A Historian’s Review of Writing with Scissors — H-Net

I’ve worried about what historians would think about Writing with Scissors, since it’s about materials that historians so often use. James Adams’s review on H-Net picks up on just that issue.

Garvey presents an elegant argument that actually shifts the reader’s paradigm…. Hers is an argument that, with only a few minor philosophical quibbles, forces us to reexamine our opinions toward the aggregation of information during the age of the newspaper, the concept of the author, and the hegemonic nature of cultural history.

A theme that runs through Writing with Scissors is that of agency. This, perhaps, is the work’s greatest strength. By detailing the methods scrapbookers used to retain information, the way that marginalized peoples used scrapbooks to author an alternate historical narrative, and the evolution of data management, Garvey reminds us that the past is not merely a collection of sterile, once-removed factoids stored away in wait of a scholar to unearth and examine them. Rather, the past consists of people acting.  Individuals created scrapbooks, culling a wide assortment of periodicals in order to remind themselves (or, perhaps, to show those in the future) what issues in particular were of great import to them. If viewed in this manner the scrapbook transcends its humble beginnings and its “scrappy” nature, becoming an intensely personal letter from an individual long past who wishes to speak to us in the present.  Facts are merely facts, but the scrapbook reminds us that those facts were generated by living human beings existing in a particular time and place, and subsequently judged by an individual as worthy of retention. If viewed in this manner, the scrapbook becomes more than ephemera gathering dust in an archive and instead becomes a valued historical source.

I’m so grateful that Writing with Scissors has been welcomed by attentive readers!

Reviewed in New York Review of Books

Gumby scrapbook page of Frederick Douglass

A page about Frederick Douglass from the scrapbooks of L. S. Alexander Gumby – Columbia Univ. Libraries

Christopher Benfey’s review in the New York Review of Books blog of Writing with Scissors, “Scrapbook Nation,” makes great connections between scrapbooks and the writings of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. He reproduces some of the Dickinson writings on scraps of paper in the Amherst College archives that I had the chance to see this fall, with Karen Sanchez-Eppler’s class. Gorgeous and tantalizing. I’m so thrilled to have this brilliant and beautiful writer enjoying my book! (And I’m inspired to catch up on his other reviews – enjoyable reading.)