Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Review: "Removable Type"

Phillip H. Round's Removable Type: Histories of the Book in Indian Country, 1663-1880 (UNC Press, 2010) offers a look at what Round terms the "heretofore-unrecorded history of almost two centuries of American Indian life among books" (pg. 4). From the translations of John Eliot to the ledger art of the Great Plains, Round examines how "print provided Native authors and their communities with a much-needed weapon in their battles against relocation, allotment, & cultural erasure" (pg. 5). Using D.F. McKenzie's idea of a "sociology of texts," Round sets out to show both that "print mattered in Indian country" and that "Native people self-consciously manipulated print and were integral members of the composite body that is American print culture" (pg. 18).

Both these arguments are well borne out in Round's eight chapters, which treat in roughly chronological order the spread and trends in printing for and by American Indian cultures (from John Eliot's translations, through the shift to English-only literacy efforts, to the 19th-century moves toward cultural preservation/revitalization, and also encompassing short studies on Indian authorship, reprinting of Indian texts, and illustration trends and techniques). Round's examples generally serve to bolster his argument that print became an important component of Native life and culture over time (at the same time as, he notes only very briefly in passing, it also grew more universally important throughout the United States, not just among Indian cultures): his sketches of David Cusick (whose 1828 Sketches of Ancient History of the Six Nations was "the first Native-authored, Native-printed, Native-copyrighted text"), James Printer (who was instrumental in John Eliot's productions) and William Appess, among others, are well chosen.

There are, however, some problematic aspects to Round's book. I'm more familiar with the early period than some of the others, so errors there tended to catch my eye: Eliot's Indian Bible was not printed in folio (pg. 26), but in quarto, and Round makes too much of King Philip's War as an end-point for 17th-century translations into Indian languages (pg. 44). While that conflict certainly changed perceptions (and may well have hastened the end of the practice), Eliot's translations and productions continued, with multiple productions during the 1680s (including translations of Lewis Bayley's Practice of Piety and Thomas Shepard's Sincere Convert). The most notable of these is the 1680/1685 second edition of Eliot's Bible, which Round neglects to mention entirely (and which is important since most of the few surviving copies of the Bible which contain Indian annotations and marginalia are examples of the second edition, not the first). This error extends to the caption of an image (pg. 31) from the Congregational Library's copy of the second edition, which Round refers to as a copy of the first edition.

These are hardly fatal flaws (easily corrected in the next printing, I hope) and they do little to undermine Round's main point. Overall, this is a readable and enlightening study of how books, reading, and print culture overspread and became important in American Indian societies, and how the members of those societies came to understand and make use of print in its varied forms.

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