The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America illuminates the connections between poems and critical ideas about poetic genres, and tracks the emergence and disappearance of poems and poets in American culture by examining how people encountered and made sense of poetry.
2015 | 296 pages | Cloth $55.00
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Table of Contents
Introduction. How to Read a Nineteenth-Century Poem
Chapter 1. Balladmongering and Social Life
Chapter 2. The Poetics of Reform
Chapter 3. Contraband Songs
Chapter 4. Old Ballads and New Histories
Chapter 5. The Reconstruction of American Poetry
Chapter 6. The Minstrels' Trail
How to Read a Nineteenth-Century Poem
On Not Reading Poems
The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America is 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 ballad). The next six chapters thus open up a series of arguments about the encounters between nineteenth-century people and their poems, in which "their poems" is a deliberately ambiguous possessive meant to conflate the poems people read, the poems they wrote, and the poems they used in other ways. While I try to be as precise as possible when I discuss how encounters with poems structured the experiences of much larger forms of being, I also speculate a great deal. This project partially falls within the history of reading, and reading is a speculative enterprise. I will examine many instances of readers reading poems, which I draw from different kinds of archival sources, but to introduce the problems of reading historically, I would like to begin with two scenes of people not reading poems. Nonreading, as we will see, can also be a productive enterprise, one that takes many forms, from ignoring, forgetting, and suppressing to copying, transcribing, reciting, memorizing, collecting, exchanging, and mimicking. All of these ways to not read a poem are important counterpoints to their more obvious alternative, and together they help me ask: What might a poetic history of the United States look like when it is generated from a place beyond the bounds of "reading" as we typically understand it?
My question is partly defensive, since the engagements between people and poems that I take up throughout The Social Lives of Poems often have a problematic relationship to reading. I am mostly interested in poems that have not been read in a long time; poems that, based on what I can deduce from their archival context, may never have been read at all; and poems I assume some readers might think not worth reading or, at least, and this is a key distinction, not closely. Put another way, many of the poems I consider have a vexed connection to literariness. I will respond in part by showing that debates about taste, value, and merit can be found throughout the entire period covered in this study: people in the 1790s questioned the social and literary value of broadside ballads; in the 1830s, of antislavery verse; in the 1860s, of war poetry; and in the 1880s, of minstrel songs and slave spirituals. But for now I want to look at some fictional moments in which nineteenth-century ideas of value bracket and are bracketed by nineteenth-century acts of reading poems—or, rather, not reading them.
In William Dean Howells's 1886 novel The Minister's Charge, a crucial scene in the apprenticeship of Lemuel Barker takes place over the exchange of a poem. Barker—a farm boy from rural Massachusetts with literary propensities—comes to Boston in a disastrously misguided effort to sell his poems. His money and manuscripts are stolen on his first night in town, but, with no desire to return to the misery of hardscrabble farming, he stays on to make his way in the city. After a series of scrapes and misadventures, Barker finds employment as a hotel clerk, and one evening, two of the hotel's residents, the art students Miss Swan and Miss Carver, ask him to read aloud a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. The scene begins with Mr. Berry, a law student from the Wyoming territory, coming to Barker's room.
"The young ladies sent me down to ask if you had a copy of Whittier's poems; they want to find something in it. I told 'em Longfellow would do just as well, but I couldn't seem to convince 'em. They say he didn't write the particular poem they want." . . . It appeared that it was Miss Swan who wished to see the poem; she could not remember the name of it, but she was sure she should know it if she saw it in the index. She mingled these statements with her greetings to Lemuel, and Miss Carver seemed as glad to see him. She had a little more color than usual. . . . [Miss Swan] insisted upon Lemuel's reading. "Jessie says you read beautifully." . . . At heart he was proud of his reading, and he ended by taking the book. When he had finished the two girls sighed. "Isn't it beautiful, Jessie?" said Miss Swan. "Beautiful!" answered her friend. Berry yawned. "Well, I don't see much difference between that and a poem of Longfellow's. Why wouldn't Longfellow have done just as well? Honestly, now! Why isn't one poem just as good as another, for all practical purposes?"This is a poetry "reading" in multiple senses, since Barker "is proud of his reading" in that he knows and understands Whittier's poems and also that he knows he can recite those poems beautifully. This reading (that is, the scene and my interpretation of it) depends on two related tensions: between the materiality of Barker's book (his "copy of Whittier's poems" with its helpful index) and the affective transports his reading enables (the girls' sighs, Berry's yawn) and between the senses of intimacy and unfamiliarity the poem engenders—Miss Swan "could not remember the name of [the poem], but she was sure she should know it if she saw it." This complex "reading" creates a situation that allows Howells to "read" the relations made visible in the shared act of reading. The characters' responses index a range of social positions: the girls' sighs comically contrast with Berry's yawn, a difference that maps the distance between the sentiment of feminine New England and the hardy, if uncouth, Western territories. With so much in play around this unnamed poem, however, it may be easy to overlook that the poem is, in fact, unnamed. Indeed, the passage is ambivalent about Berry's only apparently obtuse question: why isn't one poem just as good as another? The novel never quotes from or identifies the poem, and even if the women declare it "beautiful," they cannot remember its title, which, for "the practical purposes" of the plot, is irrelevant. What matters is the scene of recitation and exchange; one poem would seem just as good as another, for any might serve the pretext of bringing together a mixed company in a private space (this is the closest thing to a sex scene in Howells's novels). Thus, the novel seems tacitly to endorse Berry's position, that the difference between Longfellow and Whittier is less important than what they share, a place of distinction in late nineteenth-century letters.
