- “Theatricals of Day”: Emily Dickinson and Nineteenth-Century Popular Culture by Sandra Runzo
My own interest in Sandra Runzo’s work was first piqued when reading in Cristanne Miller’s Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012) a tantalizing footnote (217 n1) and a citation (269) for a book manuscript by Runzo concerning Dickinson and popular culture. The following year, Runzo’s fascinating essay “Popular Culture” was included in Emily Dickinson in Context, edited by Eliza Richards. Theatricals of Day has arrived, and it is indeed the book for which many of us have been waiting.
Each chapter encounters and enlivens a broad area of the spectrum of popular culture with Emily Dickinson as a central participant. Runzo asks in her introduction, “[W]hat are the ‘Theatricals’ of Dickinson’s day? Played out within both public settings and private spaces, they are the turbulent narratives regarding human rights and human identity, the variations of captivity that stole or constrained people’s lives, and a civil war, all of which entranced yet rived the nation” (3).
Runzo commences her study by giving the reader a fair and familiar warning: “Studying some of the day’s popular theatricals, especially those forms that Dickinson herself was most drawn to or participated in, does not explain her, although recognizing her enjoyment in and engagement with a number of different forms of popular culture helps us to see her differently and, I think, more fully. Dickinson’s alignment with the tropes and narratives of popular culture turns a light on provocative shimmering blends of fact and fiction, revealing and dramatizing what is difficult to see, know, and tell” (15–16). [End Page 48]
Knowing and telling or more precisely not telling was something Dickinson alluded to a number of times (L 190, 261). With that trope as a guide, Runzo’s historical study consistently uses, as its home base, edges or shadows of popular culture, where ambiguities of race, captivity, and otherness were both explored and exploited. Ultimately Runzo escorts us outward into the public spaces where the commodification and commercialization of these identities, by way of the platform of theatrical display, captivated the public in the form of the circus, menagerie, the minstrel show, and the gothic novel. Runzo shines a full and penetrating light on these and other issues, contextualizing the faceted range of historic scholarship while seamlessly introducing Dickinson, her poems, and her personae into the enlarging picture as an eager and willing participant.
Chapter One, “Emily Dickinson’s American Museum,” explores Dickinson’s curiosity about the “extraordinary exhibits” associated with the Dime Museum, the Menagerie, and the circus, entertainments that enticed her and the world at large with their fantastical attractions of otherness. For Dickinson, the circus, the “show” (Fr1270) contained signifiers of near religious engagement, animated by creatures of wonder – materializations of the “Holy Ghosts in Cages!” “A transport one cannot contain” (33/Fr212).
Dickinson certainly identified with the whole world of human and animal creatures both high and low that these entertainments offered, and her poetry absorbed it. As Runzo says, “As one gazes into the cosmorama of the poems one views scenes of the majestic and the marginal, of the ecstatic and the agonized” (18). In positioning Dickinson’s poetic voice within the phenomena of these theatrical entertainments, Runzo concludes that “If, through her poems, she evokes incongruity, if she is unrestrained by the boundaries of the body, if she eludes classification, if she becomes a riddle, then she is not so different from the extraordinary exhibits of the nineteenth-century dime museum” (26).
In her chapter on Dickinson and popular music, Sandra Runzo pays particular interest to the music of the famous Hutchinson Family Singers as both a social / political as well as musical model for Dickinson’s verse (55). Dickinson collected five popular songs associated with the Hutchinsons. Four of them are in her bound volume of published sheet music (in the Dickinson Collection in the Houghton Library, Harvard University).1
The Hutchinsons were...