POETIC HISTORY: “People want to see themselves more clearly by connecting a poem to themselves, but also to feel part of the wider human experience,” Rubin says.
Scholar Joan Shelley Rubin explores the history of our public relationship to poetry. By Kathleen McGarvey
Whenever people gather for a significant event—a graduation, say, or a wedding, or a memorial—someone usually reaches for a poet’s words to give voice to the sentiments of the day. For historian Joan Shelley Rubin, that intersection of personal feeling, public expression, and literary text is a window onto American history and culture.
“I’m interested in history for what it tells us about human experience,” Rubin says. “Our existence is so much about emotions as well as ideas, and we don’t have a great record of what Americans have felt. We know a lot about formal bodies of thought, but daily life consists so much of personal relationships, how we feel and think about ourselves and others, the work we do, the things we read.”
Rubin’s new book, which comes out this spring, is part of an effort to recover that history. Songs of Ourselves: The Uses of Poetry in America (Harvard University Press) investigates how readers between 1880 and 1950 read and heard poems, and how they situated the poems’ meanings within the context of their own lives.
Late 19th- and early 20th-century Americans encountered poetry in a range of public venues, such as school assemblies, family gatherings, civic celebrations, and worship services. The emotions of events, Rubin argues, profoundly influenced people’s interpretations of the poetry they heard. In chapters that examine the book industry, poetry in the public school, and “Americanization” of immigrants in the interwar period, among other topics, Rubin considers reading as a social act and literature as a lived experience.
A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century American history, Rubin is a cultural and intellectual historian. “I explore not just the ideas, but also the values, anxieties, aspirations, and tensions that Americans have experienced in the past,” she says.
David Hall, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, says Rubin stands out among scholars of cultural history.
A Historical Department
The Department of History, which is home to more than 160 majors and more than 25 doctoral students, has longstanding strength in the areas of intellectual and cultural history.
Global history, Asian studies, the history of the African diaspora, and the interdisciplinary study of music and history are areas of growing departmental expertise.
About half of the current history majors are double majors in another College department or program. The largest percentage of those double majors are studying political science, but other majors include biology, English, religion and classics, economics, and Japanese. The department fosters this breadth of study through its graduation requirements, which students can customize to their interests.
The department offers undergraduate internship, seminar, and honors thesis opportunities; the Verne Moore Lectures, an endowed lecture series; and symposia and workshops addressing graduate student research, teaching, and career concerns.
Currently the department is working to establish an endowed chair in the name of the late Dexter Perkins, a former chair of the department who became a faculty member in 1915 and who was an expert on the Monroe Doctrine.
“Her new book brings back into view the immense importance of poetry for Americans and how, in so many different places, it was read, chanted, and performed,” Hall says. “Rubin has a remarkable understanding, too, of the ‘work’ that poetry did in people’s everyday lives. Each of her books has challenged us to see a person or a practice in fresh ways.”
A Guggenheim fellowship recipient and a coeditor of the series A History of the Book in America, Rubin trains a historian’s lens on literature, focusing less on the literary works themselves and more on what their dissemination and reception say about the culture to which they belong.
“Literature creates and evokes emotional responses,” she says. “What we bring to a text, the site where we encounter a text, is laden with feeling and ideology that might not correspond to what’s on the page.”
Excavating those responses and investigating what they reveal about American life is the task Rubin set for herself in Songs of Ourselves. To carry out her research, Rubin traveled to libraries around the country, poring over materials from school teachers, diaries, journals, church publications, letters, and memoirs—anything that contained accounts of what people read and how it affected them.
“People want to see themselves more clearly by connecting a poem to themselves, but also to feel part of the wider human experience,” Rubin says. Poetry, she says, takes on the role of shaping our identities, both personally and collectively.
“When parents read poetry to children, that creates a certain kind of bond, but also a sense of what we’re about as a family.”
In the period Rubin examines in Songs of Ourselves, schoolchildren and immigrants underwent a similar kind of civic identity building as they were instructed in American values through poetry. Verse particularly lends itself to this identity formation, Rubin argues, “because it’s memorizable—it’s portable and retrievable in a way fiction isn’t.”