But the scene would look much different if they were reading Whitman, and so despite what Berry says, the use of Whittier in The Minister's Charge is anything but accidental. Both Barker and Whittier were farm boys who made good. Like Barker, Whittier was renowned locally in his youth for writing morally serious poetry. Unlike Barker, of course, Whittier became one of the most famous and beloved poets of the nineteenth century, known first as a zealous abolitionist and reform advocate, then later as a nostalgic chronicler of the legends and lost worlds of old New England. The passage from the novel intrigues me because its use of the poem evacuates the poem of content, making it a cipher to facilitate what looks like a moment of pure exchange. At first, it seems that Whittier's name (which is not Longfellow's, a difference that matters, pace Berry) organizes the scene. But then it becomes clear that even if the poem is "by Whittier," it is no longer "his poem" since it generates readings, like the company's sighs and yawns or Barker's beautiful recitation, which transform it from a literary text into a social relation. The poem acquires a social life because it creates social life, and the intimate reading of the poem seemingly requires no concern for the poem itself.
Or not. The Minister's Charge is concerned with the dissolution of moral authority in postbellum America, which Howells tracks across a range of institutions, from the family, to the ministry, to literature, art, and culture. In fact, the novel may be critiquing the cultural investment of such authority in poetry, rather than mocking any perceived decline in poetry's literary value at the end of the century (a story often told as the "twilight of the poets"). For the scene I describe is not the only instance of missed reading (and misreading) in this novel, which begins just after Barker has recited his verses to the Rev. and Mrs. Sewell while they are vacationing near his home in the country. The Reverend's "passion for saying pleasant things to people" leads him to give Barker false praise, thus kicking the plot into motion. "You knew the poetry was bad," Mrs. Sewell reproaches him. "I could tell you were dishonest," she continues, but Barker "pinned his faith to every syllable." Blessed with a boundless capacity for self-justification—he is "faithfuller and busier in [his parish duties] than he might have been if he had not laid so much stress upon duties of all sorts, and so little upon beliefs"—Rev. Sewell concludes that "it requires no end of [profuse syllables] to make the worse appear the better reason to a poet who reads his own verses to you" (3, 5). Sewell's commitment to social forms therefore determines his misreading of Barker's reading. These poems (which we also never read) "were not without ideas of a didactic and satirical sort, but they seemed so wanting in literary art beyond a mechanical facility of versification" that Sewell fails to realize just how serious Barker's literary ambitions are (6). The nonalignment of social and literary forms in the reading and misreading of poems constitutes a serious failure in The Minister's Charge. There are consequences if you get it wrong.
In this sense, Howells's accounts of missed readings make interesting companions to the better-known example of Emmeline Grangerford's unthinking verse writing in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Barker's "mechanical facility of versification" makes his poems unreadable if not wholly unread. Emmeline's verses, like Lemuel's (and Whittier's), also seem unreadable—and, like theirs, literally cannot be read in this novel, with one major exception. Yet the lure of aesthetic contempt that Twain dangles before us belies just how compulsively creative verses can be when they go unread. Huck, of course, has a fraught relationship with books and reading, and the Grangerfords' literary culture famously mystifies him. As Huck explains, their parlor displays "a big family Bible, full of pictures . . . Pilgrim's Progress, about a man that left his family; it didn't say why . . . [and] Friendship's Offering, full of stuff and poetry; but I didn't read the poetry." Huck's nonreading of these books leads him to the family's "crayons," "which one of the daughters which was dead made her own self when she was only fifteen years old." While the books leave Huck feeling secure, Emmeline's pictures give him the "fan-tods," and they drive him finally to her scrapbook.
