- To Give the Gift of Freedom:Gift Books and the War on Slavery
Although once considered to be "volumes of 'lighter literature' and 'beautiful specimens of art'" without much substance,1 recent scholarship in the fields of the history of the book and literary studies has begun to focus on the larger impact of gift books to nineteenth-century literary culture. A literary genre in their own right, gift books—also known as souvenir books or annuals—often raised financial and moral support for specific organizations and causes. Social activists, abolitionists and temperance workers among them, issued their own subsets of the gift book genre to raise attention, funds, and converts.
Two examples of the most successful gift books of the abolitionist movement, the Liberty Bell, edited by Maria Weston Chapman, and Autographs for Freedom, edited by Julia Griffiths, far from being trifles full of "miscellanies," were created and sold to support the American Anti-Slavery Society of William Lloyd Garrison, in particular, its National Anti-Slavery Standard, and Frederick Douglass's newspapers. Each of these gift books was a source of ideas and a model of the visions their creators hoped to instill in America, as well as important sites for the continuing discussion of how best to end slavery and promote the role of women in public life. This research recovers the centrality of women to these enterprises in roles important to abolition. Furthermore, a study of these gift books contributes to a more nuanced understanding of how the print war on slavery was conducted and financed.
A comparison of the Liberty Bell and Autographs for Freedom reveals the regional and political differences between the Garrisonian and Douglass factions of the abolitionist movement as well as the different editing and activist styles of Chapman and Griffiths. The women's shared appropriation of the sentimental, domestic gift book genre for activist ends emphasizes and troubles the gender dynamics not only of the literary genre itself, but also of the abolitionist movement that, though politically male dominated, relied on the fundraising, editorial, and literary ingenuity of Chapman and Griffiths to stay afloat. The gift books also highlight the similarities and differences between [End Page 60] Garrison's and Douglass's politics and the political and literary elite who supported them. Because Autographs for Freedom was published only a few years after Douglass broke from Garrison, its comparison to the Liberty Bell gives insight into their conflict and productively exhibits how competing sides of the antislavery battle modified the gift book to raise funds and awareness for their specific political views.
Gift books were already popular in Great Britain when the first American example was published in December 1825.2 Typically literary anthologies given as gifts during the holiday season,3 gift books consisted of short stories, essays, and poetry written by a variety of authors, ranging from the unknown to the famous. Contributors to what Meredith McGill calls the culture of reprinting,4 gift book editors frequently reprinted unauthorized literary pieces "from a variety of sources," choosing "prose and verse as struck their fancy," as well as original, or never before printed, literary contributions.5 Gift books also showcased elaborate engravings that were "disproportionately valued by readers [and] hundreds of times more costly to publishers."6 As Isabelle Lehuu notes, gift books had "multiple uses," and, whether in society or displayed in the parlor, "reading or contemplating a giftbook was an emotional experience. Hence the act of offering giftbooks was part of an economy of sentiment, an exchange of beautiful luxury goods for memory and love."7 The act of displaying the gift book was "both a moral and a social act, one that wrapped signs of social distinction in the banner of the crusade for social improvement and the power of sentiment."8 Although often enjoyed by the entire family and proudly displayed in the drawing room, the gift book's predominant audience consisted of white, middle-class women. As a result, they were generally purchased by friends and relatives, both male and female, often as part of the courtship process.9
Gift books were the product of...