Poems have woven their way into American life over the decades, making appearances at weddings, funerals, around the campfire, and in the classroom. In her new book, Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Harvard University Press, $29.95), Joan Shelley Rubin, professor of history at the University of Rochester, investigates how those everyday settings added new dimensions to the verse.
Songs of Ourselves examines how American readers invested poems with meanings and emotions connected to their personal experiences. The book, which calls on numerous primary sources for clues about poetry's place in the nation's past, focuses on readers from 1880 to 1950.
For 12 years, Rubin scoured libraries around the United States searching for accounts and reactions to poetry and poetry reading. She found them in classroom materials, journals, church publications, letters, newspaper clippings, and diaries.
But she found her inspiration for the book much closer to home. While browsing in a used bookstore one day, Rubin's father, who was in his 70s, came upon a copy of his high school poetry anthology. He was delighted by the find, reading excerpts aloud to family, even during long-distance phone calls to his sister in California.
Her father's captivation with the book got Rubin's attention. Years later, Rubin read to her father from the anthology while he battled cancer. She returned to the book again, reading aloud from it at his funeral.
The anthology took on special meaning for Rubin and delivered the lesson she illustrates in her book: that poems on the page are "inseparable from the associations, longings, and purposes they acquired in the hands of readers." A literary text, she insists, "has a social dimension, and we can arrive at a fuller, more democratic view of our culture if we can recover that dimension." Her book focuses on the school recitation, poems for civic purposes, reading among family and friends, verse in religious contexts, and poetry out-of-doors.
As a cultural historian, Rubin has always been fascinated by the human experience and she values the study of books and reading as a way to discover the emotional as well as intellectual responses of ordinary people in the past. In The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992), Rubin explored initiatives that brought literature to wide audiences, such as book clubs.
Songs of Ourselves is a continuation of that work through the eyes of schoolchildren, immigrants, and church-goers.
In addition to her duties as a professor of history, Rubin is also the director of graduate studies in the University of Rochester Department of History. Among her numerous professional activities, she is co-editor of a forthcoming volume of A History of the Book in America.
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