This young girl kept a scrap book when she was alive, and used to paste obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering in it out of the Presbyterian Observer, and write poetry after them out of her own head. It was very good poetry. . . . Buck said she could rattle off poetry like nothing. She didn't ever have to stop to think. He said she would slap down a line, and if she couldn't find anything to rhyme with it she would just scratch it out and slap down another one, and go ahead. She warn't particular, she could write about anything you choose to give her to write about, just so it was sadful. Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her "tribute" before he was cold. She called them tributes. The neighbors said it was the doctor first, then Emmeline, then the undertaker—the undertaker never got in ahead of Emmeline but once, and then she hung fire on a rhyme for the dead person's name, which was Whistler. She warn't ever the same, after that; she never complained, but she kind of pined away and did not live long. . . . Poor Emmeline made poetry about all the dead people when she was alive, and it didn't seem right that there warn't nobody to make some about her, now she was gone; so I tried to sweat out a verse or two myself, but I couldn't make it go, somehow.Even though Huck appreciates her verses, this episode (the most caustic piece of satire in the novel) could be read as a death-knell for nineteenth-century poetry. Like her books, Emmeline is full of "stuff and poetry," which comes "out of her own head" yet never demands her "to stop to think" as she slaps down lines and then scratches them out in a process that "warn't particular" because it attends only to the materiality of rhyme, just as Huck attends only to the materiality of the books on the parlor table, looking in but hilariously not reading them. The ironclad association between death and poetry proves fatal for Emmeline, who pines away after hanging fire on a failed rhyme, a joke that would be cruel if her creative process were not so utterly de-animated as to make her seem already dead long before. At the very least, the heavily embodied, nearly embalmed work of Emmeline's poetics lacks any classical sense of inspiration—her poems breathe death, not life. Yet if verse "tributes" mark death even when they do not also produce it, then Emmeline's death is incomplete, for "there warn't nobody to make some about her, now she was gone." This "didn't seem right," so Huck tries to "sweat out a verse or two" himself, but "can't make it go, somehow."
Somehow. In these scenes, poems are everywhere and yet nowhere, everywhere because they are nowhere—like Emmeline, whose death puts her on display throughout the house in the relics that attest to a presence made possible by dying. The missing poems structure social relations (private conversations, public tributes) between men and women, individuals and institutions, and the living and the dead, yet they are so generic as to have no identity and need none. That said, I hope some readers will have noticed that my quotation elides Emmeline's most famous tribute, her "Ode to Steven Dowling Bots, Dec'd," emphatically delivered in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which for so many readers has condensed all that they think was awful about nineteenth-century verse ("comically mawkish" in the words of one recent account, which finds nothing else worth saying about it). Although I yearn to know more about those poems Huck did not read, and that poem he could not sweat out, I too have little to say about the poem Twain allows him and us to read. I love nineteenth-century "stuff and poetry," but I have often found myself reading, writing, and talking around nineteenth-century poems, with much to say about everything except them.
To some extent, this book investigates why. A preliminary conclusion is that nineteenth-century poems are often most interesting for the ways nineteenth-century people did or did not read them and the ways they did or did not sweat them out. That is, this book details how poems facilitated actions, like reading, writing, reciting, copying, inscribing, scissoring, exchanging, or circulating, that positioned people within densely complex webs of relation. These webs could be communal (Chapters 1, 2, and 5), political (Chapters 2, 3, and 4), historical (Chapters 4 and 5), or racial (Chapters 3, 4, and 6). As every chapter demonstrates, these webs were both intellectual and affective, linking readers with their poems but also with themselves, with each other, with the dead, with authors, with the past, and with various forms of imagined community—a term original to nineteenth-century poetics and not twentieth-century political theory (as Chapter 4 explains). I cannot reach these worlds of lived experience by reading poems in the way I normally would, using the protocols of close reading, since close reading emphasizes the careful analysis of formal, complex uses of language, while producing and valuing interpretation above all else. A large majority of nineteenth-century poems seem unable to hold up to the rigors of this kind of relation. Part of my aim in this book is to recapture some of the ways poems were meaningful outside of a model based on literary analysis; these alternative modes of making meaning can be difficult to see when interpretation is the goal. The relations that made nineteenth-century poems meaningful for nineteenth-century readers therefore require different readings from us, and The Social Lives of Poems will demonstrate how a contemporary critical account of poetry might engage with and integrate historical readings of poems.
