- The Social Lives of Poems in Nineteenth-Century America by Michael C. Cohen
Michael Cohen’s fascinating and erudite new study begins with the premise that there are other things one can do with a poem besides read it. One can, for example, transcribe it, memorize it, collect it, imitate it, or ignore it altogether. Such approaches to the poem may not tell us much about its meter, metaphor, metonymy, or other formal features, but these uses do uncover a lot about what Cohen calls “the social life” of the poem, the variety of dynamic social relations that the poem spurs into existence. Tracing the social history of poems allows Cohen to examine a body of work that has been largely marginalized by academics, whose chief criteria for study is generally the nebulous category of “literary value.” By taking up the ballads, antislavery verse, war poetry, minstrel songs, and spirituals of the nineteenth century—not so much for what they mean but for the “densely complex webs of relation” that they make possible (7)—Cohen uncovers a glorious trove of Americana, rich in its detailing of lived experience.
Cohen spins out his insights in six chapters, each of which moves conceptually (rather than by author or text) and in rough chronological order across overlapping genres of American verse. Chapter 1 takes up the figure of the peddler-poet, who hawked his wares across New England at the turn of the nineteenth century. Stewards of modernization who helped to bring print literacy to rural areas, these “balladmongers” also had the aura of antiquity about them, since they often acted in the role of bard, reading aloud their verse and in this way propping up an oral culture of song. The poems themselves (detailing sickness, fires, and shipwrecks) were less important than the kinds of relations and fantasies they made possible in those who bought and listened to them. As Cohen puts it, “their meaning and value lay in their social [End Page 102] transmission, the way they retold scandals or disasters to a group gathered to hear them sung. Aesthetic distinction, formal or linguistic complexity, and the celebration of universal or national ideals are not criteria of merit because consuming (‘reading’ seems not the right word) a peddler’s poems offered other kinds of pleasure” (20).
These encounters with poems are especially significant, Cohen argues, because they took place at the same moment when ideas of “literariness” in relation to poetry were solidifying. That is to say, the cultural forces that contributed to the enshrining of poets like Alexander Pope and John Milton were also active in devaluing peddler ballads as ephemeral, cheap, and foolish. The fact that the public devoured both kinds of verse suggests that common readers were far less interested in hierarchal questions of value than were the cultural custodians of the period. Cohen thus makes a case for the importance to literary history of little-known balladmongers such as Jonathan Plummer and Thomas Shaw. Their contributions speak to popular appetites, but perhaps even more importantly, they indicate a deft awareness of the literary culture from which they were excluded. Shaw, for example, wrote over two thousand poems, only a handful of which were ever published. In his verse, he laments his meager publication record, even as he refuses to let “learnt men” define what counts as poetry (47). His ballads are thus important instruments of dissent. Because he wrote extensively while also living on the periphery of accepted literary culture, his work (like that of Plummer’s) showcases the instability of “literariness” at the very moment this category was being shored up.
Part of Cohen’s achievement in this and other chapters emerges from his prodigious ability as a researcher. Unearthing archives of neglected treasures, he tracks the exchange and movement of poems among complex social circles, across the long nineteenth century (1790–1903) in America and beyond. His work is transatlantic in the best of ways; it does not ostentatiously showcase its methodology so much as it simply carries it...