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  • Common Places:Poetry, Illocality, and Temporal Dislocation in Thoreau's A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
  • Meredith L. McGill (bio)

Commonplace books are difficult if not impossible objects for historicist literary study. While they can be (and have been) studied as reflections of the sensibility of the compiler, offering the critic a valuable record of an individual's course of reading,1 the attempt to read commonplace books in historical context only serves to accentuate the difference between literary criticism and its object. To the critic, entries in a commonplace book gain coherence and accrue significance insofar as they offer insight into the subjectivity of the copyist, while to the compiler these texts are heterogeneous, publicly available, valuable because external to the self. The critic makes sense of a commonplace book by placing its texts in context, and yet commonplacing draws its creative charge from decontextualization. The critic takes the fragments that the compiler has assembled piecemeal, intermittently, and unevenly over time, and incorporates them into a narrative that testifies both to their internal consistency and to their congruency with their times. While the historicist critic must regard the commonplace book as typical—of an era, a culture, a social position, or a literary movement—the book itself always threatens to be useless for these purposes; it is either idiosyncratic—too particular to bear the weight of historical generalization—or, still worse, generic or unremarkable. [End Page 357]

The resistance commonplace books offer to our critical paradigms suggests that they may be most valuable not for the insights they provide into past reading practices but for their ability to illuminate the limitations of our own. In this essay I turn to a commonplace book of poetry that was shared by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in order to explore aspects of some now-classic texts that have been obscured by the reading norms of late twentieth-century criticism. The temporal, national, and generic miscellaneousness of Emerson and Thoreau's commonplace book, and their untroubled circulation of poetry in partial, unidentified, and misquoted form, makes salient our own impulse to periodize, our need to make sense of literary texts within national, developmental frameworks, and our concern with originality and textual integrity. I will argue that this commonplace book is valuable both for the light it sheds on Emerson's poetic theory and for its powerful afterlife in Thoreau's first book-length narrative, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). Thoreau's Week is conventionally praised for the precision of its location in space and time and for the symbolic national resonance of its recovery of local history. However, we champion this book for its attention to a particular place only by overlooking the dislocating force of the poetic commonplaces on which much of the narrative depends. I will argue that in A Week, Thoreau uses the placelessness of the commonplace to cultivate a disjunctive, not a continuous, relation to the past. Thoreau is interested in indifference to the past as well as in the work of historical recovery; his narrative registers both the violence of New England's history and the inevitability of its erasure. This cannot be done in linear fashion. It requires the temporal disruption introduced by poetic fragments that are never fully incorporated into the narrative.

Critics' neglect of the role of poetic commonplaces in Thoreau's text stems in part from the decline of a strong historical association between poetry and travel. Not only did nineteenth-century travelers frequently take with them small volumes of poetry to read on their journeys, but many of the best-known American travel narratives rely on interpolated poems to negotiate the experience of cultural dislocation.2 Poems intervene in complex ways in these narratives, providing moments of meditative arrest, shifting present-tense narration into the alternative temporal register of literary history, and placing lyric time into relation with the unnarratable scope of natural history and the alien temporalities of native cultures. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century travel writing commonly relied on poetic conventions for describing the landscape, from classical genres such as pastoral and georgic, to more [End Page 358] contemporary locodescriptive poems such as...


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pp. 357-374
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