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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.2 (2002) 83-95

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Review Essay

Challenging Eisenstein:
Recent Studies in Print Culture

Nicholas Hudson
University of British Columbia

Johns, Adrian. The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (Chicago & London: Univ. of Chicago, 2000). Pp. 753. $22.50. ISBN 0-226-40122-7
Ezell, Margaret J. M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print(Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins Univ., 1999). Pp. 182. $38.50. ISBN 0-8018-6139-X
McDowell, Paula. The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Marketplace 1678-1730 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999). Pp. 347. $85. ISBN 0-19-818395-X
Hammond, Brean S. Professional Imaginative Writing in England 1670-1740: "Hackney for Bread"(Oxford: Clarendon, 1997). Pp. 348. $85. ISBN 0-19-811299-8
Siskin, Clifford. The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change in Britain 1700-1830(Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins Univ., 1998). Pp. 285. $39.95. ISBN 0-8018-5696-5

"Print culture" established itself as a major field of historical scholarship through a series of stages, beginning with the groundbreaking work of Harold Innes and Marshall McLuhan in the 1950s and 1960s, continuing in the more heavily archival research of Jack Goody and Walter J. Ong in the 1960s and 1970s, and culminating in Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (1979)—which gave the field a new direction, and arguably a new [End Page 83] ideological color. Whereas scholars from McLuhan to Ong had generally lamented the supposedly deadening effect of Gutenberg's invention on the Western soul, its crushing of the "warm" communal spirit of oral culture beneath the "cold" weight of the printing press, Eisenstein portrayed movable type as the seed of cultural rebirth during the Renaissance: the press spurred the exchange of new ideas, energized the masses both intellectually and politically, and inaugurated the general democratization of art and science.

In the scholarship that has flowed from Eisenstein it has often seemed that all the progress and achievements of modern Western culture could be traced to printers' workshops and booksellers. Yet a new stream of studies is critically re-evaluating Eisenstein's classic work across a number of fronts. Adrian Johns and Margaret J. M. Ezell take issue quite openly with some of the dominant assumptions over the last twenty years, as does, more subtly, Paula McDowell. McDowell's book also joins Brean S. Hammond's in revisiting, in a more critical and questioning way, that notorious slum of English print culture, "Grub Street." Finally, Clifford Siskin's already influential book goes even further, raising serious questions about the methodologies and founding principles of print-culture research. Taken together, these studies suggest that although print culture remains a flourishing and valuable field of scholarship, we must temper some of its more inflated pretensions and become more sensitive to its limitations.

Of all these studies, Adrian Johns' Gottshalk Prize winner, The Nature of the Book, makes the boldest claims to be defying the orthodoxies of previous scholarship. "Eisenstein's print culture," he asserts in his introduction, "does not exist" (p. 19). Nevertheless, this sweeping challenge quickly yields to more nuanced and conventional insights, for Johns does agree that studying the physical book provides one significant, even essential, key to unlocking the intellectual progress of Western thought. His disagreement with Eisenstein and her heirs is, more precisely, that we should not take for granted the supposed "fixity" of the printed book or its capacity to propagate faithfully the same information. Displaying the archival diligence that has become the high standard of print-culture scholarship, Johns explores in great depth how the pirating of scientific books, along with contingencies of compositing and editing that have often slipped beyond the author's control, cast doubt on the reliability of any information conveyed through the press. Neither can the book be accurately considered in isolation from social and entirely human factors affecting every step in the printing process, from financing to printing to even reading a book. Reading itself, as Johns details, has had a cultural history affecting how recipients of...


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