Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America by Michael Eamon (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Eamon. Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America. McGill-Queen's University Press. xxii, 266. $34.95

Michael Eamon's Imprinting Britain is a study of eighteenth-century newspapers in Halifax and Quebec City. Eamon's research is solid, as he claims to have consulted not only "every surviving newspaper and magazine produced in Halifax and Quebec City" in the eighteenth century, but also a host of other print materials. The insights that he draws from this research are clearly, insightfully, and engagingly presented. Though Eamon's two cases are port towns at the geographic periphery of the British Empire, they offer fascinating ways to think about central and significant elements of both that specific imperial history and the more general and interrelated histories of journalism and print culture in an age of conflict and revolution in North America.

Eamon's narrative and analysis begin in the mid-eighteenth century, when printing presses arrived in Halifax and Quebec City in 1751 and 1764, respectively. These presses soon allowed North American publishers to break the monopoly on "imported print" with locally produced newspapers. As these Halifax and Quebec City newspapers began circulating, they provided readers in these two cities with a wide variety of information about the world around them, and Eamon devotes significant attention to the varieties of newspaper content. In the process, he considers the newspaper as not only a source of news and political commentary but also of theatre criticism and "useful knowledge" about science and nature. [End Page 160] For the numerous readers who chose to communicate with editors, the newspaper also served the additional function of providing a forum for public debate, comment, and even gossip.

In much of the book, Eamon extends this idea of the newspaper as a forum into a consideration of the ways that newspapers could "facilitate other forms of colonial sociability" by promoting sites and practices of public engagement. Newspapers did not just encourage readers to write letters but also mobilized these readers to engage in public acts in the community, for example, by joining clubs, going to the theatre, or spending time in coffeehouses. Print, in Eamon's view, could shape both beliefs and actions, and it could provide the key link between private thoughts and public practices.

Beyond the discussions of the ways that newspapers shaped public life in Halifax and Quebec City, Eamon also analyzes the political roles that newspapers played, and in this sense there are interesting comparisons across British North America between the kinds of thoughts and actions promoted in these two cities and those to the south as the American Revolution unfolded. Unlike their counterparts in the colonies that revolted in 1776, Eamon argues, the newspapers of Halifax and Quebec City remained actively and resolutely British. In their newspapers, British North Americans found regular ways to "reconnect with a social, cultural, and intellectual life in Great Britain that was otherwise unavailable in the colonies." This desire to connect to Britain only increased after the American Revolution pulled the colonies to the south away from the Empire. In response to these circumstances, Halifax and Quebec City newspapers "took on a more overtly political and patriotic tone, expressing a need to show the division between British Americans and the Americans of the United States." If the newspapers in what became the United States were agents of revolution, "the English-language press in Halifax and Quebec City reinforced colonialism and the Empire." In an era of revolution, these newspapers created a public discourse aiming to conserve and preserve British values and identities. In British North America, "the colonial print community formed the reading public and fashioned hybrid spaces of sociability and social control."

Ultimately, Michael Eamon offers an incisive analysis of the social roles played by newspapers in creating and sustaining communities of readers in Halifax and Quebec City, and there is much in this book that will be of significant interest to historians of Canada. There also is much that should interest historians of US journalism, and one would hope that this is a step toward a more robust understanding of the intertwined continental histories of the newspaper...


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