Ellen Gruber Garvey: Writing with Scissors
Author: David Blaustein
February 26, 2013
“[…]with Facebook, Pinterest, with other online modes, blogging….We are catching things [in the news and on the web] and passing them along. What I’m showing is how the past comments on, and is related to, what we’re doing now.”
When Ellen Gruber Garvey wandered into the lesbian-owned Common Reader Bookshop in New Salem, MA, she didn’t know that owner Doris Abramson would hand her an old scrapbook that would set her on a literary chase that would keep her running for the next decade.
Garvey had examined a variety of artifacts, exploring the gender codification that accompanied the ascendancy of print advertising beginning in the later 19th century in her previous book, The Adman In The Parlor: Magazines and the Gendering of Consumer Culture, 1880s to 1910. So when Garvey’s friend mentioned this to Abramson, the Common Reader Bookshop owner asked Garvey if she’d ever seen anything “like this” and brought out a large old scrapbook filled with newspaper and periodical clippings. 19th century scrapbooks such as Abramson’s were a popular means of hanging onto the stories, articles, poems, helpful tips, and recipes conveyed in the great number of publications that constituted the era’s information onslaught, when newspapers became very cheap and the Civil War led multitudes to follow the news more closely than ever before.
Professor Garvey’s Writing With Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance was the result of this meeting. Garvey, Professor in the English Department of New Jersey City University, invested ten years in her research: her book is both wide-ranging and eminently readable. Garvey attains a fair balance between her popular and academic audiences as she investigates the accommodations to, and uses of, our past and current media landscapes, engagingly tying earlier eras to our own. Her discussions of our current technologies is consistently unexpected and challenging.
What Lambda readers will be especially interested in are the many sophisticated ways that Garvey includes lesbian and gay content throughout her book, to produce a more complete exploration of American history through the lens of this wildly popular pastime. Following is some of the interview I recently conducted with the author.
When anyone says scrapbook now, we all think of very nice pictures, postcards…something wholly personal. What you are writing about, even if hundreds and thousands of people were doing it, it’s very novel to us. People are not doing anything similar now…
Well they are, they’re doing it with Facebook, Pinterest, with other online modes, blogging….We are catching things [in the news and on the web] and passing them along. What I’m showing is how the past comments on, and is related to, what we’re doing now.
In the many years’ process you undertook, how did, or did, the lesbian/gay community help shape your work? I picture a small army of lesbian/gay librarians…
I had the example of The History Project [publishers of Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland] who have dug around and found hidden history, one was a librarian at the Boston Atheneum, he was enormously helpful not so much finding queer materials but [in proffering] the model of finding the hidden, knowing that there’s evidence of something that could be in plain sight but you’re not seeing it — that you need to reorient your vision.
When I first started as an academic, being a lesbian wasn’t something to hide exactly, but it wasn’t something to point to as a source of useful knowledge. I could write about gay and lesbian topics, books, authors certainly, I’m thinking of someone like Melissa Homestead who’s working on uncovering Willa Cather’s relationship with Edith Lewis, Lewis’s importance in Cather’s writing as an editor…that’s more what was typical when I was first becoming an academic and I was very interested in that, that’s what drew me to academia.
The idea that you could uncover something about texts or read against the grain is an ongoing interest and more prevalent now. For example, [although] I read lesbian pulp novels from the time I was a teen, I didn’t read them the same way I read Dickens, but I discovered a different way of reading — that I was interested in reading layers, how did different people read those texts…the group of people looking at this now, lots of them are gay or lesbian. Jaime Harker just finished a book on Christopher Isherwood using his [own] fan mail. Such methods give queer academics new ways of gathering and utilizing information about groups of readers [to bring fresh approaches to their scholarship]. We’ve taught each other these different tools and then we apply them to all sorts of texts. And I think we’re less restrictive now of what is a queer text than we were decades ago.
You use several similar phrases throughout Writing With Scissors— “secret histories,” and “hidden histories” being two. I associate the idea of hidden history with the history of the lesbian and gay community. What do these terms signify for you?