On Reading Poems
Let me now introduce one such scene of historical reading. "For a long time it has been a cherished purpose of mine, stranger though I am, to write you," explained the Civil War veteran N. G. Awtell in an 1873 letter to Whittier. Chapter 5 will work through several dozen of these epistolary encounters between Whittier and his readers. Awtell's letter is unusually descriptive, however, and makes a worthy introduction to a scene of reading as it looked in the nineteenth century. Renewing an intention to establish in fact a relationship long cherished in fancy, Awtell explained to Whittier,
That purpose was recalled last night, on my return from the evening service, by finding in the hands of my eldest son, two small volumes of blue and gold, in which he seemed to be intensely interested. The volumes are somewhat soiled, and they are pencil-marked on many a page. Long years ago they were a gift to me from my father-in-law. . . . Those volumes were an inspiration to me in the "moral warfare" which ushered in the Great Conflict which resulted in the accomplishment of some of the stirring prophecies which are found in them; and they were my companions through all the bloody struggle. What a troop of recollections come thronging into my mind as I look upon those volumes! The bidding adieu to the dear ones at home, the rush across Penn. in open cars, the toilsome marches under the broiling sun, or through the long dark nights, the weary days of waiting and watching, floundering in the mud, and snow, and rain, the storm of battle, and all the grim and ghastly scenes of war. How at times the burning words read in those volumes have fired my soul! Read in many a quiet nook, in Maryland, and on Virginia's sacred soil, and under the magnolias and Palmettos of South Carolina; read by bivouac fires in the ears of many of my noble comrades, who reddened that southern soil with their life blood; and in the presence of dusky forms, whose souls caught their inspiration; read too in "the smoking hell of battle," and on the hospital's tiresome couch! Surely all these recollections are a sufficient apology for intruding upon your attention. I owe you a debt of gratitude for these volumes. So oft did I commune with them before the war, that their author was like a personal friend to me; and now he is to me as a faithful comrade who has stood by my side, and shared my tent, and with me felt the battle's fiery breath, and has been true in defeat and in victory.Like the notebooks crafted with painstaking care by the peddler Thomas Shaw, which I consider in Chapter 1, or like the collaborative books of the antislavery community that I examine in Chapter 2, the blue and gold volumes (likely an edition of Whittier's Poetical Works published by Ticknor and Fields in 1857) that Awtell discovered in his son's hands one night condense a whole system of social relations in their soiled and pencil-marked pages. Such smudges and marks poignantly archive encounters with the poems over time, in which the physical connections between hand, pencil, and book mark out the psychic and moral connections that the letter elaborates at greater length. Seeing the books in his son's intensely interested grip, Awtell recalls the multigenerational ties of family that passed reformism from his father-in-law to him and then again from him to his son. The books then trace his history in the war, bringing forth a "troop of recollections" that march with him back across the wartime landscape (like Union soldiers, the volumes are in blue), from his home in Rhode Island, through Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and down into South Carolina. Memories of reading Whittier's poems link experiences of "the weary days of waiting and watching . . . and all the grim and ghastly scenes of war" to the literary tropes of warfare ("the smoking hell of battle") and the American landscape ("Virginia's sacred soil," "the magnolias and Palmettos of South Carolina"). Poems "read by bivouac fires in the ears of many of my noble comrades" transfer to bodies that later "reddened that southern soil with their life blood." These deeply embedded memories and associations in turn bind Awtell to Whittier, a stranger and yet "like a personal friend to me."
Awtell records the bond between the material volumes he possessed and the emotional values they possessed for him: the "debt of gratitude" he owes Whittier is, I think, more than merely a metaphor. The poems are not abstracted texts—like Barker, he never specifies which poems he read, nor does he assess their literary qualities or even what he thinks of them as poetry. Instead, Awtell relates to the books through the attachments they foster and the personal, familial, poetic, imaginative, and historical memories they record. Therefore, if his account cannot be characterized as a critical reading of Whittier's poems, Whittier's poems are valuable to him (as they are to Barker and company) precisely because they do not require such a reading. In place of a critical posture in which the poem becomes a piece of language that demands interpretation, Whittier's volumes prompt a familiar and familial relation in which the poems stand in for a whole host of intimacies.
