The Romantic Album as Salon Prop for Performing Authorial Identities

Justyna Beinek, University of Toronto

The album – a scrapbook containing verse, prose, autographs, drawings, and personal memorabilia – played an important role in the social setting of the early nineteenth-century Russian salon. The album functioned as an interactive and playful prop of a salon hostess, while also allowing for what was possibly the greatest social and psychological project of Romanticism: the fashioning of identities. The album coalesced at the defining moment of the professionalization of literature and served as a stepping- stone in the process of literature becoming a social institution and the writer – a professional author. At a time when gendered and authorial versions of the “self” were only beginning to take shape, the album served as a forum for rehearsing and performing various identities. It also functioned as a space for the spectacles and fantasies of impromptu artistic creation and improvisation.

Albums served as an arena for poets who could put their work on display at the time when professional publishing was just beginning in Russia and Poland. Albums were frequently instrumental in establishing authorship at the time when the court aristocracy "was not really a reading public… it kept men of letters as it kept servants" (Habermas 38). The phenomenon of the album was a small step in a series of events that eventually erased the system of patronage. The album nurtured the relationship between writer and audience: poems were read aloud and commented upon. Such literary practices were an important part of incipient professionalization, the process of writers' becoming professional authors (Todd 105). If we situate the album within Todd's framework of three institutions that shaped the literary process at that time – the patronage system, the literature of familiar groups, and professionalization of literature (Todd 73) – this frequently belittled object clearly becomes a point of convergence, one that shows us how they operated on a very concrete level.


Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1998, 9th ed.

Todd, William Mills III. Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.