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Letters to the World: Popular Manuscript Circulation in the Nineteenth Century and Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Verse by Thomas Lawrence Long

Intimate Readerships

Among the many things about Emily Dickinson that my undergraduate students in American literature survey courses find confounding, the most common is this: Why would Emily (my students are usually on a first-name basis with authors) write nearly 1800 poems, solicit the literary advice of the likes of eminent editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and spend considerable time and effort in various drafts of poems, but not publish most of them in print? Literary scholars have also puzzled over how few poems Emily Dickinson published in print during her lifetime, despite a prodigious body of work that she labored over—not only as a poet but as a copyist and binder who put more than 800 fair-copy poems into forty hand-sewn fascicles—and despite her keen interest in the literary advice of others. One explanation may lie in the fact that, even with the expansion of literacy and the proliferation of print publication in ever more affordable books and periodicals, the first half of the nineteenth century also witnessed the expansion of a robust popular-culture circulation of verse in manuscript.[1]

Scholars have suggested several credible explanations for Dickinson’s resistance to print publication. What I offer here is intended instead to illuminate part of the cultural background to her manuscript practices, focusing on manuscript forms such as hand-made penmanship practice fascicles, personal commonplace books of verses including songs and ballads, friendship books, and autograph albums. These ephemeral witnesses to nineteenth-century American handwriting practices also testify to vernacular forms of reading culture. They show how, as print publication expanded in the nineteenth century, published exemplars and publication norms were sometimes reproduced in manuscript—when beloved poems were copied out by hand, or printed lay-outs imitated. But manuscript books also offered a vibrant alternative to print publication and its publicity: a more intimate model of readership that incorporated products of the hand and built on private relationships. In all cases, reading what had been written in a manuscript book, which often signaled an alliance or flagged a memory, was an act that reconstituted the self or reactivated a personal connection. Demonstrating varied organizational principles, thematic interests, and calligraphic and page designs, nineteenth-century American manuscript books move Dickinson’s fascicles closer to the mainstream of her contemporaries’ popular culture.


Dickinson’s Great Recusal

The question my students and many others ask—“Why didn’t Dickinson seek publication in print?”—assumes that women in nineteenth-century America had the same cultural ambitions that preoccupy us. But literary celebrity may not have had the same meaning for them as it does for most of us today. Certainly Dickinson’s biography, some of her letters, and some of her poems suggest a personality who dreaded publicity. In her third letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson famously disavowed a desire to see literary fame in print: “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase, and the approbation of my dog would for- sake me then. My barefoot rank is better” (fig. 1).[2]

Figure 1.  Emily Dickinson, page four of autograph letter signed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 7 June 1862 (L 265, 2:408-09). Emily Dickinson Collection, 1859-1907, MS Am. 1093. Boston Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, Boston, MA. Online at the Emily Dickinson Archive.

Introducing excerpts from her letters in the Atlantic Monthly after Dickinson’s death, Higginson characterized her posthumous celebrity as “only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity” (444). However, in recent decades, scholars have tended to view Dickinson’s refusal of print publication less as quirky personal eccentricity and more as a deliberate literary decision. As Karen Dandurand observed in 1985, “The danger of success, not of failure, deterred her from publishing” (Dandurand). Similarly, in 1992, Betsy Erkkila suggested that Dickinson’s “ambivalence about publication was not so much a response to the lack of women writers—there were hundreds—as it was a response to domestic ideology and the kind of ‘feminine’ writing she would be forced to produce if she entered the literary marketplace” (57). Likewise, in that same year, Martha Nell Smith asserted that Dickinson, in possessing a “room of her own,” enjoyed the luxury of thematic and formal experimentation outside the control of primarily male editors: “The fact that she did not have to profit from her literary performances enabled Dickinson to establish a place all her own in the artistic world, a territory which otherwise would have been ‘off limits’ and which is ‘off limits’ to any intellectual copyright” (Smith, Rowing in Eden, 60-61). Smith would later observe that manuscript publication provided Dickinson with an opportunity to experiment with an “aural and visual” poetics that would have been foreclosed on the printed page (Smith, “Dickinson’s Manuscripts,” 118). In 1995, Robert Scholnick explored Dickinson’s relationship (both familial and authorial) with the ground-breaking journal Round Table, edited by two of her cousins Charles and Henry Sweetser, who were concerned about the corrosive effect of literary popularity on literary quality. The Sweetsers “criticiz[ed] the moralism, sentimentality, and deadening metrical conventions of American poetry” (168), which echoes Erkkila’s assertions about Dickinson’s aversion to writing for popular tastes and commercial success.

