Sunday, October 03, 2010

Book Review: "An Extensive Republic" (HBA, Volume 2)

The second of five monumental volumes comprising the History of the Book in America (HBA) series published in association with the American Antiquarian Society by the University of North Carolina Press was the last to be released, just this summer. But An Extensive Republic: Print, Culture, and Society in the New Nation, 1790-1840, edited by Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelley, is certainly not the least of the quintet, neither in terms of quality nor in the importance of the period under consideration.

In introductory and concluding chapters, Gross offers the framework for this volume, noting the wide variety of media, technologies, human actors, and other factors that contributed to American literary culture in the early republic. It is far too simplistic to conclude that the evidence shows a progressive rise toward a national culture of print over the first decades of the 19th century; the real story is much more complex, and much more interesting. I think he puts this well toward the end of the volume, noting that just as the book "challenges the excesses of literary nationalism by highlighting the persistence of Old World practices and influences in the print culture of the new nation, so this volume undercuts inflated claims about an 'Age of Print' by documenting the perpetuation of older modes of expression and communication in the small-scale, face-to-face settings of everyday life and the alteration in tandem with print by the gathering forces of social and economic change. Even as printed words and images increased, diversified, and extended their reach, they commingled with other forms equally important to the construction of community and identity and to the organization of politics and society" (pp. 517-518).

An Extensive Republic is divided into six topical sections, each populated with essays by undisputed experts in the field. Section I, "A Republic in Print: Ideologies and Institutions" begins with Richard Brown writing on the Revolution's impact on book history; he argues that the conflict and its attendant focus on republican ideology led to a much more decentralized, polycentric print culture than was the case in Great Britain or in the American colonies, while also bringing more demographic groups into the "reading classes." James Green offers a masterful examination of the publishing trades in the nascent republic, tracing the slow shift from a "reprint culture" to a nationalistic industry. He examines a whole range of competitive and cooperative strategies followed by publishers, and chronicles the changes in technology, materials and business models that shaped the trade during these decades.

Scott Casper and Karen Nipps offer instructive publishing case studies, of the Harpers' various series of "library" volumes marketed as sets and of the Philadelphia job-printer Lydia Bailey respectively. Jack Larkin paints a vivid picture of rural printing during the period, characterized by high mobility and a high failure rate, but also by a surprising ubiquity. William Pretzer profiles journeyman printers as they came to grips not only with technological changes in their field but also to the "intrusion" of different work forces (woman, free blacks) and joined together in typographical societies and even early forms of labor unions.

In Section II, "Spreading the Word in Print," John Brooke begins by reevaluating the role newspapers played in the early republic, concluding that the assumption of universal access doesn't actually bear scrutiny, and noting important regional differences in the role of the newspaper press. Jeffrey Pasley profiles political journalist and office-seeker John Norvell, and Meredith McGill ably summarizes the development of and debates over copyright law and jurisprudence in America. Richard John underscores the importance of the 1792 Post Office Act, noting that "no single piece of legislation did more to expand the geographic horizons of American public life" (p. 214). By providing set routes for communication and dependable stagecoach services, and by granting preferential rates to newspapers, the postal service provided vital infrastructure for the transmission of print culture around the country, he argues.

Section III, "Educating the Citizenry" features Ken Carpenter's examination of the origins, difficulties, and characteristics of social (or membership) libraries, which he finds were "easier to establish than to sustain" (p. 273) due to their general lack of a dedicated building, limited hours, and inevitable decline as both the founders and original stock aged and tended not to be replenished. Their success, he maintains, depended on the availability of the latest products of the press, and many simply could not meet that demand. Essays by Gerald Moran and Maris Vinoskis and by Charles and E. Jennifer Monaghan treat the rise of schools and the variety and increase in schoolbook publishing (the first of these is particularly good for its discussion of the ongoing debate over historical literacy rates and how they can be measured).

Dean Grodzins and Leon Jackson take on a subject near and dear to my heart in their essay on print culture at colleges in the early Republic. They conclude, and I think justly, that the institutions played only a "modest role in the expansion of print culture," (p. 319), but they acknowledge the shifting collecting strategies that began to spring up during this period (away from haphazard collection by donation and toward acquisition by design, such as is seen both at Union College and in Jefferson's book orders for the University of Virginia). Grodzins and Jackson also point out the continuing role of orality in college life, and in the role of the student literary societies in provided extracurricular reading for their students. Mary Kelley treats the female academies in the same fashion, noting the surprising fact that the hundreds of academies were educating just about the same number of young women as the colleges were educating young men, and with very similar curricula (with the exception that the women were not expected to be instructed in Latin and Greek rather earlier than the shift occurred in the colleges).

The fourth section, "Gendering Authorship and Audiences," features twin essays on male and female writers in the early republic, authored by David Leverenz and Joanne Dobson/Sandra Zagarell. The salient conclusions here are similar to those in many of the other essays - it's difficult to generalize, adaptability was key, and few made much money.

In the fifth section, "Genres of Print," various sub-categories of print culture are considered, including newspapers and periodicals, evangelical magazines, literary reviews, novels, travel books, and biographies. Georgia Barnhill's essay on illustration techniques and strategies is also included here. Similarly the final section treats three distinct sub-groups among the American reading public: German-Americans (a community engaged with print, but as a means to facilitate adjustment into general society, not to stand apart from it), African-Americans (for whom participation with print culture proved both proactive and reactive), and Cherokee Indians (a group that consciously chose mass literacy in the 1820s "toward the end of maintaining their independence as an Indian people", p. 514).

This volume, clearly a labor of love on the part of its contributors and editors, is beautifully-designed with frequent illustrations, a very well-chosen font, and rich source notes (my notes on articles and books to examine run onto several pages). All involved should be justly proud of their creation. This is a wide-ranging book that may not be comprehensive in its treatment of print culture in the early republic, but is probably as close as we can ever hope to come. I would have liked to have seen more in the way of examination into personal reading habits and private libraries, but there's room for that in another volume. As it stands, this and its companion volumes are an indispensable resource, and one to which I'm sure I'll return often and with great pleasure.

No comments: