Books, Reading, and the World of Goods in Antebellum New England
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Books, Reading, and the World of Goods in Antebellum New England

In 1852, after completing two recently published novels, Sunny Side and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Reverend Lavius Hyde wrote with judicious certitude to his daughter, miles away at school: “I think something good will come out of these book-making propensities of the age.” He hastened to add in the letter—the one tenuous line of parental influence left to him—“I hope our darling Sarah, will not neglect her Bible in this age of many Books.” 1 Hyde, like many other antebellum Americans, felt overwhelmed by the ocean of print that flooded the market along with the wide array of other consumer goods such as furnishings, wallpapers, decorative items, textiles, and foods. 2 With a plethora of titles vying for attention, even the most prudent consumer felt challenged to exercise selectivity; indeed, one of Hyde’s contemporaries on a shopping spree complained of at least “half a dozen” books that “seemed entreating me to take them.” 3 To be sure, enjoyment of the bounty commonly accompanied the sense of [End Page 587] inundation. 4 But, within the seemingly chaotic “world of goods,” in which texts, like other goods, were mass produced, marketed, and widely distributed, could people render personal or intimate significance to the books they owned? 5

This essay attempts to show that many antebellum Americans imbued their books with a richness of meaning despite the commodification process. As consumer items, books often transcended commercial value and performed varied functions as multivalent objects: they could entertain and educate and their very costliness could convey owners’ status, but they also offered solace, kindled memories, and, in general, helped maintain ties to loved ones. 6 How books and reading helped preserve these connections takes precedence here, over other roles they might conceivably play in consumers’ lives. 7

Recapturing emotions and sentiments of people who lived a century and a half ago is difficult, because such subjective evidence that exists remains scattered and buried in the historical record. At least one group, however, left a rich trove in which to mine the meanings they ascribed to books: well-educated middle class families from the Boston region. 8 As they contended with the often dolorous by-products of abundance and capital accumulation—upheaval, mobility, and estrangement from friends and family—they turned to letter writing and diary keeping. 9 Such literary efforts helped them maintain their past connections and to preserve memories of their unfolding lives. “What a world of meetings and partings this is!” one women wrote in 1841 to her parents as she journeyed from her childhood home to a new one on the frontier. “May all who love each other meet in a better world never to be separated!” 10 Her personal papers, and those of many other “Yankee family” members, 11 reveal within their sometimes strained but often eloquent gestures toward preservation of emotional ties, the essential role of books and reading in the social “meaning of things.” 12 These manuscripts and the voices that emerge from them form the basis of this study. 13

In our quest to unearth the meaning of books and reading, we compiled—from nearly thirty distinct family collections containing correspondence, accounts, journals, diaries, and commonplace books—any references to books or reading, no matter how seemingly trivial or at first glance incomprehensible. 14 Our approach emerged through induction: after closely reading the written testaments of about a hundred informants, we found that the published texts themselves often [End Page 588] mattered less to these people than the meanings they ascribed to the printed goods they used. 15 Our treatment of this material thus departs from conventional literary history in that it does not focus on printed texts, but rather on this community’s attitudes toward the consumption of books as recorded in the letters and diaries it produced. 16 In these documents, books commonly had very specific local and even personal expressions rooted in the historical moment. The varied ways these informants discuss books within the larger world of goods frustrated the search for univalent “signs” or “grammars,” or universal motives such...