Women’s cultural reticence in New England may have endured even into our own time. In her recent memoir of growing up, moving away, and returning to Concord, Massachusetts, Sarah Payne Stuart observes:

Having a feeling of accomplishment was important for a lady, as long as what she accomplished was ephemeral, like running a booth at a church fair or finishing the spring cleaning of a summer cottage. When I asked my mother what her friend “the poetess” had published, she loftily answered, “She would never publish her poems. It would ruin them.” (24)

The feminine norms alluded to here also bear on Dickinson, who can be understood as performing within a complex set of conventions, which often defies our expectations and values. She was both conventional and unconventional in surprising ways.

The scholarly consensus on Dickinson’s infrequent appearance in print is that it was not the product of editorial rejection or her timidity but an autonomous recusal from the claims of print publication and publicity.[3] In choosing an alternative writing career, Dickinson was also choosing ephemeral forms of poetic production that are best understood as a variety of self-publication.


Manuscript Publication in the Nineteenth Century

Instead of focusing on Dickinson’s complicated relationship to print publication, we might do better to see her fascicles and epistolary poems as forms of self-publication. Paradoxically, in an era of expanding literacy and greater access to printed materials due to cheaper paper costs and mechanized printing processes, Dickinson resorted to an ancient technology of publication: the manuscript.

The phenomenon was not unprecedented. Scribal publication in England in the seventeenth century, as documented by Harold Love, offered two great advantages: the deferral of the final version of a work, thus allowing for continued revision and for customization for specific readers; and the more active sense of the author’s presence that is available in manuscript—the implied proximity of the author’s body through the traces of her hand. Scribal publication was popular in seventeenth-century New England for additional reasons, as David D. Hall has observed: “The decision to prefer scribal (handwritten) publication was easy to make, for the expense of making a few copies was minimal. Another advantage was avoiding all aspects of the commerce in texts and the piracies this commerce could entail” (14). Hall also argues that certain forms of writing, like poetry, were deemed particularly suitable for manuscript publication.[4]

While the persistence of scribal transmission in the early modern period might be explained in part by class distinctions, royal prerogatives, and costs, the popular forms of manuscript circulation employed by nineteenth-century Americans—what Todd S. Gernes has called the “culture of ephemera”—were created by common people “in response to technological developments in mechanical reproduction, particularly the ephemeralization of communications technology and the proliferation of cheap print media” (“Recasting,” 109).

Figure 2. Emily Dickinson, draft of “It came his turn to beg” (Fr1519A), on torn telegraph blank addressed in ink to “Vinnie Dickenson” [sic], Amherst Manuscript #194, Emily Dickinson Collection, 1840-2005, Amherst College, Amherst MA. Online at the Emily Dickinson Archive.

In her book about the relationship between the materiality of Dickinson’s poems—the paper on which they are written—and her poetics, Alexandra Socarides situates Dickinson’s writing in the context of nineteenth-century homemade booklets and verse assemblages. Similarly, I understand Dickinson’s writing through the popular manuscript practices of the time. Instead of reading Dickinson’s fascicles and epistolary verses as eccentric, we might more profitably view them as falling squarely within a popular culture of literacy practices and literary publication. Particularly relevant to Dickinson’s own manuscript practices are three kinds of ephemera: the hand-sewn penmanship practice fascicle, the commonplace book, and the friendship album.

