My current research project, tentatively titled Original and Selected: Commonplace Books, Readers, and Poems in Nineteenth-Century America, is a study of the poetry-reading practices of American readers between the early years of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth century, as seen through the evidence of commonplace books from this period.* I examine the data from a sample of fifty or so commonplace books and discuss larger patterns of poetry reception that can be discerned in them: the rise and fall of particular poets, the immense popularity of fugitive and ephemeral verse, the persistence of poets who were perceived as especially “quotable.” I also look more closely at smaller-scale case studies, including that of four members of the same family who all kept commonplace books, with many of the same poems in common. I’m particularly interested in the tension between ideas of the commonplace book as a repository of frequently-quoted (literally “commonplace”) materials written by others, on the one hand, and the commonplace book as a unique expression of its compiler’s personality, on the other.
This project sprang from several sources: I got interested in the commonplace book format while writing my dissertation on theories of memory and early modern English poetry; towards the end of that project, I kept wanting to write about Victorian poets, and eventually wound up adding an epilogue on schoolroom poetry recitation, among other things; and then, years later, I found a trove of nineteenth-century commonplace books in a special collections library. And after that, I was obsessed.
You can follow my occasional blog posts about this project by browsing the “Book project” category. And if you want to read my less formal reflections on some of the poems I’ve found in commonplace books, check out my biweekly newsletter.
* What’s a commonplace book? According to the classic definition, it’s a scholar’s notebook for quotations and passages copied out of one’s reading, usually arranged with alphabetical subject headings or some kind of organizational scheme. The ones I’m interested in are more like what the Academy of American Poets describes: “a small notebook to record poems or fragments of poems that you come across in your reading.” A homemade poetry anthology, more or less.