Books reviewed: Ellen Gruber Garvey. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
By Anne Donlon
A few years ago, I was handing in my request slip at Columbia’s Rare Book Library to read Nancy Cunard’s 1934 anthology Negro, when an archivist asked me if I knew of Alexander Gumby. I hadn’t heard of Gumby or his scrapbooks before, but later that semester I scrolled through several reels of microfilmed pages, familiarizing myself with his project. When I needed photographs for a conference presentation on Gumby’s scrapbooks-as-archive, I was able to handle some of the books—large volumes with carefully constructed envelopes and frames, personalized labels and stamps. Gumby created an encyclopedic series of scrapbooks throughout the first half of the twentieth-century. He hosted a book salon in Harlem in the 1920s, and was sometimes known as “Mr. Scrapbook.” Toward the end of his life, in the 1950s, he donated his scrapbooks to Columbia. Each volume collated articles and ephemera relating to a topic in African-American culture, such as four volumes on the “Negro as a Soldier,” a volume on the boxer Joe Louis, one on the poet Langston Hughes, and another on Gumby’s Harlem Book Studio.
There are only a few published accounts of Gumby’s contributions. Bruce Nugent wrote a short profile of him, which is included in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent (2002). Jani Scandura’s Down in the Dumps: Place, Modernity, American Depression (2008) devotes the bulk of a chapter to Gumby. More recently, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts featured Gumby and her search for traces of his book salon in Harlem is Nowhere (2011), and Kaiama Glover highlighted him in the lede of her review of the book for the New York Times. Ellen Guber Garvey’s Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance (2013) is the most recent book to draw attention to Gumby’s extraordinary project. She places his scrapbooks as one bookend in a lineage of scrapbook creators that engaged critically with mass media.
African-American scrapbook creators used clippings from the white press to create new accounts of history, and shared with the emergent black press a practice of interrogating mainstream representations. Ida B. Wells’s articles on lynching directly challenged accounts in the white press. Garvey writes, “Black scrapbook makers learned from Wells that they could mine the white newspaper to use it against itself.” Joseph Cathcart (1823 or 1827–1895), William H. Dorsey (1837–1923), both of Philadelphia, and Alexander Gumby (1885–1961) each created over a hundred scrapbooks, most on black culture and history. Like the women suffragists Garvey focuses on in a following chapter, African-American scrapbook creators engaged with and challenged the accounts and silences of the public record on their lives. Dorsey’s “Colored Centenarians” scrapbook collected articles on African-Americans who had reached the age of one-hundred. These elders’ stories demonstrated black contributions to American history and “make African American significance in the national story inescapable.” Though many of these clippings came from white newspapers that obscured the role of slavery in these individuals’ lives, Dorsey “recontextualiz[ed]” the articles and “shift[ed] their meaning” by placing them alongside one another. Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Mary Church Terrell, Jack Johnson, Pauline Hopkins, Anna Julia Cooper, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson each undertook scrapbooking as a way of documenting and motivating their efforts at critique and alternative historical accounts—recording what Gertrude Bustill Mostell called, in 1886, “unwritten history.”
Garvey views scrapbooks through a political lens that allows her to go beyond the idea of the scrapbook as primarily a document of autobiography, memory, and self-representation. Garvey builds on existing scholarship on scrapbooks, like The Scrapbook in American Life (Tucker, Ott, Buckler, eds. 2006), to which she contributed a chapter, and the beautifully illustrated Scrapbooks: An American History (2008) by Jessica Helfand. Garvey’s biggest contribution is that she invites us to understand the scrapbook as a system of information management—and one that is not neutral, but rather allows for deliberate, transgressive readings of the hegemonic public record. In the nineteenth century, the public record was represented primarily in the newspaper. Newspapers were cheap and abundant—the mass medium of the day. Readers, in turn, responded by culling the papers strategically, whether to “send provisions ahead to [a] future self” or to establish an alternative historical record.
Writing With Scissors begins its history of American scrapbooks in the nineteenth century and demonstrates that people exercised and challenged notions of authorship, historiography, and exclusion in this domestic craft. Garvey organizes her argument around several key genres of American scrapbooks—among them Civil War scrapbooks, Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrapbook, African-American and suffragist scrapbooks. She offers theoretical, media-studies and archive-driven analysis of scrapbooks throughout. The last two chapters expand this discussion to consider the challenges that scrapbooks pose for the archive and to argue the legacy of scrapbooks in the information management strategies that emerged in twentieth and twenty-first centuries information science and media studies.