This three-fold taxonomy is, admittedly, somewhat problematic, because of the ways these formats shift and merge. A penmanship practice copybook might serve as the foundation for a scrapbook; over time, a commonplace book can become a friendship album, or vice versa; and a verse scrapbook might also include original manuscript verses. As Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracin Zboray note, “the very moment these documents shift form or genre is often ripe with significance, for it offers a glimpse into the structural relationship between writing as a practice and lived experience” (103). Penmanship practice booklets constitute a functional category, an artifact of antebellum literacy practices, but one in which the use of verse parallels the explicit cultural work of poetry represented in other media, including print. The commonplace book and the friendship album are the most clearly established genres, complete with traditions, exemplars, and a meta-critical literature to explain their purposes and methods. Admitting the fluidity of these three genres, we can accept that they are nonetheless helpful categories that represent distinct uses of poetry in manuscript for nineteenth-century readers and writers: a demonstration of skill, with a concomitant didactic value (penmanship fascicles), a personal assemblage of favorite verses (the commonplace book), and a way to maintain a matrix of social and cultural relationships (the friendship album).


Handwriting as Presence

For people in the nineteenth century, the holograph had a power that the printed text lacked: the physical trace of the absent writer. As Tamara Plakins Thornton observes, penmanship instruction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries stressed two related themes: first, writing instruction as a form of character development or self-fashioning and, second, penmanship as self-representation, figuratively a form of presence. Whereas in earlier times, penmanship had been a marker of social class, the blurring of class distinctions in the Early Republic brought gendered differences to the fore, so that the disciplines of penmanship differed for men (who were supposed to write with a powerful sweeping muscular motion for use in the world of work) and for women (who were expected to produce fine, dainty handwriting for use in the domestic sphere). Particularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men would have learned a variety of hands to employ in different tasks. To practice these hands, it was common to create hand-sewn fascicles using cheap disposable paper, and verses provided a useful exemplar from which to practice.

Figure 3. Penmanship copy-book of Tristram Little of Newburyport MA, including a poem and epitaph about George Washington. MS S-636. Massachusetts Historical Society.

Dickinson’s own penmanship has not gone unnoted. Martha Nell Smith has remarked on Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s characterization of Dickinson’s penmanship as “peculiar” (Smith, “Dickinson’s Manuscripts,” 113). I wonder, given Thornton’s explication of gendered penmanship, if the “peculiarity” in Dickinson’s handwriting might have consisted in her writing, literally, more like a man than like a woman. Thornton points out that in the eighteenth century, “‘[l]adies’ hands’ were diminutive and ornamental, like the ladies themselves, lacking both power and utility” (38), which did not change demonstrably in the nineteenth century:

Once again, boys and girls mastered the basics in common, but thereafter they ideally pursued separate penmanship curricula. Boys learned a fast and legible script, the mercantile running hand, suitable for business and public affairs, while girls advanced to the reduced-sized and painstakingly shaded ladies’ epistolary, appropriate for private correspondence. (56)

Dickinson’s widely spaced letters and words with their bold ovals seem the antithesis of the fine ladies’ hands imitative of decorative engraving. Even in the fair copies of the fascicles, Dickinson seems to write boldly in the “White Heat” (Fr401) (figs. 4-5).


Figures 4 and 5. Emily Dickinson, “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?” (Fr401A). Amherst Manuscript #162, Emily Dickinson Collection, 1840-2005 (MA.00167), Amherst College, Amherst MA, and “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?” (Fr401C). Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fascicles,  Emily Dickinson poems, 1858-1872 (MS Am 1118.3), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Both online at the Emily Dickinson Archive.

In addition to self-fashioning, penmanship also re-presents the self in a far more physical and reliable way than printed text. Since the late eighteenth century there had been considerable anxiety about the duplicity of printed text, which Thornton illustrates in a letter from printer Benjamin Franklin to lexicographer Noah Webster in 1789, complaining not only about the quality of printing but also the way in which standardizing of type fonts further concealed the author. As Thornton notes:

Where print was defined by dissociation from the hand, script took its definition from its relation to the hand. Where print was impersonal, script emanated from the person in as intimate a manner as possible. Where print was opaque, even duplicitous, script was transparent and sincere. In the new legal standard for handwriting identification, the somatic aesthetics of calligraphical design, and the system of multiple hands, handwriting functioned as a medium of the self. (41)

Those who wrote in friendship albums were sometimes keenly aware that their holographs and autographs bestowed a kind of presence that overcame the distance of time and space. For example, the friendship album of Maria H. Sackett Bates of Fairfield County, Connecticut, includes the inscription “Let friendship’s hand write strongly on this blank page the name of John S Bates—August 26 1840” (Bates, M.). Similarly, the autograph album of Catherine Macdonald Bates includes the inscription “You have requested, my dear Cassie, that I should write in your ‘album’, and as in future years, the handwriting of an old friend may be of some interest to you. . . Annie Husted June 15th, 1860” (Bates, C.) (fig. 6).

