Thursday, November 27, 2008

"Thankful for What?": A Scrapbook for Thanksgiving 2008

Between the Civil War and World War II, Americans were fanatical scrapbookers, cutting and pasting their way through all of print culture—magazines, newspapers, trade cards, advertisements, greeting cards, playbills, almanacs, broadsides, booklets, brochures and the like—and archiving any and all material of interest or even potential interest. Families sat down to scrapbook together. Louisa May Alcott said she read "with a pair of scissors in my hand," and her literary brothers and sisters kept pace: Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Jack London, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein, H.D., Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Amy Lowell, Lillian Hellman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Carl Sandburg, Carl Van Vechten, and Vachel Lindsay all kept scrapbooks of various sizes, stripes and sophistication.

Of course, less celebrated Americans kept scrapbooks as well, and one of the more surprising things to learn about American scrapbooking is that it very often included poetry. Not just included, but centered around, focused on, and devoted itself to good, bad and ugly verse of all kinds. Americans sometimes maintained these personal anthologies for years, sometimes from generation to generation, sometimes working in concert with other scrapbookers. The resulting albums are fascinating artifacts from America's literary past.

Over the past several years, I've managed to collect about 100 such poetry scrapbooks, some of which are beautiful, some of which are falling apart, some of which are 200 or 300 pages long, and some of which I've been able to post online for your viewing pleasure at Poetry Scrapbooks: An Online Archive. As Thanksgiving approaches, however, I thought I'd shine an autumnal light on one poetry scrapbook in particular, a veritable cornucopia of clippings which was likely assembled during the Depression or World War II and which contains the page pictured to to the left and the two pages which follow. (Just click on the images for larger, more readable versions.)

This scrapbook takes the months of the year as its organizing rubric, perhaps borrowing that structure from the farmer's almanacs that had been a regular part of American life since the 1800s. (Think of the almanac in Elizabeth Bishop's poem "Sestina," for example.) It begins with poems about Valentine's Day, then features a page spread on March which is followed by poems about April and a short illustrated narrative in verse titled "An Easter Eggs-ploit." The section on Thanksgiving consists of seven illustrated poems spread out over the space of the three pages seen here.

Even taken out of context, these pages display many of the hallmarks of poetry scrapbooks more broadly speaking. For starters, the material included here crosses literary "brow" lines, ranging from apparently trite or sentimental popular verse to "A Tribute to the Pilgrims," written by then-Poet Laureate of England, John Masefield. Also, poems that appear to be unpolitical or not at all socially engaged oftentimes acquire a degree of social engagement by virtue of their relation to other poems: the piece by Masefield, for example—in which the settling of New England is described as "the sowing of the seed from which the crop of modern America has grown"—pulls the surrrounding poems about farming and nature (such as "Harvest Time," "Sumac," and "Flight South") into a larger discourse about U.S. history and identity. Lastly, as with many scrapbooks put together during the Depression, certain financially-oriented figures of speech such as

Flowers and sunrises, stars and rainbows,
Health and strength and friendship's ties,
Join in balancing life's budget,
For that Roll Call in the skies.

invite particular speculation about how inspirational or sentimental poetry functioned during times of economic crisis to both help people process the nature of that crisis and identify value systems other than capital by which they could orient their lives.

Scrapbooking is undoubtedly a nineteenth- and twentieth-century version of commonplace book-keeping—a literary activity in which people hand-copied passages from books into their own personal journals or ledgers. Over the years, the word "commonplace" has changed in meaning, going from a term that suggested a particular, even extraordinary value to a term that now usually means "ordinary" or even "trivial." At times, the popular verse in poetry scrapbooks—and especially Depression-era poetry scrapbooks—uncannily performs this etymological history in reverse: seizing on the ordinary and promoting it as extraordinary. The poem "Thankful for What?," for example, is a litany of thanks "just for little things" and concludes:

[Let me be thankful] For little friendly days that slip away,
With only meals and bed and work and play,
A rocking-chair and kindly firelight—
For little things let me be glad tonight.

In a sense, this poem asks for the power to be thankful for the commonplaces in life, not just in literature—for the valuable parts of living that have become, like their literary antecedents, ordinary or trivial over time. That is, in a sense, this poem wishes to extend the literacy practice of commonplacing or scrapbooking into a sort of philosophy of living in which the apparent scraps of life have unanticipated or unrecognized value. That's not a bad thing to think about this November 27 as we teeter on the edge of another depression and wonder where, oh where, the next bailout will come from.


Logan Lamech said...

Lovely and quaint, thanks for sharing.

Logan Lamech

Daniel said...

Great post. But the pictures don't link to larger versions? We can't get a very good idea of the visual impact of the scrapbook pages. Would be interested to see what some of them look like.

Mike Chasar said...

Fixed! Thanks for the note.

David L said...

Thanks for this excellent post. There is a sense, I guess, in which a poetry collection can resemble a scrapbook: the means may differ but the ends may nearly coincide.