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  • The Temporality of Commonplaces:A Response to Meredith McGill
  • Cary Nelson (bio)

When Henry C. Morse of Wallingford, Connecticut, began to assemble his nineteenth-century commonplace book, copying poems and songs from sources he did not identify, he did not record exactly when he transcribed each full or partial text. Yet he did date the first entry, so we know he started keeping this personal poetry and song notebook on 23 November 1860. It begins as a patriotic collection but soon becomes explicitly a Civil War anthology. As Meredith McGill makes clear, thorough bibliographical and temporal bookkeeping is not the norm for common-place books. Morse's commonplace book does, however, make it altogether clear what the relevant span of time is for his compilation of relevant values—the American Civil War. It is a wartime collection, in this case of poems copied in holograph.

Equally common during the Civil War were commonplace books constructed as scrapbooks—with poems and portions of poems clipped from newspapers and glued on pages. People constructing both kinds of commonplace books—the holograph-based and the scrapbook style—often grouped poems in categories: honoring the flag, battlefield commemorations, and often values, like love, that they needed to sustain despite radical social dislocation. Of course, as McGill points out, once they established the categories ruling their vade mecums they often left space so they could continue to add to them and embellish them. As one would expect, these personal anthologies also occur in mixed holograph and clipping form, with full poems, partial poems, and other kinds of discourse assembled as personal collage.

This kind of mixed commonplace book—with holograph quotations and clipped or transcribed poems—extends into the [End Page 375] twentieth century. There I have found a number of them that include personal mementoes of various kinds, not typically with enough to reconstruct a full biography, but certainly with enough to assign a name, a place, and an occupation to the compiler. When the mementoes establish key events in a person's life and link those moments to significant public events, then historicized subject positions are apparent, along with plausible motives for assembling the collection.

The commonplace book in any case is not a fully demarcated category. The nineteenth-century diary, replete with specific dates, often has commonplace book effects, with poems and passages from poems copied out by hand or clipped from newspapers and glued in place, and some people simply kept ongoing poetry scrapbooks. During the Civil War they typically included wartime poetry, indeed were often dominated by it. When 15-year-old Rebecca Brooke of Smyrna, Pennsylvania began her diary on 24 February 1864, she used the first page for a poem called "Cavalry Song":

Draw your girths tight boys:     This morning we rideWith God and the right boys     To sanction our side,     Where the bullets spatter,     Where the shot shatters,     Where the shells scatter,Red death far and wide.

Another holograph poem—commemorating battlefield dead—is tucked into a pocket in the front cover.1

If the antebellum period includes a significant number of temporally and topically untethered commonplace books, that speaks not to some inevitable characteristic of the genre but rather to the period in which they were compiled. The faith that values are transcendent or transhistorical is constituted within time, within history, and within culture. Commonplace books assembled in periods of political and social crisis are more likely to be temporally marked, with sentiment, idealization, hope, anger, doubt, faith, and ideology brought to bear upon the events of the day. McGill quite eloquently describes the reach for transhistorical value in the commonplace book, but the need for such value can be historically grounded. There is obviously great risk in generalizing about a form of discursive production that spans several historical periods by looking only at one. Commonplace books composed during periods of relative tranquility are the ones most likely to be self-confidently "timeless" in their self-presentation, [End Page 376] though I must say I would not be surprised to find expressly abolitionist commonplace books in the antebellum period. The wide circulation of abolitionist poems in northern newspapers—often invoking fundamental moral values—certainly would...


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