Figure 6. Page from Catherine McDonald Bates’ autograph album. Gen MSS Vol 333. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.


Figures 7 and 8. Pages from Ellen Rice’s autograph album. Gen MSS File 256. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

And in Ellen Rice’s autograph album we find, “As you pass this Album from hand to hand, and the affectionate heart to engrave his ardent wish, or breathe the moral strain which may in future years awaken the tender recollection of days gone by, or recall the image of ‘the absent, or the buried friend’ . . . H. Shepard Amherst July 30th 1824” (Rice) (figs. 7-8). These notions of presence and absence, of self-fashioning and self-representation, are also central concerns of both Dickinson’s poetry and the scholarly discourse about it. It is as if Dickinson’s handwriting, in the context of nineteenth-century penmanship norms and values, both echoes and anticipates the poetry she produces with it.


Penmanship Fascicles

The survival of early nineteenth-century hand-sewn penmanship fascicles suggests a widespread cultural practice of the handmade book in the antebellum period, and their inclusion of verses (in fragmentary lines or in whole stanzas) points to an intimate association between handwriting and poetry. Schoolbooks supplied verses, and verses provided an appropriate medium for both practicing handwriting and building character: the poetry was often didactic and its language offered a variety of letterforms. For example, George Fisher’s The Instructor: or, American Young Man’s Best Companion (1786) provided models of letterforms (round hand, Italian hand, “flourishing alphabet,” and German text) to be copied, as well as single-line sententiae and rhymed couplets, like “‘Xemplar Lines are Writing’s surest Law, / Precepts may lead us, but Examples draw” (56). Here I look at three examples of hand-sewn fascicles that demonstrate the mutually reinforcing authorities of poetry and penmanship.

Figure 9. Pages from the Spencer fascicle, 1826-27. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

The Spencer fascicle from East Greenwich (dated 1826-1827), is fashioned from three sheets of 7” x 11 ½” paper (folded and hand-stitched) and includes penmanship exercises in Old English, Secretary Hand, and German text (fig. 9).  It also includes transcriptions of Charlotte Turner Smith’s sonnet “I love the[e] mournful sober suited night,” a poem on female modesty, two quatrains (“Gratitude” and “Hope”) and Esther Talbot’s “Come gentle peace” composed during the War of 1812—all without attribution, indicating a striking difference from contemporary concepts of intellectual property and authorship.

Figure 10. Pages from Mabell Woodward’s fascicle, 1832. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

Mabell Woodward’s fascicle (dated 1832), is fashioned from eight 6 ½” x 16” sheets (which open with the fold at the top rather than on the left-hand side), and demonstrates practice in letterform styles, through sentimental lyrics such as “Love,” “extract to Detraction,” and “The Twin Boys,” and occasional verses such as “On the death of P—C. . .” and “To H. . . B. . ., on the death of A little daughter” (fig. 10). On several folia we are explicitly reminded that this is “Mabell Woodwards book,” rather than “copy-book,” suggesting perhaps that to its maker the handmade fascicle was equivalent to an industrially bound or mechanically printed book.

Figure 11. Copybook belonging to Mason Sherman Kendall, 1830s, with page from January 1, 1830. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

The third is a hand-sewn copybook belonging to Mason Sherman Kendall of Ashford, Connecticut, dated in the 1830s. Mathematical calculations, facts about Connecticut, brief prose themes on geography, and a journal of personal accounts, along with penmanship sentences and verses (“Old Winter is Coming,” “How Cold It Is”) appear in random order. On January 1, 1830, Kendall transcribed on one page “Old Winter Is Coming” (attributed here only to a “Nashua Bard,” but composed by Hugh Moore [1808-1837] and frequently anthologized) while on the facing page he practiced “Denouncement denomination dishearten dispensatory,” thirty-seven times (fig. 11).

