Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Experimental Dorothy Wordsworth

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Experimental Dorothy Wordsworth

Article excerpt

TO READ DOROTHY WORDSWORTH AS AN EXPERIMENTAL WRITER, WE must investigate how nineteenth-century books of daily writing function as sites of intertextual and generic experimentation. As text objects that imitate public forms while serving private functions, such books facilitate cross-genre and cross-textual conversation, collaboration, and invention. Examining the generic and formal innovations particular to nineteenth-century books of daily writing facilitates two broader literary-historical interventions. First, investigating the history of homemade and handwritten books provides an alternative origin story for modern experimental poetry that dramatizes the overlapping public and private spheres represented by its literal and theoretical materiality. (We can think here, for example, of the late modernist "mimeograph revolution," in which books of poetry were given limited print runs and sent directly to their intended audience, or of the poststructuralist turn to the materiality of print and language foundational to Language poetry.) Second, such a project provides a fresh perspective from which to approach the experience of archival reading.

I should pause for a moment to define this term, "archival reading," which I am using to indicate a particular type of textual criticism focused, not on process and product, but rather on the experience of encountering an archival text. When transcribed and removed from the archive, Dorothy Wordsworth's poems, journals, and travel writings fit neatly into the conventional genre categories of Romantic women's writing. However, when read in their original, material contexts, the texts engage in cross-genre innovations and intertextual experiments. Writing about Emily Dickinson's processes of composition, Alexandra Socarides explains, "I am talking about her actual, literal, and physical methods and processes of writing ... [i]n doing so, I draw attention to the text in a historically-specific scene of writing." (1) In the pages that follow, I focus on the physical forms of Dorothy Wordsworth's manuscripts in order to draw attention to the texts in a scene of material encounter. I do so not to privilege the position of the literary critic but rather to accomplish two goals--to facilitate a reading of Dorothy Wordsworth as an experimental author writing in the literal and figurative margins of a literary history that she is working to construct, and to open up a conversation about how reading the experimental Dorothy Wordsworth might enrich our understanding of the Romantic inheritance.

In the service of these broader arguments, this essay motivates a reading of one particular homemade book, Dorothy Wordsworth's commonplace chapbook, a circumscribed collection of poetic "consolations" that occurs within Wordsworth's commonplace book. The commonplace chapbook is but one small-scale example of the inventive genres that make up Dorothy Wordsworth's corpus, which ranges from the hand-sewn books of her travel writings, to the artful composition of her journals, to the extensive transcriptions of her brother's poetry, to the poems that cluster and fragment and fill out and break off across her journals, notebooks, albums, and commonplace book. These writings are at once public and private, communal and directed, occasional and lyrical, written for a reader and indifferent to her presence. Following Felicity Nussbaum, we might conceptualize these works as "borderline genres" connected to immediate social relationships as well as to trans-historical, projected understandings of Wordsworth's position in relation to literary fame. (2) To sift through Dorothy Wordsworth's literary output is to encounter writings that transcend, ironize, and imitate print culture in order to create hybrid texts and experiences of reading. In addition to contributing to a broader understanding of nineteenth-century literary experiments, working through the commonplace chapbook facilitates a more localized argument, namely, that we must attend to Dorothy Wordsworth's manipulation of published and quotidian forms and of the materiality of text more generally, if we are to understand her as an early experimental writer. …

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