The Social Lives of Poems focuses on engagements such as these. I work across an extended nineteenth century (from the 1790s to 1903), examining how people used poems, how they read them, and how their readings—what they read, how they read, and what they thought about what and how they read—can themselves be read to recapture otherwise evanescent traces of the past. To "use" a poem, in this project, includes a broader range of functions than poems are usually imagined to have. As a critical term, "use" helps me link the material worlds of poems and poetic genres with their textuality and language, in order to build a history of literariness and genre from a wide array of engagements with poems, of which reading is one option among many. Poems long occupied a complex position in the history of social life and sociality, I argue, and their roles in creating lived and imagined relations among people require an outlook that includes but is not limited to reading. While some readers found in poems a resource for critical interpretation, literary and aesthetic pleasure, and the enjoyment of linguistic complexity, many more turned to poems for spiritual and psychic well-being; adopted popular song tunes to spread rumor, scandal, satire, and news; or used poems as a medium for personal and family memories, as well as local and national affiliations, as the following chapters demonstrate. While people sometimes testified directly to these kinds of intimate associations with their poems in letters or diaries, for example, I also read the history of use out of a diverse set of practices that include acts of quoting, reciting, memorizing, rewriting, parodying, reading collectively, reading aloud, exchanging, scrapbooking, cataloging, editing, anthologizing, and transcribing poems.
Therefore, throughout this book, I suspend the assumption that poems are meant to be read. This is not an argument for distant or surface reading, for uncritical or reparative reading. I will closely read and interpret many poems, and I will closely read many different readings of poems, which I take from various kinds of archives. But my goal in opening up the material and social histories of poems is not to fold that context back in to my interpretation of the poem. Instead, I want as much as possible to take my cue as a reader from the practices of nineteenth-century readers. As we have already seen, things happen when people read poems (even when they don't "read" them), and it is not always clear what those things are, nor is it always clear what reading a poem means. But is also not clear that reading a poem is necessarily the proper way to use it. This last point questions a belief that is so basic to critical practice as to seem hardly critical at all: namely, reading is what you do with poems. In fact, the twentieth-century history of lyricization, provocatively theorized by Virginia Jackson, could be an extended elaboration of critics' longstanding assumption that poems want to be read. Lacking a reader, they supply a "speaker," who "reads" (that is, recites) the poem in a fictive temporality, always now again. Yet the ambiguous "they" of my last sentence demonstrates the ambiguity of lyric reading: as Jackson demonstrates, critical readings supply the speaker; poems do not. Or, as Paul de Man put it more outrageously, "No lyric can be read lyrically nor can the object of a lyrical reading be itself a lyric"—interpretation is always mystified, because the action is identical to its object, so that interpretation creates what it claims to uncover. "Reading," in this critical sense, does not require a historical reader; indeed, critical reading may never require any reader. It does not matter if no one (including, notoriously, the author) has ever found the meaning that my reading discovers in a poem; as the condition of their very possibility, critical or lyric readings must supplant historical reading. Interpretation is the "fallacious lyrical reading of the unintelligible," according to de Man, but "true 'mourning'"—by which I think he meant noninterpretation—"is less deluded. The most it can do is to allow for non-comprehension." Much of what the following chapters describe will fit into these spaces of noncomprehension, where misreadings, missed readings, and everything in between offer evidence of the "historical modes of language power" toward which de Man's essay finally gestures.
