restricted access Accounting for Textual Remains
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Accounting for Textual Remains

Some years ago, through the assistance of a finding aid at the American Antiquarian Society, I found a receipt in Box 25, Folder 7 of the Carey Papers. “To Thom H. Palmer,” one line said, “To printing 14 forms El Derecho at /50 × 45 = $6.84 per form . . . 95.76.” The transaction had taken place on July 24, 1821. I was ecstatic. The receipt showed that the printing of Spanish-language documents in early Philadelphia was part of an economic exchange that stretched across numerous printing houses.

After returning to campus, I told my graduate seminar, “I am happiest reading account books.” They looked at me like I was crazy. Why was an “English” professor in a department inclined toward literature and theory spending time in the financial records of a nineteenth-century publisher? Had my methods changed to the point that they required a different type of interpretation: ledgers with monetary information? [End Page 179]

In retrospect, I realize something unexpected had happened: I had crossed an archival threshold. At that moment I was less interested in studying writing than in finding indications of social and market phenomena. While literary forms can reflect certain economic transformations, the receipts from the publisher offered evidence of the way the market functioned. And the interest in finding that evidence had pushed me toward rare holdings. After all, the term “finding aid” (which refers to a document that contains detailed information about a collection) is part of the language of archival organization. So is the term “Box 25,” which refers to the holdings of the collection at the Antiquarian Society. Even my shorthand reference to the “Carey Papers,” the documents of the Philadelphia publishing house run by Mathew Carey and his successors, is part of the lexicon of those who research Philadelphia print culture.

This venture into the Carey accounts was important. Thomas H. Palmer was one of the printers in Philadelphia who regularly published Spanish-language materials during the decades known by US historians as the early republic but also known in Latin America as the wars of independence. Among Palmer’s notable projects was the rare Manual de un republicano para el uso de un pueblo libre (A republican’s manual for the use of a free people, 1812). What that receipt told us was that the Hispanophone book trade in Philadelphia was alive and thriving by 1821. Carey’s publishing house, which by then was M. Carey and Sons, had paid Palmer $95.76 for a job related to the 1821 translation of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, which appeared in two editions in 1821 and 1822 as El derecho del hombre. The book was translated by Santiago Felipe Puglia, who had published one of the earliest known Spanish-language books in the new US republic: El desengaño del hombre (1794). Other receipts also showed Carey’s payments for additional translations into Spanish.

But why would I turn to account books? Bibliographies could point to a healthy appetite for Spanish-language books in the early United States, and research about some of the intellectuals who published materials confirmed the importance of the northeastern United States as a site for these publications. But I was excited for two reasons. The financial exchanges began to explain how and why the books had been published, and that explanation went beyond the content of the books. Profit motives were at work. A picture, albeit a fuzzy one, was emerging of the material conditions of Hispanophone publication—and I was learning to read seemingly indecipherable account books. [End Page 180]

My ability to decode the columns in the Carey papers showed that I had made some progress in the hermeneutics of archival materials. This required becoming accustomed to reading script. The accounts were not transparent in that they had to be interpreted, and that called for background about printers in early Philadelphia. In addition, I had to gain some knowledge of the shorthand used in printer accounts (e.g., “do” for “ditto”). I use the term “hermeneutics of archival materials” because there is an entire pro cess of reading that goes beyond the text itself...