GUEST INFORMANT: Jess Nevins

September 6th, 2011 | guest informant

My friend Jess Nevins is a librarian, cultural researcher & scholar, and the author of books like the incredible FANTASTIC VICTORIANA and the famous LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN annotation volumes.  I asked him to write to you about whatever he was interested in today, and he sent this:

Fandom wasn’t always such a negative experience for creators.

I don’t mean fans. Creators have had devoted fans since at least Sappho’s time. I mean fandom. Which as we all know was the creation of English teenaged girls at the start of the 19th century.

Right?

The “commonplace book” is a kind of scrapbook made up of quotes, excerpts, poems, and so on which has been around in one form or another since the 14th century. But in the early 19th century keeping a commonplace book was seen as a female practice, in much the same way that the novel was seen as a female genre at this time. Assembling a commonplace book was especially popular among young women, who saw them as “patchwork quilts” well-suited for bringing together their favorite poems or lines of poetry.

Some historians of commonplace books see this as an early form of bricolage. But for English teenagers in the early 19th century, art wasn’t being created through the assemblage of quotes, a persona was.

Traditionally the commonplace book had been intended for the compiler’s eyes only, but by the 19th century the commonplace book was intended to be seen by the friends of the compiler. The usual practice was to pass the book to a friend, who would sign it and add his or her own favorite quotes and poems. Social status was conferred by having a well-known member of the community or poet or artist sign your commonplace book, but for the most part the book was meant as a record of your friends. The commonplace book was no longer about remembering quotes, but about remembering friends, and presenting yourself to them. Your friends would judge you on what was in your commonplace book, what you read and what you wrote. And the farther your commonplace book circulated, the more signatures you received in it and the more worldly your poetic excerpts showed you to be, the higher in social ranking you rose among your friends.

You can see the resemblance to Facebook, can’t you?

Fandom arose from the approach commonplace book compilers took to reading: actively, in what theorist Michel de Certeau might have called an act of poaching (“readers are like travelers, they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields”). In the early 19th century Lord Byron was the most-quoted author, the most referred-to, the one who loomed largest in the collective consciousness of readers. Lord Byron also created a unique dynamic for his readers; they were fans of Byron but were also aware of being part of the community of Byron fandom, a fandom they actively organized and propagated. Byron fans felt they had a unique understanding of him and his work, and expressed this in their choice of excerpts from his works.

Often the poems were copied with a rigorous attention to the original text. But nearly as often, the commonplace compilers would edit the original text, deleting some lines and altering others, so that a love poem to a woman from a man would be changed to a love poem from a woman to a man. Comparisons of the original poems with what appears in commonplace books shows that commonplace compilers often sought out unauthorized versions of the poems, or original manuscripts (rather than the versions appearing in the published “authorized” or “complete” works). Dueling versions of a poem would often appear in a commonplace book, allowing for the compiler and her readers to write their own comments on which version was superior, or to suggest improvements to the poem.

Byron’s reaction to these changes was not what might be expected. He had his own commonplace book and actively participated in commonplace culture, happily writing quotes of his own work in his fans’ commonplace books and even commenting on their alterations of his own work. He found it an opportunity to flirt, of course–this is Lord Byron, after all, and his “Verses, Written in Compliance with a Lady’s Request to Contribute to Her Album” [link] is one long un-subtle pick-up line–but he also encouraged his fans to keep challenging his work. He enjoyed the process of interacting with his fandom through commonplace books, and even put poems in his fans’ commonplace books which appeared nowhere else, as was the case with “Verses, Written in Compliance with a Lady’s Request to Contribute to Her Album.”

Those days are long gone, of course. Byron’s fandom was a community of equals, more or less, whose statements and activities were restrained by manners and common courtesy. There were no Secret Masters of Byron Fandom, there was no trolling, and no behavior that made Byron swear off interacting with his fans. Online anonymity has much to recommend it, but it has assured us that something like Byron’s relations with his fans will never happen again.

Good job, Internet.

Jess’ wonderfully odd Tumblr can be found here, and he’s also on Twitter.


3 Responses to “GUEST INFORMANT: Jess Nevins”

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