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  • "Kéramos" in Harper's:The Contexts of Global Collection
  • Christa Holm Vogelius (bio)

In December of 1877, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Kéramos," a narrative poem documenting international styles and techniques of pottery manufacture, was published for the first time in Harper's New Monthly Magazine.1 Though Longfellow is rarely considered through the networks of his relatively infrequent magazine work, the Harper's edition of the poem, republished the next year in Kéramos and Other Poems (1878), demonstrates how such attention can shed light on conflicting ambitions in the poet's career and in the history of the magazine.2 Eliciting a series of gently concerned letters from the Harper's editor, and printed only a few issues before Elizabeth Corbett's satirical excoriation of international collecting in "Aunt Kerammik's Art Studies," "Kéramos" appears in the monthly at a turning point in American periodical publication.3 In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Arnoldsian notions of personal culture and cultivation were increasingly defined by an awareness of anthropological "cultures." Longfellow's artistic embrace of international modes of ceramic production shows the poet positioning himself, however tentatively, as a high cultural figure. Editorial hesitation within Harper's about this global focus demonstrates the monthly's uncertain placement in a changing periodicals market. And the humble ceramic pot becomes an emblem of the divided impulses in late-century American art collecting.

"Kéramos" locates the seemingly prosaic topic of ceramics collection within the social and business networks of publication in a way that showcases the complexity of both spheres. The printing of the poem within Harper's, in relation to other publications by the Harper and Brothers firm, reveals the publishing house's unified perspective on American ceramics collecting. Harper and Brothers publications on collection show a nationalistic bias that is reliably Anglo-American in emphasis. The consistency of this bias makes firm business sense: the presentation of "Kéramos" in Harper's serves to promote other apparently similar publications within the Harper and Brothers imprint. But the poem itself, which took inspiration from non-Western works, reveals a more [End Page 142] international aesthetic when read beyond the context of its magazine publication. "Kéramos," in fact, lies at the intersection of some of the conflicting late-nineteenth century perspectives on collection that manifested themselves through the networks of popular print.

At first glance, Harper's seems a publication perfectly consistent with what Margaret Fuller called Longfellow's "middle class" ideals.4 The magazine was one of the most widely circulated American periodicals in the second half of the nineteenth century, and its broad, middle-brow audience aligned with Longfellow's own. The editor-in-chief after 1869, Henry Mills Alden, was a man whose character and aims strikingly recall the poet's. A receptive figure whose disordered office was always open to visitors, Alden considered Harper's as a magazine "addressed to all readers of average intelligence, having for its purpose their entertainment and illumination."5 This aim toward the average American led some critics to contest that the magazine stooped toward mediocrity, a claim that also was leveled against Longfellow's popular verse. Furthermore, the magazine's position as a cultural translator of European works for an American audience (or, one could say, a mass reprinter of British texts) corresponded to Longfellow's own role of bringing foreign literatures to American readers through translation or poetic reinterpretation. Though Harper's after the Civil War increasingly commissioned works by native-born authors and prided itself in the discovery of new talent, some still criticized the magazine, as many criticized Longfellow himself, for being too European in influence.

But if Longfellow and Harper's seemed to share the same goals and apparent shortcomings, a reading of "Kéramos" in the context of its print networks demonstrates some discrepancies in their attitudes toward international artistic traditions. On Longfellow's part, "Kéramos" shows an early adoption of globalism that is clearly culturally coded. The poem describes scenes of ceramic creation in the Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Egypt, China, and Japan, dedicating as much time to the non-Western sites as to the European and marking the...


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