Several years ago when I was in graduate school, my mother-in-law (a
professor of environmental studies) showed me a manuscript from the
last century. I might be interested in it, she thought, because it was full
of poetry that reminded her of Mark Twain's Emmeline Grangerford and
she knew of my interest in nineteenth-century American women's writ-
ing. "Look at this! What do you think of these?" she said, as she passed
me a piece of pale blue paper covered with a long poem beginning: "Oh
can it be that Wayland's dead / My lovely darling son." She was right.
These pages did seem to be the prototypes of Emmeline Grangerford's
"tributes." Sitting together on the sofa we were, at first, confident in
our shared taste and shared cultural knowledge: recognizing these as like
Twain's poem, we could safely classify them as the silly, naive, sentimental
effusions of pretentious backwoods denizens. "How could anyone have
thought these were beautiful?" we knowingly said to each other. Recog-
nizing these poems this way reinforced our mutual recognition of our-
selves as knowing, tasteful, and sophisticated readers. Daughter-in-law
to mother-in-law, graduate student to professor, we bonded (as Oprah
Winfrey might put it) over our shared perception of the ugliness of this
Yet, we continued to read and as we did a strange thing happened.
We began to exchange looks with each other that did not convey a
shared knowingness but an interrogatory wariness. I wondered what my
mother-in-law would think if I confessed to being genuinely moved and
intrigued by some of these poems. She, it turns out, wondered the same.
"You know," she said, "when I first read through them, I cried. I know
they're bad poems but ... ?" These poems were different from Twain's.
They were not so easy to laugh at. Or, maybe, they were too similar.
Like Huck responding to Emmeline's "crayons," my mother-in-law and
I experienced a mild case of the "fantods" on reading these accounts of
lost love and ancient griefs. Despite the really alien aesthetic and across