Like these typical penmanship fascicles, into which their owners copied and re-copied verse so that handwriting practice could also serve to reinforce poetic tastes and personal virtues, Dickinson’s forty fair-copy fascicles fall within a well-established material culture of craft and its generous understanding of what constitutes a book. Although the poems she included in the fascicles are neither copied from other sources nor practiced for their letterforms, the fascicles suggest her appropriation of a handicraft for editing the self-publication of her own work.


Commonplace Verses

The second medium or format that we should examine in relation to Dickinson’s poetry, and especially her fascicles, is the commonplace book. Here, I use the term in its broadest sense, as any miscellany collected more or less thematically. Although in their origins a rhetorical storehouse for gentlemen, “assembled books” (as Gernes calls them) had become by the nineteenth century largely the product of women’s hands. Like their prototypes, women’s assembled books had as their purpose, according to Gernes, “self-cultivation” (113) in an “integrative practice of internalizing word and image, and expression of the need and desire to make the self whole” (114). Such commonplace books frequently included verse to facilitate these aims: one might compile one’s own original occasional verses, favorite verses by other authors, or lyrics of popular ballads and songs. While their arrangement might simply be chronological, judicious use of gaps and spacing in a copy book could provide room for thematic groupings over time.

The medium of assembled books includes a broad range of materials, from simple school copy books to more elaborate blank books produced as consumer goods. The Luther commonplace book—an undated, plain, manufactured copy book (consisting of 14 un-ruled folia measuring 6 ½” x 7 ½”), with a lithographed and hand-tinted cover, and identified with several members of the Luther family (Rebekah, Georgia, and Virginia)—is a typical example.

Figure 12. Pages from the Luther Commonplace Book. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

The collection mixes verses (for example, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Excelsior,” unattributed) with ballads and songs (such as Thomas Moore’s “The Last Rose of Summer,” likewise unattributed), suggesting a fluidity in genre between lyric poetry and lyric song. Included in the Luther manuscript is the sentimental ballad, “Long Time Ago” (here entitled “Near the Lake”), whose melody (not transcribed here) was probably adapted from an African-American tune (and later arranged by Aaron Copland as one of the song cycle Old American Songs). Shown on the pages above are “Near the Lake” (recto) and “Absent Friends” (verso), which appeared in print in Charles Edwards Lester’s 1841 The Glory and the Shame of England, a poem pressed into his hands during a visit to village spinster sisters (310-312) (fig. 12).

Figures 13, 14, and 15. Pages from Commonplace Book (unattributed) with Verses and Watercolors. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

The commonplace book above (whose owner is unidentified) demonstrates how this genre was increasingly commodified: it has a fine, tooled leather binding, marbled endpapers, colored blank pages for writing, embossed pages tipped in, and scored pages for music. Yet even within these fixed, gift book-like parameters, the compiler is able to exercise originality, shaping the book to her own preferences. Some entries are dated (the years 1836, 1837, 1838, 1844, and 1848 are listed), but they do not appear in date order, suggesting that a thematic rather than a chronological arrangement may have been the goal of the creator. The compiler freely extricates from and combines a range of poetic references: one entry (fig. 13) presents, on the left-hand page, a couplet (“The love which my spirit had painted / It never hath found but in thee”) taken from Byron’s “Though the Day of my Destiny’s Over,” along with several other extracts, opposite an unknown poem on the right-hand page, perhaps copied from a local newspaper. A second entry (fig. 14) contains part of stanza XXIII from Canto IV of Byron’s “Childe Harold,” opposite small watercolors of flora and fauna set into an embossed page. The selected text, without the first three lines of the stanza (and without an attribution), assumes a poignant resonance in the company of the bright paintings of a bird, a butterfly, and flowers. These images heighten the importance of words like “music,” “summer’s eve,” and “flower,” sweetening the pain that characterizes this section of the poem.

And slight withal may be the things which bring
Back on the heart the weight which it would fling
Aside for ever: it may be a sound --
A tone of music -- summer's eve -- or spring --
A flower -- the wind -- the ocean -- which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we are darkly bound…

A third entry (fig. 15) contains, on the left, the first two stanzas (unattributed) from section XIV, part V of William Wordsworth’s “Inscriptions,” a five-stanza poem that appeared in several English and American hymnals in the nineteenth century.

