Sunday, February 27, 2011

Book Review: "A New Nation of Goods"

Before I even say a word about the content of David Jaffee's A New Nation of Goods: The Material Culture of Early America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) let me just note that it is a very nice book. From the vibrant colors on the jacket to the weight of the paper (thick, glossy stuff) and the size of the book (a bit larger than a "normal" hardback) to the quality of the illustrations (black and white integrated into the text, with a section of color plates in the middle), this is an excellent example of the physical book at its finest.

Now, on to the book itself. Jaffee writes in the preface that he's out to highlight "the significant role of provincial artisans in four crafts - chairmaking, clockmaking, portrait painting, and book production - to explain the shift from pre-industrial society to an entirely new configuation of work, commodities, and culture" (p. ix). He posits what he terms a "Village Enlightenment" (which he seems to have first coined in a 1990 WMQ article) in the United States after the Revolution, a transformational process which saw the "formation of a market for cultural commodities in printed form; it signifies the erosion of a hierarchical structure of authority, in which local culture was controlled by clerical or a college-trained elite; and it points to the emergence of a social organization of knowledge suitable to the requirements of rural folk in the rising republic" (p. 48).

Through the use of well-chosen case studies and much archival research, Jaffee explores key figures in his four areas of interest: book production and printing, clockmaking, portraiture, and chairmaking. Most of the people in these pages may not be household names today, but Jaffee argues that they played a key role in "refashion[ing] large luxury goods such as tall clocks and weighty imported literary tomes into cheap shelf clocks and popular biographies" (p. ix). From clockmaker Eli Terry to schoolmaster and literatus Silas Felton to chairmaker Lambert Hitchcock and portrait artist Ralph Earl, we meet a cast of interesting, entrepreneurial characters from the American "hinterlands" (mostly the upper Connecticut River valley) who, Jaffee maintains, laid the groundwork for the shift to American industrial culture in the mid-19th century.

This is a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary study, drawing on the book history work of Mary Kelley, Cathy Davidson, David Hall and others, as well as recent scholarship in Jaffee's other areas of emphasis. The narrative is readable and interesting, although there are some organizational aspects I might have done differently (a few sections of the text seem to have been inserted in places that quite fit right). I was perplexed by an odd error: Jaffee, talking about Ralph Earl's c. 1775-76 portrait of Roger Sherman (which is a wonderful image), writes that the "plain Philadelphia Windsor low-back chair on which he was seated linked him to his recent role in the Constitutional Convention" (p. 81), but the Convention was, at the time the portrait was painted, well in the future. Presumably Jaffee is referring to the Continental Congress.

Overall, a well-made and fascinating look at post-Revolutionary American entrepreneurship and commercial culture.

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