An Evening of Poetry at the American Antiquarian Society: Review of Citizen Poets of Boston

The American Antiquarian Society sponsors a robust series of Public Programs each fall and spring. I was especially interested in the most recent entry, last week’s “The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems” by Paul Lewis (English, Boston College), because it originated as a class project that relied significantly on digital humanities resources. Lewis was joined for the evening by Harrison Kent and Alexandra Mitropoulos, former students who worked on the project as undergraduates.

The title for the evening’s event came from the recently published The Citizen Poets of Boston: A Collection of Forgotten Poems, 1789-1820 (University Press of New England, 2016), an anthology of mostly anonymous poems published in literary magazines in the era of the Early Republic. The book, however, was not the original goal of the advanced undergraduate seminar that located and identified the poems; instead, it evolved out of an exhibition, “Forgotten Chapters of Boston’s Literary History.” Lewis and his students originally sought to examine “poems so bad they were delightfully amateurish” that still managed to make their way into print in the decades immediately after the Revolution and ratification of the Constitution, but their research took them in new directions as they discovered a treasure trove of forgotten and overlooked poetry that was good, interesting, and told local stories.

May 13 - Citizen Poets
The Citizen Poets of Boston

Lewis, Kent, and Mitropoulos explained that 427 magazines were published in the United States during the early national period. Most magazines incorporated at least some poetry as a standard feature, but many did so quite extensively. More than 30,000 poems appeared in those magazines. Lewis and his students were especially interested in Massachusetts (and primarily Boston, the center of magazine publication in the commonwealth during the period), combing through 59 magazines to identify and examine over 4500 poems.

This is a project that would not have been possible even a decade ago, at least not as a collaborative research project in an upper-level undergraduate seminar. It relied on intense archival work – digital archival work using the American Periodical Series and similar resources. The American Periodical Series includes digitized images of magazines printed from the colonial period to the turn of the twentieth century. Gathering digital surrogates for the original magazines together in one place eliminates several of the obstacles that researchers in earlier generations faced. Images of each page are readily available, making it unnecessary to travel to distant libraries and historical institutions. In effect, digital sources bring the archives to researchers, including students who otherwise would not have such extensive access to primary sources. (This assumes that an educational institution has the funds to purchase a subscription to the American Periodical Series and similar databases of early American primary sources. Many smaller colleges and universities do not, but that digital divide is a topic for another time. Still, I want to be clear that although digitized sources make new projects and pedagogy possible, unequal access means digitization is not a panacea.)

Lewis and his students were able to consult the 59 magazines printed in Massachusetts in the early national period relatively easily, though the project was still labor intensive even with the digital resources. As they identified and sifted through more than 4500 poems they decided to focus on poetry that revealed life in early Boston. Doing so required learning about publication and republication practices of the era. For instance, in efforts to fill their pages editors often inserted material copied directly from British periodicals in the absence of international copyright laws. Lewis and his students discarded those poems. They also discovered that editors frequently issued invitations to readers to submit their own poetry, invitations that anonymous poets eagerly accepted. Since magazine distribution was relatively limited during the period – most circulated primarily within the city of publication – these poems often revealed much about local culture in Boston. (Lewis suggested that other teams of scholars and students could pursue similar projects in Philadelphia, New York, and other urban centers.) In addition to inviting readers to submit original poetry, editors also solicited poems in response to other poems, creating conversations among readers from issue to issue. The anonymous poets often learned whether their work had been accepted or rejected in the pages of the magazines themselves; rather than communicating privately with these “citizen poets,” editors created a feature, “Acknowledgments to Correspondents,” in which they praised or disparaged the poems submitted to them.

Who were these citizen poets? Lewis and his students explored the democratizing effects of publishing poetry by anonymous authors in the literary magazines of the Early Republic. Although most of the authors cannot be identified definitively, many were surely women. Quite possibly some were non-whites. Anonymous publication allows – then and now – for imaginative readings of the identity of those citizen poets since their gender, race, and class remained hidden. The “citizen” in citizen poet accordingly refers to anybody who chose to participate in the conversations and debates pursued in verse rather than the more narrow confines of who was eligible to vote in the early national period. Poetry elicited broad civic participation as a variety of readers made contributions to public discourses. For instance, provocatively misogynistic poems generated responses. Lewis and his students documented poems and “anti-poems” that responded to each other over the course of several issues. Many poems expressed the hopes and anxieties of various Boston residents as they contemplated their role in early American society, including a poem about a young seamstress preparing for her marriage. She hoped that her husband would sometimes “let me wear the breeches.” Whether written by a woman or not, this poem indicates that everyday Bostonians grappled with the social roles and political rights of women in the era of the Early Republic.

Lewis and his students underscored that these forgotten poems reveal lively, open, and engaged interactions among readers. They offer glimpses of everyday life – relationships between men and women, labor and occupations, politics, family life, entertainment and pleasures – that might seem foreign to modern readers. In that regard, the poems in The Citizen Poets of Boston are a valuable resource for scholars, teachers, and students. However, I am just as interested in the process: the methodology that made that anthology possible. Using digitized sources to pursue such an extensive project helped to make possible a model of professor-student collaborative work that fulfilled some of the best ideals of scholars incorporating their own research into the classroom to create richer educational experiences. The digital revolution helps to make possible a greater array of “hands-on humanities” projects that engage both scholars and students and ultimately yield significant results.