Poetry and The Evidence of Nineteenth Century Reading

Morrogh, Mary, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Stauffer, Andrew, Department of English, University of Virginia

In this thesis I explore the importance of the physical book as it pertains to the history of reading. In Chapter 1 I outline the historical and critical contexts for the study of readers of the past. I argue that a vital avenue for the study of the history of reading is the exploration of the physical traces readers leave behind. For this work I am primarily interested in books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I discuss this parameter and others in this first chapter. In the ensuing three chapters I visit three examples of books with reader interventions, and discuss how they support, nuance, and sometimes even complicate our understanding of how the texts were consumed.

The first example is a copy of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden with a letter written to a man named Thomas Price in 1884 from an old friend named “James R.” that turned up fascinating historical context. Written nineteen years after the pair read the text together as Confederate soldiers, the letter indicates the circumstances in which James decided to purchase this Dutch translation of the text, even though neither of them spoke Dutch. The second example is a copy of Shakespeare’s collected works published in 1853, with an intriguing nonverbal annotation on the endpapers and extensive marginalia on several of the plays. I examined everything from the reception history of the marked plays in the 19th century to the lives of the names inscribed within to help us understand the reception history of Shakespeare and the individual history of this particular volume. This will all be considered in the context of a school book for a woman, which has a variety of implications on the purpose of the marginalia. Finally, I will study a copy of Snow Bound by John Greenleaf Whittier published in 1866 in which there was once a small flower. At only 52 pages, I thought it odd that a book so small and with such an ironic title should be used to press a flower. In my biographical research on the previous owners I uncovered a potential reason for this intervention that tests the assumptions of why people insert botanicals into their books.

In an appendix to these chapters I discuss a large-scale effort to identify and catalog examples like these: a project called Book Traces at the University of Virginia, for which I have been the statistical research assistant for two years. I present the statistics gathered from this inquiry with a focus on not only what they show us, but how they illuminate the work that still must be done to gain a more complete picture of the ways people encountered texts in the past.

My approach in analyzing the books on an anecdotal level is primarily descriptive by nature. In evaluating the historical value of the reader interventions, my study verges at times on biography. I am at all times searching not only for traces of the past reader in these books, but for traces of the books in the readers’ lives. As I have examined these books it has occurred to me repeatedly that I am studying the way others studied literature in the past, and in doing so, am repeating what they did, adding another layer to the time capsule of the book. For this reason at times my own reactions to my discoveries enter the scene in order to demonstrate the ways that these reader interventions are affecting my reading contemporarily. This illustrates what stands to be gained in the reading experience from an incorporation of these deep dives into individual reception history.

MA (Master of Arts)
bibliography, biography, nineteenth century reading, nineteenth century, poetry, marginalia, libraries
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