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The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America

The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America

Michael C. Cohen
Series: Material Texts
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America
    Book Description:

    Poetry occupied a complex position in the social life of nineteenth-century America. While some readers found in poems a resource for aesthetic pleasure and the enjoyment of linguistic complexity, many others turned to poems for spiritual and psychic wellbeing, adapted popular musical settings of poems to spread scandal and satire, or used poems as a medium for asserting personal and family memories as well as local and national affiliations. Poetry was not only read but memorized and quoted, rewritten and parodied, collected, anthologized, edited, and exchanged.

    Michael C. Cohen here explores the multiplicity of imaginative relationships forged between poems and those who made use of them from the post-Revolutionary era to the turn of the twentieth century. Organized along a careful genealogy of ballads in the Atlantic world,The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century Americademonstrates how the circulation of texts in songs, broadsides, letters, and newsprint as well as in books, anthologies, and critical essays enabled poetry to perform its many different tasks. Considering the media and modes of reading through which people encountered and made sense of poems, Cohen traces the lines of critical interpretations and tracks the emergence and disappearance of poetic genres in American literary culture. Examining well-known works by John Greenleaf Whittier and Walt Whitman as well as popular ballads, minstrel songs, and spirituals, Cohen shows how discourses on poetry served as sites for debates over history, literary culture, citizenship, and racial identity.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9131-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. INTRODUCTION. How to Read a Nineteenth-Century Poem
    (pp. 1-16)

    The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century Americais an exploration of the lived history of literary writing in the United States, which I hope will illuminate for contemporary readers some of the many ways in which people in the past engaged with poems in their daily lives. Rather than offering a history of poetry, this book instead attempts to think through a variety of social relations that poems made possible, whether materially (as when one person transcribes and sends a poem to another, for example) or theoretically (such as the imagined history projected by a nineteenth-century genre like the...

  4. CHAPTER 1 Balladmongering and Social Life
    (pp. 17-59)

    When John Greenleaf Whittier was a boy, the routine on his family’s isolated farm was periodically interrupted and enlivened by the appearance of “Yankee gypsies,” a motley parade of beggars, peddlers, vagrants, and wanderers, who broke the monotony of farm life by stopping over to beg, preach, sell their wares, sing, or sleep in the barn. One of these gypsies, “a ‘pawky auld carle’ of a wandering Scotchman,” introduced Whittier to the songs of Burns, which would become his most important literary model: “after eating his bread and cheese and drinking his mug of cider he gave us Bonny Doon,...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Poetics of Reform
    (pp. 60-99)

    Chapter 1 concluded with the claim that in the early national period, certain genres of poetry condensed societal anxieties about circulation and public order. Particular kinds of poems were understood to have a constitutively social function, or, rather, particular kinds of poems were understood to be constitutive of sociality. That is, they engaged large audiences on diverse arrays of topics, but more important, they enabled certain concepts of community to become visible to members of the community. This relation was recursive, since people imagined such poems to participate in relations that the poems helped lay down. As we saw, these...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Contraband Songs
    (pp. 100-135)

    “I wish, dear Lissie, thee could have heard the music we had in our kitchen . . . from our boy ‘John,’” Mary Carter wrote to Elizabeth Whittier in February 1864. Carter was a Gideonite who had volunteered in 1863 to work with former slaves in Norfolk, Virginia, after the city’s surrender to the Union Army. Carter’s letters to the Whittiers detailed the daily tedium and occasional terrors of life near an army encampment, while her accounts of the refugee slaves self-consciously created an eyewitness record for her interested Massachusetts friends. Singing slaves, like those Carter carefully transcribed, appeared everywhere...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Old Ballads and New Histories
    (pp. 136-163)

    A major event in Anglo-American scholarship occurred in 1867, with the publication ofBishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, a three-volume facsimile edition of a famous piece of En glish literary lore. As students and lovers of balladry well knew, Thomas Percy had based the Reliques of Ancient En glish Poetry (1765) on a manuscript he had rescued during a visit to the Shropshire estate of his friend Humphrey Pitt in the 1750s. One morning Percy saw a chambermaid lighting the fire with some old papers, which on closer view he discovered to be “a parcel of Old Ballads,” “written about the...

  8. CHAPTER 5 The Reconstruction of American Poetry
    (pp. 164-198)

    Whitman was not the only old poet getting his due at the end of the 1870s. The occasion of Whittier’s seventieth birthday in December 1877 prompted a nationwide outpouring from fans elite and humble, black and white, male and female, young and old, who celebrated the eminent poet in communications public and private. A group of poems printed in that month’sLiterary Worldran a range of forms and styles, from the sentimentalism of Josiah Gilbert Holland’s “Ten Times Seven” (“Thou art ten gentle boys of seven, / With souls too sweet to stray from heaven”) to political addresses like...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Minstrels’ Trail
    (pp. 199-230)

    “The problem of the Twentieth Century,” W. E. B. Du Bois predicted in 1903, would be “the problem of the color line.”¹ This problem, as Du Bois presented it in the essays ofThe Souls of Black Folk, was a problem of relation across the color line and also “within the veil,” and it had come to be articulated as a problem in the de cades after emancipation. Considered discursively, slavery had operated as a disciplinary system of knowledge production, which fixed the slave within a comprehensive social grid and demanded a subject easily positionable, locatable, and absolutely transparent and...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 231-268)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 269-278)
    (pp. 279-281)