Emily Dickinson's Music Book and the Musical Life of an American Poet

by George Boziwick

After years of studying piano as a young woman in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson had her large collection of published sheet music bound into a keepsake book, a common practice at the time. Now part of the Dickinson Collection in the Houghton Library of Harvard University, this bound volume of 107 pieces of published sheet music includes the poet’s favorite instrumental piano music and vocal music, ranging from theme and variation sets to vernacular music, which was also enjoyed by the family’s servants.

Offering a fresh historical perspective on a poetic voice that has become canonical in American literature, this original study brings this artifact to life, documenting Dickinson’s early years of musical study through the time her music was bound in the early 1850s, which tellingly coincided with the writing of her first poems. Using Dickinson’s letters and poems alongside newspapers and other archival sources, George Boziwick explores the various composers, arrangers, and publishers behind this music and Dickinson’s attendance at performances, presenting new insights into the multiple layers of meaning that music held for her.

Cover design by Kristina Kachele Design, llc
Cover art: William Morris pattern. Matthew Carrigan / Alamy Stock Photo.





Chapter 1
“I attend singing school”

Chapter 2
School Days
“You know what it is to ‘love school’”

Chapter 3
The Avid Music Collector
“Home as a Waltz”

Chapter 4
The Age of the Virtuosi
“I never heard sounds before”

Chapter 5
Home Music-Making
“Sounds From Home”

Chapter 6
Edward Dickinson
“Hail to the Chief”

Chapter 7
Music-Making and the Dickinson Family Correspondence
“Vinnie is at the instrument”

Chapter 8
The American Political Struggle
“Decades of Arrogance”

Chapter 9
Fiddle Tunes, Minstrel Music, and Musical Borrowing
“No Black bid bates His Banjo — ”

Chapter 10
The Poetry Takes Hold
“ — and the noise in the Pool, at Noon — excels my Piano”

Chapter 11
Hymns and Ballads: More Musical Borrowings
“Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.”

Chapter 12
The White Dress
“Ossian’s Serenade”

“Musicians wrestle everywhere”

Appendix A
Contents Listing of Emily Dickinson’s Bound Volume of Sheet Music




  • rights
    Copyright © 2022 by University of Massachusetts Press

    The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Associate Editor, Theodora Ward. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1958 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1986 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1924, 1932, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952 by Alfred Leete Hampson. Copyright © 1960 by Mary L. Hampson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  • publisher
    University of Massachusetts Press
  • publisher place
    Amherst & Boston