The phrase “hidden history” was used by a black journalist [Gertrude Bustill Mosell] in urging readers to make scrapbooks to reveal otherwise hidden histories of black people from fragments in the white press. She knew that these clippings were precious even if they were hostile — because [the clippings] could be extracted from their hostile surroundings.
“Unwritten histories” was used by L.S. Alexander Gumby, an out gay Harlem Renaissance scrapbooker [and salonnier]. Another writer, E. W. Gurley, called his newspaper clipping scrapbooks “the secret histories of my soul.” He said that what you choose to include in your scrapbook is too personal to reveal to other people. This is very familiar to me as a lesbian.
So a person compiling a scrapbook is really compiling a self?
Yes in two ways, it’s akin to someone writing an autobiography and creating a second self. You’re building a second self, and [you’re building] a record of your reading. And you are creating a future self. Also it’s a way of training your own tastes.
What are you going to be doing next?
I’ll be looking at how the newspaper functions as a virtual reality and the anxieties that creates. And following up on this book [‘Writing with Scissors’], I want to see whether there is another way of finding queer history hidden in these scrapbooks that are in college collections, for example we know that scrapbooks from gay people like Carl Van Vechten are out there with specifically homoerotic content, but going down another few layers where are we starting to see those worlds saved in other aspects?
The obvious question, is your title Writing With Scissors a reference to Augusten Burroughs’ best selling gay memoir Running With Scissors?
No! It wasn’t my intention. The title was suggested by a friend. Though [Burroughs’ title] does capture some of the transgressiveness I’ve found in scrapbooks. It was originally going to be called Rock, Paper, Scissors, signifying a non-hierarchy of information, a constantly rotating hierarchy as information moves from newspaper to scrapbook to book and back again.
I’m struck with the title itself, “writing” and “scissors” seem like such totally opposite terms.
Present day scrapbooks are worth noticing, they come out of a very heterosexual world of Mormon families, special scissors and ornamented borders and stickers all over the place, they’re very photo-centered but they’re not photo albums per se. They focus on the family
To think about 19th century scrapbooks, in a way we could think they’re much more queer, because they’re about transmission of information outside the family. They’re not family-centered or -focused in the same way, at least some of the ones that I got very interested in. Some of them are shared with a larger community. William Dorsey, for example, kept a room in his house that was a museum where you could look at his 400 scrapbooks, many of them about black life.
I think of the term queering, not just in terms of a strictly gay meaning…
Another way of going at this is to think about one of the theoretical approaches that I work with, which is reception theory, to understand that people read from many different positions. It’s the audience that creates [the content]. The different ways of reading both come out of — and create — communities.
Michael Warner, another queer theorist, also writes about “publics” and “counter-publics.” I think in some ways [his theory] is problematic because people are simultaneously in both, it’s not like they are only inside a counter-public. But also they’re creating communities with their ways of reading.
And with these scrapbooks, it’s not just the straight information on the page.
Right, scrapbooks are not just recreating the same newspaper. They’re also remaking the contents of the newspaper. So a black scrapbook maker with a strong racial consciousness clips articles that have to do with black people and puts them together on the page so that you can see bias. In one example, a scrapbook maker who was concerned with lynching juxtaposes things so that you see the injustice, pasting one example of a story about a black man accused of raping a white teenager being lynched — next to that on the page is an article about a white man accused of raping a white teenager who is acquitted, and in fact the judge says it’s impossible that he could have raped her because after all she’s had sex before. The irony is very clear, [but] the newspaper didn’t put them together, the scrapbook maker did…in this case he’s writing with scissors, he’s making a very articulate commentary just by clipping and pasting.
Anything you’d like to say in closing?
I hope my book will give readers the tools to understand scrapbooks in new ways. Writing with Scissors has materials on LGBT people such as Gumby and the photographer Alice Austen. But I hope that many more queer scrapbooks will come to light that we can apply these tools to.