This fascinating study leads us through the history of the "commonplace" method of organizing information. According to Jillian Hess, commonplacing gave nineteenth-century readers a way not only to organize information but also deeply absorb what they read. Starting with John Locke, who wrote the earliest known set of instructions for commonplace books in 1684, Hess formulates the epistemic frameworks for commonplacing held by the Romantics and Victorians. What value did they see, she asks, in a method of storing "fragments" of knowledge as they collected them from their reading? To answer this question, Hess tracks the developments of human consciousness during rapid-fire changes: changes that shook nineteenth-century people's understanding of the fabric of reality and that have continued into our own time.
In the first section, "Organizing Ideas," Hess links commonplace books and their close relation, scrapbooks, to epistemological shifts in the nineteenth century. Beginning with Samuel Taylor Coleridge's notebooks and diaries, and closing with an analysis of his "Fly-Catchers," which is what he called his journals, Hess shows how the commonplace tradition fed "imagination," the first of the nineteenth-century epistemic frameworks explored in this book. Coleridge, Hess contends, exemplified a Romantic epistemology which "privileged the writer's internal world," and his adaptations of Lockean instructions on commonplacing illustrate his concept of the imagination (101). Treating Coleridge as a founder of the commonplace tradition, Hess links him to later compilers throughout her book.
While Coleridge's notebooks reveal the subjectivity of the Romantic artist, Hess finds scientific objectivity--her second epistemic framework--in the commonplace books of two scientists living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: Humphry Davy's "imaginative, loose-formed collections" and the "systematic, empirical notes" of his assistant, Michael Faraday (101). Both of these natural philosophers (as they were then called) used commonplace methods to record their laboratory experiments, but their annotations illustrate a shift away from subjectivity towards increasingly precise objectivity. Since a person's memory was no longer a trustworthy recorder of valuable scientific experiments and discoveries, the accuracy of a notebook depended on the precision of its notes and sketches.
Moving from commonplace books to scrapbooks as well as from natural philosophers to natural historians, chapter 4 extensively tracks patterns in epistemological shifts from objectivity to empiricism and also in the formatting of the commonplace method. "Memory, as Faraday and other natural philosophers understood it," Hess argues, "corrupts information. For natural historians, however, the relationship between memory and objectivity was rather different" (138). As interest in archeology and geology grew, a natural historian's "real-time observations proved impossible because the object of study was always at a historical remove" (138-139). Like natural philosophers, natural historians focused on physical materials; but rather than gathering strictly objective scientific facts, natural historians sought literal fragments or scraps suitable for building authentic historical narratives.
To explain this kind of scrapbooking, Hess examines the scrap-collecting habits of an historian named James Orchard Halliwell and of two novelists, Walter Scott and George Eliot. While their scrapbooks retain the tension between subjectivity and objectivity found in the commonplace books of Davy and Faraday, the core element of this tension becomes authenticity. In relating nineteenth-century principles of authenticity to Eliot's work, Hess points out that "historians cannot escape their own situated perspective. Moreover, representing historical evidence is always an act of remediation because it is always an act of representation" (142). In their novels, Hess convincingly argues, Scott and Eliot "remediated" scraps of literary fragments, such as ballads in Scott's case and historical material in Eliot's.
Though also a scrap collector, Halliwell worked differently. "Once technological advances made it possible," Hess writes, "historians like James Orchard Halliwell would try to erase human subjectivity by remediating manuscripts as printed facsimiles. . . . [T]he way each writer organized historical extracts--in private collections and published forms--relates to concerns over the nature of authentic historical evidence" (142). Not content with using his scraps to write historical narratives, Halliwell resembles Faraday in making objectivity the main proof of authenticity.
In the second section of the book, "Organizing People," Hess transitions from nineteenth-century methods of commonplacing ideas to people, as shown in social relationships and mourning. While not quite as deep as previous chapters, this section provides
the widest variety of examples for commonplacing in the entire book. Interweaving the threads of her multilayered approach, Hess recapitulates in each chapter what the previous chapter has done.
Hess treats several methods of commonplacing centered on social relationships and community-based collections of scraps, or even memorabilia, of famous authors and poets such as John Keats and John Milton. She examines "lady's albums," autographs (where handwriting exemplifies "embodiment"), and the later development of typewriters and fingerprinted Thumb-O-Graphs, which she finds inadequately revealing. While "a fingerprint's swirls," she writes, "could represent a unique identity, it was a poor substitute for handwriting--fingerprints were merely biological, foreclosing any access to the owner's internal world"; so Thumb-O-Graphs "enjoyed a far shorter life span than the lady's album" (230).
In the final full chapter of this book, Hess explores the practice of Victorian mourners who "turned to the commonplace tradition to build a sense of presence by deploying tropes of representation developed at the intersection of album and commonplace-book cultures" (233). According to Hess, these mourners "found a template for grief in the period's verse, especially Alfred Lord Tennyson's In Memoriam--a poem that assembles a litany of commonplaces drawn from elegy's long history" (233). Recalling the tensions within changing epistemic frameworks delineated in earlier parts of the book, In Memoriam illustrates the Victorian era's "uneasy kinship between science and religion" (233). By Tennyson's time, the internal conflicts between objectivity and subjectivity came to a head simply because it no longer seemed possible to choose one over the other. But since many Victorians could not integrate these opposing views of reality, they are said to have "oscillated between moments of intense faith and crippling doubt. Tennyson was no different, except that he recorded his struggle to make sense of death in poetic form," which is perhaps why his poetry resonated with Victorian readers mourning the losses of loved ones (233).
Ending with twentieth and twenty-first century versions of commonplacing, Hess argues that in our age of "information overload," we have discovered further methods of scrapbooking information digitally. But relying on digital technology to hold our information, she argues, is a "dangerous epistemic framework" (265). Just as Coleridge worried "that new print technologies had spawned a nation of automatons" (43), Hess argues that digital technology prompts us to "skim" rather than deeply encounter what we read. By means of handwriting, sketching, and essentially establishing the commonplace method of organization as an artform of learning well, Coleridge's aesthetic uses of commonplacing served his goal of deeply learning what he read, not just mentally, but physiologically.
Which brings me to the question: why not further explore the idea of "disembodiment" as it pertained to the history of commonplacing? Since authors as early as Coleridge worried about information overload, and the increasing inability of people to learn from what they read, one could argue that concern over "disembodiment" has been a problem since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. The nineteenth-century technological shifts, especially in printing, made possible an information overload that would have intensely alarmed many readers like Coleridge, whose "contemporaries had access to a dizzying array of affordable texts including printed collections of extracts, newspapers, and sensational fiction; rather than pastimes, Coleridge quipped, they ought to be considered 'kill-times'" (43). Romantic writers, then, fretted about too much information even before the "explosion" of print culture. Hess's outstanding work already provides digital scholars with a multitude of informative "fragments" and "scraps" worthy of her claim to "have isolated larger patterns--or, in the language of commonplacing, topoi--in Romantic and Victorian collections that recur throughout the century." Building on Hess's effort to "make commonplace books more approachable objects for literary analysis," (13), I hope digital scholars will further explore modern-day issues surrounding information organization.
Meaghan Scott graduated in 2022 from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN with MAs in English and Catholic Studies and is currently an Independent Scholar residing in Minnesota.