- Symbolic Caxton: Literary Culture and Print Capitalism
In this monograph, as in the recent essay collection he edited (Caxton's Trace:: Studies in the History of English Printing, 2006), William Kuskin aims, laudably, to refocus critical attention on the history of texts and text-making in the underloved English fifteenth century. The incunable period should be understood, Kuskin argues, not merely as a transitional or introductory phase, but as central to larger patterns in book history: not as "the beginning of a linear movement toward print culture" but as "part of an enduring culture of the vernacular book" (18). Taking as his primary material the output of Caxton's printshop, from the middle 1470s to the early 1490s —a catalog that includes Chaucer, Boethius, Christine de Pizan, Malory, and others —Kuskin reads the early era of the printing press in England not as the marker of a break between the medieval and early modern periods but as the medium of a cultural continuity between them, a continuity of book-production practices and of ideas about books and authorship.
Symbolic Caxton is large both in ambition and in length. Kuskin is interested in all possible facets of Caxton's book production, from the state of the fifteenth-century wool trade (Caxton began his career as a mercer) to the later demand for his editions by bibliophiles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In three sections that center, generally, on the marketplace for print, on the idea of authorship, and on the shaping of an English reading public, Kuskin evaluates many different kinds of evidence and addresses many topics: the mechanical production of books; the sophistication of fifteenth-century book buyers and sellers; the design principles behind the printers' marks of Caxton and others; early representations of presses and printers in woodcuts and engravings; systems such as patronage that made the printing of Caxton's texts possible; the idea of English laureateship; literary canon formation; and much else. Naturally, a book about this era must also engage with the important question of periodicity, of how scholars divide history into the medieval and the early modern, and Symbolic Caxton's contributions to that debate —obviously, the book argues against the idea of a radical disconnect between periods —are substantial and welcome.
Throughout the book, Kuskin returns to Caxton as a writer, offering brief but illuminating close readings of some of the printer's many prefaces, prologues (such as those to the Canterbury Tales and the Morte Darthur), epilogues, and translations, and of what can be deduced about the shaping work of his editing. Although framed by historical questions, these sections are the most "literary" passages in the book, and among the most unexpected and best. They suggest how much still remains to be known and thought about Caxton's work; one hopes that Kuskin will explore these important questions more fully in his subsequent work.
Kuskin's writing is richly associative, animated by an energetic eclecticism of reference. This wide-ranging approach is suited to the book's goals, since the importance of considering all these aspects of books together, of uniting the material and sociocultural history of books with the critical study of the literary [End Page 1395] texts inside them, is one of Kuskin's central contentions. As part of a new turn in book-history studies, Kuskin calls for the simultaneous and interrelated consideration of the material circumstances of books and their effects on their readers' imaginations. "Caxton's contribution to the history of printing, as well as to the history of the period, is not merely technological; it is the articulation of the symbolic relationship among books, individuals, and social context," Kuskin says (9); later, he proposes that "the book presents the imaginary structures of authorship and canon in a material form, giving them place in the world" (136).
The multidisciplinary reach of Symbolic Caxton may be both its greatest attraction and its weakness. Historians may find Kuskin's methodology, and his location of the...