Garvey recognizes the value of asking questions of the scrapbook as a system of organizing, beyond simply examining the content it might contain. The focus on content is what has posed problems for archiving of scrapbooks, where the content’s provenance might be untraceable if the clipping omitted the byline, date, or publication—rather than considering the artifact as a whole. Garvey pays attention to the materiality of the scrapbooks, such as the pages themselves, apart from the content they assembled. Scrapbook makers sometimes “cannibalized” published books by repurposing them as scrapbooks. For instance, “the heft and availability made the Patent Office’s agricultural reports particularly enticing for pasting over.” Of these palimpsestic practices, Garvey notes, that sometimes the “dialogue between the two texts can be complex.” The most provocative of the examples she cites are scrapbooks that reused slavery-era plantation ledgers. In one example, a child pasted baseball articles and cartoons from the 1920s in such a ledger. Garvey notes that by pasting over these documents the authors don’t have to explicitly declare their feelings. Their pasting “expresses at least indifference, and possibly outright hostility, to what lies underneath.”
On the other hand, the status of Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrapbook attracted readers’ and newspaper editors’ admiration. According to one owner, the book “almost put the making of scrapbooks on a new plane, and forbade the use of inferior material.” Newspapers were eager to run advertisements for Twain’s invention “because it raised their own status as well,” as a publication worth preserving. In her reading of the Self-Pasting Scrapbook, Garvey uses Twain’s product to open up a conversation around authorship in the nineteenth century. She links his self-fashioning as a writer to his strategic marketing of the scrapbook. As Twain facilitated readers’ appropriation of newspaper articles and other clippings, he fought for his own credit as author during a time when copyright and rules around intellectual property weren’t very strong, but branding, patents, and trade marking were becoming more sophisticated. Samuel Clemens took on the nom de plume Mark Twain and featured Twain as a character within the narratives so that it was critical to include the name when his articles were reprinted. Thus, unlike so many authors in the nineteenth century, Twain’s authorship wasn’t lost in circulation. Twain also faced recurrent issues with Will Clemens, who, claiming relation, published Twain’s work, accounts of his life, and their letters without permission. Twain found little recourse to put an end to Will Clemens’s poaching, but, as Garvey points out, patent and trademark of his scrapbook proved more effective and profitable.
Scrapbooking was a popular phenomenon in the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Garvey includes images of a multitude of advertisements and cartoons that demonstrate the significance of the scrapbook in popular culture. Similarly, Garvey cites novels and stories where fictional scrapbooks play important roles in the plot or character-development, including Mary Abbot Rand’s “The Christmas Grab-Bag” (1881) and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In prose that is clear, unjargony, and occasionally personal, Garvey gets across both the historical details and the conceptual importance of this phenomenon in the history of the United States. Even while I read ideas that were alarmingly like ones I’ve uttered myself (my own dissertation work covers similar ground, and thus at risk of an insecure, jealous, defensive response), I felt comfortable, at ease, and convinced by Garvey’s writing.
The book’s most portable argument is that scrapbooks are a method of organizing information that have direct ties to the way we interact with media today. Garvey notes that scrapbooks “are the foundations of more recent filtering of information via digital methods . . . They all understand that pieces of information—whether in the form of articles, books, or snippets—are detachable, movable, and classifiable under multiple headings.” As people extracted and preserved clippings from the newspaper in scrapbooks, the practice expanded in scope. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Robert Budd, known as “Back Number Budd,” collected runs of newspapers, which he made available to customers, mostly journalists and lawyers. They could peruse Budd’s collection by paper and date; the value of his service was that he preserved ephemera that most discarded. Clipping agencies similarly retrieved past newspaper articles for clients, but had a different search method, closer to the one we employ most often online today. Agents searched papers according to “keywords.”
So, just as you might cut out this review from the paper edition of the Advocate and put it in a filing cabinet or a scrapbook, you might bookmark the link to the online edition, save it in Zotero or Evernote, or tweet it or post it on a blog. Perhaps, like Gumby had topical scrapbooks, you have blogs that each deal with a particular theme. By pointing out the connections between the paper technologies that preceded digital archives and social media, Garvey opens conversations between scholars of nineteenth-century print culture, twentieth-century modernism, digital humanists, and archivists. Garvey points to particular scrapbooking strategies and conceptual questions that can themselves be extrapolated and recontextualized to consider other texts, historical moments, and locations. Writing With Scissors makes a huge contribution to scrapbook studies, and I imagine it will be a jumping off point for many further projects. Let’s run with it.