As an undergraduate in the history and literature program at Harvard, Rubin says she was torn between her love for the two fields. When she worked on her doctorate in American studies at Yale, however, she found both her fundamental scholarly allegiance and a way to combine the areas she cared about. “Literary theory wasn’t appealing to me, and so that pushed me to history. At the same time, many intellectual historians were thinking—because of social history, which was emerging out of the fermentation of the 1960s and ’70s—about how to gain entrée to the minds of ordinary people.
Rubin’s new book is in many ways a continuation of her highly regarded earlier work, The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992). In that book Rubin examined book clubs, “great books” programs, and other projects that popularized the humanities in the first half of the 20th century. She takes a similarly broad look at literary reception in Songs of Ourselves, investigating the ways in which schoolchildren, immigrants, church-goers, and others experienced the poems of “steady sellers” such as Alfred Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow alongside those of modernist poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and T. S. Eliot. Rubin examines the deep personal connection that readers felt—and feel—for poems, and the extent to which their sense of the poems’ meanings are rooted in their own experience.
Understanding how people read can be a way to understand how they lived, contend Rubin and others engaged in the “history of the book”—a branch of cultural history that studies written communications and the significance of textual artifacts. Appropriately, Rubin’s own book has its roots not only in a scholarly perspective, but also in a deeply personal one.
In his 70s, Rubin’s father found a copy of his high school poetry anthology in a used book shop. Not ordinarily of a literary bent, he found pleasure in reciting favorite verse, such as Thomas Babington Macaulay’s “Horatius” and James Russell Lowell’s “The Vision of Sir Launfal” to family and friends. Listening to him, Rubin had a sudden inkling of the emotional importance of schoolroom poetry.
Some years later, Rubin found herself at her father’s bedside as he was dying of cancer. This time Rubin turned to the anthology, reading the poems to her father and finding comfort for herself in saying them aloud when she did not know what else to do. At her father’s funeral, Rubin opened her father’s book again, reading William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl” to tell those assembled what she most wanted to say about his passing.
The volume that had brought her father such delight now carried great emotional significance for Rubin, too. Her life and her father’s had been interwoven with the words of poets who never dreamed of that particular framework for their verse, and for Rubin—like the readers she studies—those poems could never now be severed from the contexts in which she knew them. They had been steeped in her own emotions and experiences.
Asked what her father might say if he could see the book that emerged from his schoolbook readings, Rubin laughs.
“He’d probably say, ‘You’ve made an awful lot out of that,’” she says. “I hope I haven’t taken a process people enjoy, and have enjoyed, and made it into something academic and remote. But I have always seen myself as contributing to a scholarly conversation about the importance of place and practice as a source of meaning and the fluid boundaries between high and popular culture.”
Rubin carries that scholarly conversation with her to the classroom, where she works with undergraduates and graduate students and teaches courses such as a survey of American culture since 1865 and seminars on the history of the book. “I do a course called Technology and American Values,” she adds, “which is not about how things work—I can barely operate the slide projector, as the students will tell you—but instead about how Americans have responded to technological innovation since the early nineteenth century.”
This spring, Rubin is teaching The Transatlantic Twenties: America, Europe, and the Making of Modernism with her history department colleague Celia Applegate. The course offers an introduction to the history of modern art, music, film, dance, and literature as they emerged in Europe and the United States after World War I.
With 12 years of work on Songs of Ourselves now behind her, Rubin has turned to the field of music as she carries on her research. A Bridging Fellowship—a program that supports University faculty in carrying out interdisciplinary study—allowed Rubin to embark on a study of the role of the composer as a mediator of literary texts in fall 2006.
The project, Rubin says, is a continuation of her work on lesser-known corners of popular culture. She is studying the work of Randall Thompson, the most popular composer for amateur choruses in the United States during the mid-20th century.
“Here I am once again drawn to the subject I’ve been drawn to since my dissertation—someone left in the dust by modernism, but who had a great effect on people.”Kathleen McGarvey is a writer in the Office of Communications.