Thursday, May 16, 2013

Writing With Scissors

Just got this in the mail and I have to recommend it.

"Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance," by Helen Gruber Garvey.

A few years ago my mother bought one of these classic scrapbooks at a flea market.  We were very surprised by it--some woman had taken an old, hardback, railway timetable from the late 1800's and used it as the backing to glue in poems, short stories, obituaries and other ephemera from her local newspaper during a slightly later time period. The timetable was out of date but she repurposed the pages and the binding for her scrapbook.  Well, it turns out that far from being a unique act this was a quintessentially acculturated act that everyone, from Presidents to farm housewives, was doing at the same time.

This book is irresistible--it is written in such an entertaining and vivid style that you can actually read it aloud--I was reading it this morning to my children as they got ready to go to school.  Basically Garvey argues that scrapbooking in this fashion (the pinterest and evernote of its day) was an attempt to master and manipulate both the flood of ephemera produced by the newspapers and magazines of the period and also a way to "speak back" to authoritative writers and journalists by clipping, circulating, commenting on, and critiquing their published works in this home-made form.  She describes people as creating libraries and files for their "future selves" as when women who envisioned themselves moving west and becoming farm wives began clipping "useful" home remedies and recipes for when they moved far from civilization.  She also explores the way both sides in the Civil War used clippings of war and political news as a way of fixing and reflecting on information that was coming too fast, and that was too immediate, for reflection.  To read about a war as it was happening and potentially affecting lands and people that you actually know being a very different process from reading about wars that are physically or historically removed from your experience.  Although I haven't read this section yet what Garvey says in the introduction makes me think about the way information circulates on the left and right side of the bloggosphere and the way the links that one reads every day, like the radio shows or cable TV shows one attends to, shape the set of "facts" with which both sides spar.

I picked up the book because I, too, struggle with a flood of information and a desire to clip, fix, and analyze it.  In fact its obvious that this blog is, in its own way, an Internet scrapbook in Garvey's sense--a compilation and juxtaposition of whatever I'm reading.  Of course its only a partial representation of my actual self because unlike Face Book, Pinterest, or modern American Scrapbooking formats it is pseudonymous and avoids too much family history or family activity (something that takes up the actual bulk of my life), its not a food blog as such though I spend an inordinate amount of time cooking and am also working on a cookbook for my children of our favorite foods, and although I have my own artistic pursuits in the form of small quilts or bricolage like art books created (how very female) within the context of family relationships and moments such as birthdays and anniversaries.


  1. Thanks for your attentive reading! I've read your posts on No More Mr. Nice Blog over the years, and am intrigued to now discover how broad your range is. What did you think about the relationship between 19c recirculation and present day blogging? I'd love to hear more. -- Ellen (not Helen)

  2. My apologies, Ellen! I'm delighted and surprised you found your way here. As for recirculation I think your book has quite a bit on the dance of the new --the desire of people to find and fix something new to them--as it related to a kind of, I don't know the right words for this, maybe what I want to say is a specialist appreciation for the hackneyed and the well loved. What we find tedious, trite, and everywhere present they appreciated as, in some sense, authorized. My children learned the same little song poem that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about in the little house books "Make new friends, but keep the old, for one is silver and the other is gold." There is about an old poem, song, or story something that our ancestors found marvellous, comforting, and valuable that we tend not to. (I think).

    But the internet does value or valorize stripping things of their original attribution and forwarding them on to others as anyone with an elderly relative on a right wing (or left wing) mass email list can attest. Political stories and legends live in the internet for years with their countries of origin, authors, and original meaning stripped and repurposed. Just look at the Obama is the antichrist set of accusations? Once these would have circulated primarily among the beleivers within a particular flock. They would have no need to compare their current belief about the antichrist to what their leader, or other leaders, said about the antichrist five, ten, or fifty years ago. But with the internet you can see all these stories back to back, as it were, and read across and through them. If you want to, that is.