Reading, then, is difficult to pin down. After all, "reading" is a pliant word form, sliding between verb and noun and shifting from action to subject to object. A short list of meanings includes perusing, studying, scanning, interpreting, analyzing, reciting, a recitation, an interpretation, an evaluation, a sense, or a piece of information. This set indicates that "reading a poem" might involve seeing, hearing, and speaking, as well as a range of relations from objective (as when I "take a reading" from an instrument like a thermometer) to personal (as when I give you "my reading" of an ambiguous situation). But if it is difficult to locate reading conceptually, it is even harder to find it historically. Reading has mostly been an invisible and ephemeral process, and no reader has ever left behind an account of his or her engagement with a book that can be taken as simple evidence, let alone aggregated into the sort of data (sales figures, signature counts, print runs, pricing) familiar to adjacent fields like descriptive bibliography, the historiography of literacy, and book history. Whether taking a wide-angle approach to the social, cultural, and political contexts of books and reading or focusing narrowly on specific case studies that illuminate different mechanisms of the book trade, ways of teaching reading and writing, or modes of consuming texts, these critical disciplines have said little about reading as an intimate or personal practice. Indeed, efforts to construct deep frameworks for understanding the conditions of reading have often been presented as antithetical to any consideration of the opinions or responses of individual readers, which always contain irreducibly idiosyncratic elements. The "ordinary reader" is the one invisible to history; because so few readers have ever left a mark, those who leave behind traces of their reading are, by definition, no longer representative. Histories of reading always note the problems of evidence with which their projects must grapple. The archive of reading is limited and also open-ended—limited to individual responses that may or may not characterize broader opinion, while simultaneously spread across very different types of records. But perhaps because of these challenges, scholars have been inventive and imaginative in uncovering reading's histories, which, like nineteenth-century poems, are everywhere and nowhere at once.
Being everywhere and nowhere at once is the condition of the open secret, and poetry is the open secret of American literature: so much of it, so popular, so unread, so seemingly unreadable. If I continually anticipate—defensively—a complaint about lavishing attention on work so obviously marginal and justly forgotten (marginal and forgotten in ways that cannot be recuperated by "reading against the grain"), I do so in part because open secrets disturb what is better left unsaid or unread. For much of the twentieth century, nineteenth-century poetry was not part of American literature. Canonical accounts of American literary history, stretching from the work of George Santayana and Van Wyck Brooks in the 1910s to the "New Americanists" of the 1980s, excised American poetry (versions of Whitman, Dickinson, and Melville excepted), for complex institutional and ideological as well as aesthetic reasons, leaving behind a literary history that considered poetry and prose two separate traditions. The clean separation of poetry and prose in the study of American literature may seem normal now but would have been baffling in the nineteenth century, when most authors wrote in every genre; poems appeared in newspapers, novels, and other prosaic formats; and readers were promiscuous in their tastes. In the past twenty years, however, there has been a surge of interest in nineteenth-century American poetry. This surge was galvanized by recovery projects in feminist and African American literary scholarship, and it has accelerated since the publication, in the 1990s, of major anthologies edited by John Hollander, Cheryl Walker, Joan Sherman, and Paula Bennett. Even if nineteenth-century American poetry is not yet, and possibly never will be, a field (its asymmetry with Victorian British poetry is structural and dates to the nineteenth century itself), it is no longer possible to read it in terms of lack or impoverishment. Nineteenth-century American poetry is large; it contains multitudes.
Having said that, though, I want to make a final point about how contemporary practices of reading poetry sometimes obscure our understanding of its past. The word "poetry" will appear relatively infrequently in the following pages. I am far more interested in nineteenth-century poems than I am in nineteenth-century poetry, for "nineteenth-century poetry" is an invention of the twentieth century. This jejune point (all periods are conceived retrospectively) has a twist, for "poetry" is a term with almost no purchase on the subjects of this book, because in the nineteenth century, poetry is not a genre. Poems have operative functions for nineteenth-century readers and writers, but poetry is a retroprojection. Of course, I do not mean that the nineteenth century had no concept of "poetry" as something distinct from other forms of writing. John Stuart Mill's essay "Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties" (1859) is only the most famous English-language example of a much longer history of thought on the question "what is poetry?" My point is that "poetry" refers to an abstraction—something both immaterial and impossible to localize in any poem or even any genre. While all genres are abstractions, they have historical value if they exist in reflexive relation to their own myriad specific instances. This is not true for "poetry" in the nineteenth century, because that abstraction has no meaningful affiliation with any nineteenth-century object. Nineteenth-century poems did have clear, legible relations to specific genres, formats, media, modes of circulation, and forms of discourse and address, and nineteenth-century readers knew how to read these relations in ways that twentieth-century readers did not. For example, magazine verse, which has often seemed hopelessly abstract and ahistorical—that is, generic—took on meaning through its location in the magazine. The format and the medium supplied historical force to the poems, but this force cannot be isolated or read out of any poem's words alone. The Social Lives of Poems will have much to say about poems that are "generic" in this forceful sense and how such forces were generated, understood, and deployed by readers and writers.
