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Resources for American Literary Study 27.1 (2001) 129-131
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An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in ihe United States, 1777-1880
An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in ihe United States, 1777-1880. By Paul C. Gutjahr. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999. xv + 256 pp. $39.50.
This materialist study of the social and intellectual stature of the Protestant Bible in post-Revolutionary American culture is long overdue. Smart, sophisticated, and learned, it returns Americanist scholarship to a central text in the formation of American society. Why that act should be necessary merits a volume in itself. Suffice it to say here that, in its quiet way, An American Bible insists on refocusing attention on the religious sphere and does so to good effect.
Reading this book returns me to my experience a quarter century ago as a student in the analogously insistent social and intellectual history of the United States taught at Brown University by the eminent historian William G. McLoughlin. Stated most simply, the premise of that course was the persistently Protestant basis of American thought. I remember well how provocative and enlightening, if also frustrating, that insistence was, even as it broadened and concretized the work of Perry Miller and other earlier scholars. Twenty-five years later, Gutjahr, still writing in the face of our generation's academic version of the separation of church and state, reexamines the place of religion in American life, focusing on the key text generally missing in action in American literary and cultural scholarship.
The question Gutjahr explores is this: How did the Bible devolve over the course of the nineteenth century from "the book of books" into "a book among books"? He answers that question by constructing a working methodology unavailable to Miller or McLoughlin in their generations that links academic discourses still rarely joined: American Studies, History of the Book, Bible Studies, and textual studies. His argument traces the trajectory of the Bible's position in American letters over the first century of our nationhood from its initial status as a volume occupying a stable, largely standard form, text, and physical appearance and commanding a unique physical, hermeneutical, and religious place in the home, church, and state to its later status as a volatile text produced like any other text by the mechanical processes of the industrial age. In fact, the great irony of its history in the United States, as Gutjahr elucidates, was the terms of its production by the American Bible Society, founded in 1812 with the mission of supplying the United States with "a sufficiency of well printed and accurate editions of the Scriptures; but also to furnish great districts of the American continent with well-executed stereotype plates, for their cheap and extensive diffusion throughout regions which are now scantily supplied at discouraging expense" (30). That mission was speedily realized. Within a few years the Society was producing inexpensive bibles at an annual rate in the thousands, and within a few decades, in the hundreds of thousands. Moreover, it manufactured them on pioneering industrial terms, producing them from [End Page 129] stereotype plates, binding them within its own all-purpose bookmaking facility, and distributing them through its loose-knit national network of agents. The result was a ready availability of Protestant Bibles at generally affordable prices throughout all regions of the country, even in rural and hard-to-reach areas with little or no access to book stores.
By the same token, the proliferation of Bibles was matched in the 1840s by the proliferation of all kinds of printed texts. Books, newspapers, and magazines poured off the American press in accelerating numbers and in accordance with the same industrial-era pattern of large editions manufactured by advanced technological processes and sold at cheap prices. What the American Bible Society was able to perform with Bibles, large commercial publishers like the Harpers and Appletons did with a wide range of secular and religious texts, the result being that Americans of that...