NOT seldom, clad in radiant vest,
Deceitfully goes forth the Morn;
Not seldom Evening in the west
Sinks smilingly forsworn.

The smoothest seas will sometimes prove,
To the confiding Bark, untrue;
And, if she trust the stars above,
They can be treacherous too.

These lines sit opposite the hand-written notation and words, on the printed staves, for the first half of Thomas Moore’s “O! The Shamrock.” 

Through Erin’s Isle
To sport awhile
As Love and Valour wander’d,
With Wit, the sprite,
Whose quiver bright
A thousand arrows squander’d;
Where’er they pass,
A triple grass
Shoots up, with dew-drops streaming…

In this conjunction of extracts, the compiler creatively unites the religious sentiment of the poem and the patriotic sentiment of the song, through the relationship each has to music and natural images. Even the writing (in a single hand) demonstrates considerable orthographic ingenuity, including diagonals.

Based on its contents and handwriting style, this commonplace book’s compiler was probably a woman. But women were not the only assemblers of commonplace verse collections, nor were they only ones to express individuality in their books’ structures. An English example in Yale’s Beinecke Library in a masculine hand shows a similar repurposing of an assembled book, in this case through a change in the compiler’s collection principle. A folio-sized book with cardboard covers bound in calf skin, the blank book was begun as a collection of brief biographies of significant English figures (from Sir Thomas More to Samuel Johnson), arranged chronologically (folia 2-8)—until the book was inverted (bottom to top, back to front) to record apparently original verses, dated and arranged chronologically, on seasonal, political, military, and historical topics. The verses include calligraphic titles (elaborate cursive or gothic print) resembling a printed book’s format ([Osborn commonplace book]).

Commonplace books often defy our attempts to find order in their sequences of poems, with thematic arrangements sometimes appearing before they vanish and with gaps of empty pages suggesting that the compiler left room to add to clusters of poems. Similarly, the reconstruction of Dickinson’s fascicles have prompted a variety of explanations about possible ordering schemes, relationships, and intentions. In his introduction to The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, R.W. Franklin seems to view the fascicles as Dickinson’s tidying-up without any particular order (except the chronology of composition), a position reflected also in his 1998 variorum edition. However, as early as 1983, M.L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, in their study of modern lyric sequences, devoted a chapter to Dickinson, with special attention to fascicles 15 and 16. Sharon Cameron has characterized the fascicles as “a form of private publication,” perhaps Dickinson’s response to Emerson’s essay “‘New Poetry’ . . . printed in The Dial in 1840, in which he advised authors, in distinction to the dominant strain of poetic tradition, to collect album poetry” (“Fascicles,” 139-40). Other scholars have tended to ascribe deliberate authorial intention to the fascicle assemblages.[5] Because of the fascicles’ close relationship to the authorial hand, we assume deliberate authorial intention, in a way that we might not with printed books. Handwriting’s material presence is even more keenly felt in friendship albums.


Friendship Albums

Finally, the friendship book, historically known as a liber amicorum, was an album that one circulated among one’s friends, family, and guests with the invitation to include verses or other sentiments. As Gernes observes, “The ritualistic exchange of samples of handwriting authenticated both near and distant relationships, friendship and kinship, because handwriting was held to reveal an individual’s true character and culture” (“Recasting,” 121). Samantha Matthews makes a similar point about Victorian “confession albums” (a variant of the friendship album), namely “the potential of autograph to signify subjectivity” in which “the signature symbolizes the ‘soul’ or essence of personality” (125, 127). Willis Buckingham points out the extent to which poetry was a medium of exchange in the nineteenth century, both between author and reader and among readers, particularly apt for inclusion in the friendship album because “[o]f all the genres poetry could most directly express heartfelt communion; it was the preeminent literary medium for social exchange at its depth” (234, 241). What we find in friendship albums is an archive of nineteenth-century domestic intimacy and its material culture: calligraphy, verses, sketches and water colors, pressed flowers, and other mementos.[6]

Sarah S. Goodwin’s album (“a parting gift . . . from her friend Carrie A. Little” in Nashua, New Hampshire, in 1874), with the title “Autographs” gilt-embossed on the front cover, was explicitly designed for this purpose.