The bifurcation of poetry and prose therefore has worked in tandem with two related processes: the abstraction of "poetry" into a synonym for pure expressiveness (this is what Mill means when he says that "eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard" or what Jackson identifies as "lyricization") and a concomitant elevation of "poetry" into a standard for absolute literariness. This tripartite process of abstraction, isolation, and elevation has meant that "poetry" is something few poems, and certainly few early American poems, can easily be. As Mill's essay demonstrates, it is not yet possible to talk about both "poetry" and a poem, except in terms of the latter's relative failure to realize the former. The idea that "poetry" can mean something both abstract and also specific (the idea that there can be such a thing as nineteenth-century poetry, or African American poetry, or American poetry) comes later, at the turn of the twentieth century, and the formation of this latter-day nongenre is an event this book only glimpses at its very end.
So, when I say that I will consider poems more often than I consider poetry, I mean two things: I will look carefully at (that is, read) poems that almost certainly fail any test of literariness. But I will also consider poems outside the abstraction of "poetry." Poetry was not a nineteenth-century genre; instead, in the nineteenth century, there were many poetic genres that operated hierarchically but also in dynamic tension with each other. Poems were not all equal, but their relative values and functions could change over time. One of the major through-lines of The Social Lives of Poems will be to track the movements of certain genres—specifically, ballads and their ancillary forms, including minstrel songs, contraband songs, and spirituals—as they moved up and down the hierarchy of genres in nineteenth-century America. The genres on which I focus were never clearly disarticulated from each other, and a term like "ballad" was ascribed to widely varying types of poems. As we shall see, much of the social charge that ballads carried was generated by the ambiguities of their uncertain relations to other kinds of poems above and below them in the hierarchy: ballads could be both priceless and worthless, the vestiges of ancient culture and racial authenticity (which I discuss in Chapters 4 and 6), vehicles of divisive politics (Chapter 2) or national affiliation (Chapter 3), highly aestheticized forms of value and sentiment (Chapter 5), or the cheap medium of scandal and schlock peddled by figures like Jonathan Plummer and Thomas Shaw (whom I take up in Chapter 1). These peddler-poets helped to constitute legitimate poetic culture through their marginality, the worthlessness and scurrility of their ballads defining, through their exclusion, the parameters of literariness and public decorum.
If the shifts and transformations of ballads in the nineteenth century form one through-line in this book, the other through-line is the career of John Greenleaf Whittier. Whittier is not so much the book's focus as he is a witness to the histories that it tells. Whittier was one of the most popular nineteenth-century writers, and his popular readership was central to his authorial persona—that is, he was understood as America's most well-loved and widely read author, intimately familiar to readers from very different geographic, social, economic, and cultural places. The earlier examples of Barker and Awtell attest to some of the ways readers made Whittier's popular persona contribute to their own investments in his poems. His popularity was a postbellum phenomenon, and it marked a dramatic shift from Whittier's earlier identification with radical abolition. Chapters 2 and 5 will examine this transformation; as we shall see, many readers attributed Whittier's power as an author (of everything from antislavery invective to regionalist nostalgia) to his facility with ballads. Whittier's work therefore provides convenient points of access through which to view various phases in the social history of poems during America's long nineteenth century.
A roadmap of the project is as follows: the first three chapters track the circulation of ballads and other, related kinds of poems in three antebellum places: the local culture of New England circa 1800 (Chapter 1), the antislavery movement in Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s (Chapter 2), and the (imagined) borderlands between North and South and black and white during the Civil War (Chapter 3). In each case, the exchanges and encounters between poems and people encode competing politics of affiliation, variously grounded in notions of community, friendship, and race. The second half of the book observes the institutionalization of such politics in the postbellum decades: in the production of a scholarly "popular ballad," collected into authoritative anthologies and enshrined as the authenticating figure of racial, national, and cultural identity (Chapter 4); in the creation of regionalist nostalgia through aesthetic ballads and other sanctioned poetic forms (Chapter 5); and in the consolidation of racial difference through the performances of traveling choirs such as the Fisk Singers and other, less legitimate groups from the 1870s to the 1890s (Chapter 6). Every chapter teases out the connections between poems as material objects (written on sheets, printed in broadsides and books, or sung over the air) and poems as literary texts. Every chapter negotiates the relations between poems and songs and readers and audiences, in which readers, amateur poets, and published authors share equal footing. And every chapter plays through an interlinked set of tensions—between legitimate and illegitimate, authentic and fake, authorized and illicit, good and bad, black and white, local and national, material and abstract—that the circulation of poems made manifest to the social life of nineteenth-century America.