinguishable from either stagecraft or solicitation, the risk of interpersonal deception was balanced by the potential for artistic invention. Poems trace tensions between didactic and commercial discourses within performance culture, dramatizing the risk for any individual—audience member or performer—who dared to challenge the social power authorizing public spectacle. The poet proved an excellent student of cultural practice; lessons learned as audience member helped her realize the performative potential of written language in her own creative acts. We might read Dickinson’s social reticence as a creative response to, rather than avoidance of, the demands of a highly performative culture.


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