Figure 16. Pages from Sarah S. Goodwin friendship album, verses and autographs. Archives and Special Collections, University of Connecticut.

Little’s dedicatory inscription demonstrates what Thornton characterizes as a “fine ladies’ hand,” and the album includes verses, pressed flowers, and tipped-in images, as well as brief autographs (fig. 16). It is typical of nineteenth-century assemblages of mementos and representative of a literary culture in which verse was a frequent object of exchange and a form of self-cultivation. Although many of the inscribed verses advert to friendship, they do so frequently with explicit reference to eternity, mortality, and the temporality of life and friendship. The albums also represent the social networks of their owners. These networks could be local but were sometimes distributed across the eastern United States, embracing school friends or relations separated by the return to the family home or by marriage. An album inscribed by Ellen Rice at the Young Ladies Institute in New Haven, while mostly autographed by women identifying Amherst, Massachusetts, as their home (including Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandmother, Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, who inscribed the poem “Religion” in November 1824, fig. 17), also includes signatories identified with Hartford, Connecticut, and one is from Alexandria, Virginia (Rice).

Figure 17. Page from Ellen Rice friendship album showing Lucretia Gunn Dickinson’s contribution. Gen MSS File 256. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Friendship albums eventually became so popular that they were mass produced in fine bindings. Advertisements by Leavitt & Allen, Publishers and Booksellers (New York) in 1856 and 1857 issues of the American Publishers’ Circular and Literary Gazette (a trade publication, the forerunner of today’s Publisher’s Weekly) announced “upwards of one hundred varieties, being the largest and most perfect assortment of ‘Books for Gifts’ ever issued” ([Leavitt & Allen 1856]) and the “largest assortment ever issued [150 varieties], consisting of all the different sizes and styles of binding wanted in a Wholesale or Retail Trade,” in demi, small, cap and royal cap quartos, some bound in Morocco leather and gilt, others including engravings and colored plates, with retail prices ranging from 75 cents to ten dollars ([Leavitt & Allen 1857]). For those for whom a muse or memory failed, a publisher might even supply a booklet to guide one in inscribing sentiments. For example, The Album Writer’s Assistant: Being Choice Selections in Poetry and Prose, for Autograph Albums, Valentines, Etc. advised in its “Introductory”:

Albums in which to inscribe expressions of sentiment or friendship have long been popular; but for the past few years have steadily grown in favor, and are looked upon as promotive of friendship and kindly feeling. There are few persons who have not at some time in life been solicited by their friends to write in an Album; but how frequently has it been the case that the person asked has found it utterly impossible at the moment either to draw from the well of their own thoughts the sentiment they desire to express or to call to memory any appropriate quotations. . . . As a helpful provision for this demand, the present unpretending volume is prepared, and a few moments research of its pages will always disclose some attractive expression. (n. pag.)

The publisher, J. L. Patten in New York, used the booklet’s end papers to advertise blank albums, as well as a variety of other self-help guides, including How to Write a Composition and The Perfect Letter-Writer. Thus friendship albums may be understood as embedded in complex systems of nineteenth-century literacy, commodity, and friendship cultures.

Often initiated during a girl’s schooldays, friendship albums were “a reflection and reminder of the seminary student’s youthful days of self-cultivation and creativity” and signaled the “aesthetic orientation of women’s education” (Gernes, “Recasting,” 123). But they also were “emblematic of character formation and intellectual growth. Central to this growth was a young woman’s spiritual development” (Gernes, “Recasting,” 124). As Catherine E. Kelly observes about the education of young women whose families had the means:

. . . these schools inculcated the refined sensibility and the literary technique demanded by the emerging culture of friendship. The feelings of friendship might first manifest themselves in the heart, but they assumed their fullest shape through the pen in letters, diaries, poems, and friendship books. (65-66)

Kelly notes two persistent themes in friendship albums that are familiar to students of Dickinson’s letters and poems: the value of friendship and its fragility (79). The handwritten verse in an album, like a poem in a letter, could express that value and protect it by making it available for rereading and recollection. In a conversation several years ago, Connie King, Curator of Women’s History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, described how the friendship album might have been opened across the laps of friends (or of a woman and her suitor) sitting side by side in the parlor, each verse and accompanying signature evoking memories of absent friends and invoking their sacramental presence.

