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  • Novel Commonplaces:Quotation, Epigraphs, and Literary Authority
  • Claudia Stokes (bio)

Until the middle of the nineteenth century, commonplacing was a habitual practice of middle-class US households, undertaken by children and adults alike to record notable quotations and to cultivate their literary taste. Though it declined in popularity with the rise of the scrapbook in the midcentury, commonplacing was for centuries a standard feature of both educational curricula and domestic literacy, with generations of students instructed in the intellectual and moral benefits of selecting and copying passages culled from reading. Commonplace books offer a wealth of vital information about US literary culture, for they not only illuminate eighteenth-and nineteenth-century reading practices by allowing us to discern what US readers valued in various genres, but they also help to document what middle-class and well-to-do Americans were reading. In showing that many Americans were attentively reading and excerpting the works of such less remembered figures as Caroline Sheridan Norton, Charles A. Sprague, and Edward Young, these books may even be said to reveal an alternative canon of nineteenth-century national reading preferences. In addition, commonplace books also affirm the particular status of the quotation, which was so prized that readers dedicated much of their time to the selection and transcription of select passages. According to Barbara Benedict, these hand-picked excerpts revealed both the reader's taste in as well as his or her eye for a well-chosen phrase or a keen observation, and as [End Page 201] evinced by the frequency with which commonplacers exchanged and commented on each other's selections, readers could readily expect to be judged for their choice of quotations (51).

Despite the significant evidentiary value of commonplace books, they have attracted little scholarly attention in part because, until the advent of digitized archives, the contents of these books remained largely untraceable, for compilers seldom identified the source of the passages they inscribed. Twentieth-century critical and scholarly tenets also contributed to their neglect: once critics widely accepted the New Critical regard for innovation as the distinguishing hallmark of literary achievement, commonplace books came to seem retrograde and even antithetical to literary change. Their diligent inscriptions of moralistic verse and sermons preserve literary tradition and ensure its uninterrupted continuity, thereby seemingly impeding the literary experimentation esteemed by modern critics. However, as I will argue, commonplacing and its primary constituent, the quotation, occupied a more complicated role in the rapidly changing literary world of the midcentury. Though commonplacing typically promoted literary preservation and traditionalism, it nonetheless helped to legitimate disputed new genres and atypical authors who would otherwise struggle to find their way into print. The practice of quoting older literary material, which the commonplace book promoted and imbued with prestige, had long aided ambitious upstarts eager for a public audience, but by the midcentury, it became especially useful to women writers and writers of color, who cannily took advantage of the commonplacing tradition, using quotations to affirm their fidelity to literary convention and to demonstrate their qualifications to enter the literary public sphere. The invocation of older literary material thus enabled the rise of new forms and new authors, who used these quotations to demonstrate their knowledge of and commitment to the literary past, and, in so doing, affirmed their fitness for a public audience. In this way, the rise of the new was contingent on its explicit homage to the old.

1. The History of Commonplacing

Commonplacing was originally conceived as a memory aid designed to help readers retain noteworthy passages. From the very outset it functioned as a bulwark against loss, enabling the preservation of texts against the inevitable erosion of memory.1 The term "commonplace" was originally coined by Aristotle, who, in promoting the study of wise sayings, dubbed these apothegms topoi koinos, literally "common places," a term echoed in Cicero's phrase loci communes, "common places," which, if studied, could occupy [End Page 202] important central space in the mind. As Margreta de Grazia observes, the quotation mark first developed specifically to mark a noteworthy passage regarded as a commonplace, collectively owned and universally agreed upon (287-89). Although the term commonplace suggests community possession of this...


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pp. 201-221
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