A Muse Box Filled with Musings

by Nynke Passi

One type of shrine you can make is a Muse box filled with musings:


Erato Muse of Poetry, 1870

Your Muse Box is for collecting scraps, letters, photos, magazine pictures that remind you of things you know, drawings and sketches, objects that remind you of things you want to write about, ideas, lists, mementos, and anything else you can possibly think of that might stir your memory as you begin to think about your portfolio. You can even include letters to your Muse (your very own “genius” as Elizabeth Gilbert calls it), notes to yourself or the universe–truly whatever you want and whatever inspires you, especially random things that don’t fit in the confines of a notebook or journal or items that you haven’t yet sorted for your journal. Collecting scraps for inspiration–either in boxes or books–has been a long-standing literary tradition, especially on this continent. Here the literary examples of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain:

From Christopher Benfey, “Scrapbook Nation”: NYBooks Scrapbook Nation, a blog reflection on Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance

A scrapbook advertisement from The New York Herald, December 11, 1876

Garvey notes that Whitman and Dickinson “were not poets that Civil War scrapbook makers sought with their scissors.” True enough, and yet both poets extended what might be called the scrapbook culture of the nineteenth century in new and surprising aesthetic directions. A newspaperman by trade, Whitman wrote capacious poems that Emerson characterized as a hybrid of the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. Like a reporter assigned to the Metro desk, Whitman proclaimed:

This is the city… and I am one of the citizens;
Whatever interests the rest interests me… politics, churches, newspapers, schools
Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs, steamships…

Whitman’s Specimen Days, which he described as “the most wayward, spontaneous, fragmentary book ever printed,” is a moving scrapbook of clippings and jottings from the whole span of his life, including his years as a volunteer nurse in Union hospitals. While conceding that “the real war will never get into the books,” in Specimen Days Whitman tried to get at what he called the “interior history” of the war. Unlike more conventional scrapbookers with their impersonal digests of clippings from the distant battlefront, Whitman (who famously boasted, “I am large. I contain multitudes”) wrote himself into the proceedings. Sitting at the bedside of a young Irish boy, asleep, with a bullet hole through his lung, Whitman wrote that the boy

suddenly, without the least start, awaken’d, open’d his eyes, gave me a long steady look, turning his face very slightly to gaze easier—one long, clear, silent look—a slight sigh—then turn’d back and went into his doze again. Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover’d near.


A hyperactive cutter and paster, Emily Dickinson also repurposed scraps and clippings for original creative work, shifting—like Whitman, or perhaps like ambitious Facebook compilers today—from consumer to producer. Late in life, she wrote dazzling fragments of verse and prose on discarded envelopes, chocolate wrappers, and stray bits clipped from magazines and newspapers. These scraps functioned as something more than convenient notepads, encouraging spur-of-the-moment poetic spontaneity and the creative challenge of fitting stray thoughts to odd shapes of paper.

She wrote poems about birds on the twin wings of envelopes and poems about houses across the roof-like flap. (These fascinating creations were recently published in limited-edition facsimile as The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope-Poems, with a list price of $3,500.) At times, she seems to be venturing into some new concept of poetry as visual art, as when she enigmatically deploys a serpentine poem about encountering a spider in an outhouse or a prison (“Alone and in a Circumstance / Reluctant to be told / A spider on my reticence / Assiduously crawled”) around a passage clipped from a review of George Sand and a postage stamp with an image of a train.


Photo: Emily Dickinson Collection/Amherst College

(…) Mark Twain was perhaps the king of American scrapbook culture. According to the OED, he was the first writer to use “scrapbook” as a verb, writing in 1881 about the origins of his book A Tramp Abroad, “I scrap-booked these reports during several months.” Prolific in inventing ways to lose money, especially in his attempts to predict how books would be published in the future (not, he found to his chagrin, with type fashioned from clay), Twain successfully marketed his own patented design for a more efficient scrapbook, outfitted with no-muss adhesive pages and an index awaiting entries. Twain’s scrapbook can be seen as the ancestor of the lavish “Keeping Memories Alive” scrapbook industry today, with its glitter and fluff and hobby stores, and, incidentally, its more recent origins in the genealogy-affirmative Mormon community. “For members of the Church,” as a Mormon website puts it, “creating memory books seemed to come naturally.”’


Twain, as befitted his pen name, was ambivalent about scrapbooks. In Huckleberry Finn, he lambasted the necrophilic scrapbook of the amateur poet Emmeline Grangerford, filled with “obituaries and accidents and cases of patient suffering” along with her own morbid contributions—including, in one of Twain’s most inspired satirical creations, stanzas like this:

Despised love struck not with woe
That head of curly knots,
Nor stomach troubles laid him low,
Young Stephen Dowling Bots.

[In Victorian times, many women especially collected scrapbooks filled with obituaries and other morbid memorabilia.]


Page of Twain’s Scrapbook

And yet, Twain’s loose and baggy non-fiction books Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, and A Tramp Abroad were assembled from his own carefully maintained travel scrapbooks, and retain some of the pleasingly serendipitous and fragmented feel of life on the road. “Anyone may compose a scrapbook, and offer it to the public with nothing like Mark Twain’s good-fortune,” as his friend William Dean Howells wryly observed. “Everything seems to depend upon the nature of the scraps, after all.”

Ellen Gruber Harvey’s Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance is published by Oxford University Press.


Brief excerpt from the above article on Maude Newton’s blog, click here: Maude Newton Blog Tumblr Emily Dickinson Repurposed Scraps


Hesiod Listening to the Inspiration of the Muse