Taken together, Dickinson’s poetry in fascicles and letters might be seen as her own friendship album to the world, assembled over decades. Like a friendship album, which serves a quasi-sacramental function by providing material traces of absent friends, Dickinson’s epistolary verses stimulate the sentiment and sympathy understood as the mystic cords binding distant friends. Her letters were at once personal (addressed to one individual) and communal (when shared among the recipient’s friends and family); like friendship albums, they enjoyed a private form of publication.


Reading in Manuscript

As her Herbarium reminds us, Emily Dickinson was attuned to the forms of assembled ephemera popular in her time. For Dickinson and her contemporaries, manuscript self-publication of verse would not have been anomalous or eccentric but a familiar medium for self-fashioning and self-representation. Without having to accede to the compromises of the marketplace, Dickinson would find in manuscript publication a forum suitable to her aesthetic and personal integrity. Beyond the light that they shed on Dickinson’s manuscript practices, these penmanship fascicles, commonplace books, and friendship albums also open a window on popular reading tastes in the periods in which they were produced. Even better than records of book sales or periodical subscription numbers, these ephemera tell us which poems were so beloved that their readers recorded them in their most intimate literary practices. What scholars lack, however, is a database of these verses allowing us to quantify their frequency, to trace their circulation, and to document the personal networks of their inscribers. That is a worthy digital humanities project for another day.

One final thought about Dickinson and friendship albums. Might we find in some archive or special collection friendship albums from Dickinson’s circle in which there remains to be discovered a heretofore unknown Dickinson poem? The romantic in me would like to think so.



This essay is dedicated to the memory of Karen Dandurand, teacher, scholar, and mentor.

[1] Facsimiles of Dickinson’s manuscripts are available in print, in Franklin, ed., Manuscript Books, and online, at The Emily Dickinson Archive, an open-access database of the manuscripts maintained as a collaboration among institutions possessing her materials. The two most significant manuscript archives are at Amherst College and Harvard University. Dickinson’s Letters are also available in print; see Johnson and Ward. Because the poems were not printed in a complete authorized edition before Dickinson’s death, the relationship between the manuscript letters and poems is not clear and has received much critical attention. Shurr, Dunlop, and Shurr, for example, “excavated” lyric elements in Dickinson’s prose manuscripts in their New Poems of Emily Dickinson; see also Turco, ed.

[2] See Letters, #265, 2:408-09, ed. Johnson and Ward. Subsequent references to this edition of Dickinson’s Letters will be cited parenthetically by letter number, volume, and page. Poems will be cited parenthetically by the number assigned to them in Poems, ed. Franklin.

[3] Other critical discussions of Dickinson’s manuscript practices include Bell; Hart; Dickinson, Open Me Carefully, ed. Hart and Smith; Heginbotham; Messmer; Mitchell; Rosevere; Werner, Open Folios, and Werner, ed., Radical Scatters.

[4] For further discussion of the early modern relationship between manuscript and print cultures and publication, see Brink, Lindner, McKitterick, Marotti and Bristol, eds., and Wollman.  Explorations on the topic related to women’s writing include Hannay, Justice and Tinker, eds., and Russell.

[5] See Gernes, Recasting. The classic statement of the purposes and methods of compiling a commonplace book is Locke’s. Studies in the history of the commonplace book include Allan, Havens, and Lechner. Useful and concise introductions to commonplace books in education and common culture can be found in Byrd, ed. Berland, Gilliam, and Lockridge. The American commonplace book as a personal anthology of verse is typified by Thomas Jefferson’s Scrapbooks; see also Jefferson’s Literary Commonplace Book, ed. Wilson, and Milcah Martha Moore, ed. Blecki and Wulf. Both Cameron and Oberhaus attribute authorial thematic intentions to the fascicle groupings.

[6] Other treatments of friendship and autograph albums include Green and Devaney, Kutcher, Matthews, Stabile, Stevenson, Vickers, and Zola.


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