- Peddlers, Poems, and Local Culture:The Case of Jonathan Plummer, a "Balladmonger" in Nineteenth-Century New England
In "Yankee Gypsies," an essay first published in the 1840s, John Greenleaf Whittier describes a mode of itinerancy that characterized rural life during the first decades of the nineteenth century. According to his essay, life on the Whittier family's isolated farm in Haverhill, Massachusetts, was periodically enlivened by the appearance of a collection of types who interrupted farm routine by begging, preaching, peddling, singing, or sleeping in the barn. In an extended paragraph, Whittier details the visits of one particular character:
Twice a year, usually in the spring and autumn, we were honored with a call from Jonathan Plummer, maker of verses, pedler [sic] and poet, physician and parson,—a Yankee troubadour,—first and last minstrel of the valley of the Merrimac, encircled, to my wondering eyes, with the very nimbus of immortality. He brought with him pins, needles, tape, and cotton-thread for my mother; jack-knives, razors, and soap for my father; and verses of his own composing, coarsely printed and illustrated with rude wood-cuts, for the delectation of the younger branches of the family. No lovesick youth could drown himself, no deserted maiden bewail the [End Page 9] moon, no rogue mount the gallows, without fitting memorial in Plummer's verses. Earthquakes, fires, fevers, and shipwrecks he regarded as personal favors from Providence, furnishing the raw material of song and ballad. Welcome to us in our country seclusion as Autolycus to the clown in Winter's Tale, we listened with infinite satisfaction to his readings of his own verses, or to his ready improvisation upon some domestic incident or topic suggested by his auditors. When once fairly over the difficulties at the outset of a new subject, his rhymes flowed freely, "as if he had eaten ballads and all men's ears grew to his tunes."1
Jonathan Plummer was a real poet with some notoriety in New England at the turn of the nineteenth century, and "Yankee Gypsies" offers oblique glimpses into the culture of poetry his work reflects. This essay will examine Plummer's career and culture, but it aims at something beyond a thick description of rural New England poetry circa 1800. By analyzing this peddler-poet and his milieu, I want also to question some critical assumptions often made about "poetry" in general and nineteenth-century American poetry in particular.
Most twenty-first-century readers and critics are comfortable with the idea that "poetry" is "a" genre and that "poems" have an ultimate, textual existence that transcends the particular media, formats, or institutions in and through which they circulate at any given time. Such assumptions, I argue, make it difficult to grasp the social functions and meanings of poems—particularly broadside poems like Plummer's that took both oral and print forms—in pre-twentieth-century contexts. One critical value of Plummer's career is that it illuminates the extent to which "poetry" in the early nineteenth century was a conflicted literary domain rather than a single, coherent literary category. These questions arise: What happens to "poetry" if we think of poems as potentially cheap, disposable, timely, and local? What are the social uses and meanings of poems in such a culture? And how does an attention to genre, format, and medium [End Page 10] change our understanding of poetry in nineteenth-century culture? Plummer's career provides an opportunity, not to recover an earlier or more authentic origin for "American poetry," but instead to show how poems had surprising social and political uses in the early nineteenth century.
Whittier's essay, despite its nostalgic sheen, portrays a rural culture defined by vagrancy, homelessness, and decentralization. This depiction of the New England hinterland is at odds with the styles of colonial nostalgia that emerged during the postbellum years, when Whittier's best-selling 1866 poem Snow-bound strongly impressed a domestic ideal of rusticity upon the public imagination.2 In Snow-bound Whittier characterizes the poetic culture of his youth as a scene of school texts, oral songs, and folklore, told and retold around the fireside by an intimate collective of...