Historicists who have attempted to reconstruct reader response generally overlook personal manuscripts as sources for inquiry. This essay calls upon twenty sets of family papers, including letters and diaries, from the Boston region between 1835 and 1860 in an effort to understand the discourse of antebellum response. Several "real readers," in this case middle-class and highly literate New Englanders, recorded their reactions, from terse to complex, to both fiction and nonfiction. Their responses range from simple expressions of "interest" to analyses of the usefulness and emotional instrumentality of the text; and some readers engaged specific textual passages, thus offering a glimpse at the reading experience in real time. This discourse about reading acquired conventions of its own and denoted a particular type of community based upon shared texts. Needful of writing letters to maintain contact with others, or hoping to keep memories alive in diaries, these informants often formulated their responses with others in mind; as such, these responses connote a level of engagement with a text that transcends atomized individual experience and activates the maintenance of social ties. Our approach, while founded upon historical methodologies that utilize personal manuscripts rather than published literature, does not attempt to contest the primacy of texts studying reader response, but rather it hopes to unearth new sources useful to both historians and literary critics.
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