Pet Book Post iii

I’m especially interested in the practice of common-placing which as Garvey argues, “straddled reading and writing.” In a commonplace book, pieces of other works are “recontextualized  for new use. Crucially, the reader becomes an author” (26). Garvey points out that the work of collecting together quotations from disparate sources allowed an author to “mine them in their own writing as Renaissance pedagogy urged” (26). Similarly, Blair traces the Renaissance humanist insistence on the “accumulation of past authorities” (5), through selection and compilation of quotations from a variety of texts, “designed to produce and display mastery of ancient literature and culture” (7). In both Garvey’s claim that commonplacing allows the reader to become author, and Blair’s observation that accumulating a “stock of texts” (5) in one book facilitates mastery, there is a movement from the gathering and arrangement of knowledge to the experience of power and authority. The arrangement of “past authorities” is an act of acknowledgment of those authorities and their influence, but it is also a means of taking control of a piece of text and asserting authorship.

My Pet-Book is a ‘field book, a genre which often involves gathering together data and samples not from other texts but from the ‘natural’ world. For example, Higginson’s Field-Book contains a pair of pressed flowers – the products of a mode of reading and processing the world through handling, choosing, and cutting pieces of it for preservation. This bears some resemblance to Fleming’s description of the Renaissance of mode of reading, “by cutting, printed books” (445). We know Higginson’s work is a ‘field book’ partly due to internal evidence (as well as the pressed flowers, there are detailed records of the weather and wildlife in New England over the two years) and partly because the title on the cover is Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Field-Book. However, Higginson also describes it in terms like that of the commonplace books and reference books Blair and Garvey describe: he explicitly claims he uses it as a source from which to cull material for published work. Added to this, Higginson’s entries are filled with references to and quotations from other works. Sometimes these are works of natural history such as Thomas Nutall’s Manual of the Ornithology of the United States and of Canada but more often they are works romantic poets, including Shelley, Goethe and Ludwig Tieck. Higginson’s commonplacing seems to work according to the pattern Blair and Garvey note, in which the act of arranging other pieces of text is part of an attempt to display mastery.

In particular, Higginson is anxious about the value of attachment to New England in light of the European romantic aesthetics which he frequently discusses. At one point, writing in a kind of autobiographical mode rather than the observational mode associated with the Filed-Book genre, he describes an area near Hammond’s Pond, outside Boston according to the conventions of landscape poetry. He describes the ascent, a “path leading up over steep cliffs, and precipices” to the summit, from which we discover a prospect: “There I would lie at sunset; across wood now cleared and gone, the Eastern view showed Boston.”  (30)

A little further on, he asks:

What could Germany or Scotland have more than that lake & wood & hills, Yet it is not so remarkable a region in itself; dreams, fancies and associations, made it. The pine was Shelley’s “one vast pine”, the rocks were those where Mignon’s serpents cowered, the lake was the gloomy mummelsee where the enchanted lily maidens dwell the pine woods were such as Sterling describes in his “woodland mountains” where grand ideal shapes go went by. (31)

The passage is a descendant of the humanist copia, in which the author demonstrates knowledge by repurposing a variety of quotations from disparate classical and ancient authors. Here, the act of accumulation does not straightforwardly cast Higginson as authority. The passage opens by asking what do Germany and Scotland have to offer him, in comparison to with the landscape he remembers from his youth in Massachusetts. The literary allusions, on the one hand, serve to answer that question. He views the external world of New England precisely in the poetic terms of European poets, Shelley and Goethe. Shelley’s “one vast pine” is being quoted in order to re-interpret it, as correspondent somehow to the actual pines which grew in Massachusetts when he was younger (but which are now “cleared and gone”). In this way, He asserts his authorial control; but, we might also read Higginson’s frequent acts to literary allusion and interpretation as admissions that he is not quote able to do what he attempts elsewhere – to record accurately and fully the biological facts of the region. In particular, he finds recording bird-life difficult, writing in an earlier entry: “I have tried in vain, this autumn, to see or hear that multitude of returning birds whom Nuttall sees & describes” (27). Higginson appears to claim here that his ‘field’ work, gathering information, specimens and observations from the natural world is actually directed by another text (Thomas Nuttall’s Manual), and that it is against this text that he measures his success. It is possible to see in his description of personal memory and in his re-purposing of poetry, acts of authoring in which he can more easily demonstrate mastery and authority than in his attempts to record observations.

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