- Everyday Ideas: Socioliterary Experience Among Antebellum New Englanders
"Neighbors knowing the value an elderly man placed upon his library risk their lives to save it from a devastating fire. A young woman mourning the loss of a literary confidante inscribes ghostly verses from her via a spiritual medium. . . . Characters from a novel by James Fenimore Cooper enter the dreams of homesick Salem woman in China" (xvii). These examples, from the extraordinary range of "socioliterary" experience examined in this volume, testify to the central place of literature in the daily lives of antebellum New Englanders. The Zborays draw on a sample of 931 men and women, from a range of occupations, faiths, and age groups, from the 1820s to the outbreak of the Civil War—a period in which economic "destabilization" scattered people across a region linked not just by roads and railroads, but by paper, ink, and print. Their emphasis is on the various [End Page 281] ways in which ordinary, intensely literary folk used literature "to maintain a world of social relations" (69).
The Zborays' inductive approach involves "accumulating material, structuring and engaging it, and developing generalizations from it" (xix). They examine popular literary production in diaries and letters, scrapbooks and commonplace books, unpublished effusions, valentines, valedictions, and quilts (where the literary was literally woven into the material of everyday life). Reading matter was disseminated in letters, mailed newspapers, and bundles filled with quotes, excerpts, and clippings: a more popular form of consumption than direct purchase (72). The Zborays estimate that half of all reading was done orally, as New Englanders read aloud at home, in sewing circles, in boarding houses, and on picnics and strolls. Silent reading went on everywhere—in work places, passenger cars, and ship's cabins—leading the authors to challenge a scholarly emphasis on the bourgeois parlor which sees reading "primarily as a genteel activity" (338 n.2). Finally, literature was received collectively, by lecture audiences whose chatter and commentary framed the performances of popular speakers, and through a "homespun literary criticism," generated in "barnyard salons, sitting-room debates, and kitchen lyceums" (244).
For all its archival richness, the Zborays' inductive-taxonomic method tends to blur important social differences and class divisions. Amongst the chatter of "like-minded literati" listing books read, it jars somewhat to hear a mother writing of the death of her daughter, "an overworked mill girl," without further elaboration (18). The lack of any analysis of social class means that links between specific literary practices and social formations are obscured or elided: if commonplace books acted as "a form of social capital" for the "socially mobile," then we need some sense of how this practice worked, and what kinds of mobility it facilitated (32, 311 n.8). But these are possible directions for future research, opened up by this finely detailed "experiential history." To read this book is to sense the determining pressures and the creative possibilities of a specific cultural moment—to begin to grasp the luminous details of a culture as, in Raymond Williams's words, "a whole way of life." As the intrepid Salem voyager, Harriet Low, told her journal, in China, on August 1, 1832: "Oh tempora. O Mores. What an amalgamation" (13).