- The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870
For literary historians, it has long been an article of faith that whatever “national” feeling there was in the early United States emerged as a product of the techniques, philosophies, and material objects of the printing press. In its putative dispassion and abstraction, its Enlightened universality, [End Page 497] and its reproducibility, printed matter mediated differences of geography, politics, language, religion, class, ethnicity, gender, race, and personal opinion. In the clear light of print culture, the insular, squabbling populations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century could rise above their particular situations and imagine community (or at least commonality) beyond the limits of their own interests.
In The Republic in Print, Trish Loughran presents a thoroughgoing and convincing critique of these scholarly commonplaces, offering a vital new way of understanding the role of the press in the making of “national” feeling. Taking the sited, physical circumstances of textual production, circulation, and consumption as they were, not as they have been folded into American “techno-mythology” (3), Loughran shows both how discontinuous and un-“national” U.S. print culture was before the Industrial Revolution and how the idea of the “nation” materialized in spite of—indeed, in some ways, because of—this conspicuous fragmentation. She then argues that the more plausibly “national” print culture that developed in the steam-press and railway era worked to foment sectionalism and civil war—that is, to tear the nation apart—even as it instilled new notions of what U.S. citizenship might mean. Neatly moving between detailed case studies, deft close readings of literary and visual texts, and compelling historical syntheses, Loughran tells a story of U.S. nationalism that will be of enduring use to historians, political scientists, and literary critics.
After a brief introduction to the historical and contemporary differences and tensions between “print theory” and “print culture” at the end of the eighteenth century—in which, for example, fantasies of quick communication by post are disrupted by the limitations of real live postmen—Loughran takes up the myth and the material history of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Tracing carefully the pamphlet’s composition, printing, and circulation, she demonstrates that Common Sense was never actually the runaway best-seller that the author and his chroniclers claimed it to be. Even so, as Loughran rightly observes, the idea of Common Sense as a best-seller nevertheless performed an enormous amount of ideological work. Combining abstract philosophies of just government with an earthy, potentially radical sense of embodied participation in such governments, the culture’s sense of Paine’s pamphlet, if not the pamphlet itself, promised to resolve the difficult questions about political representation, consent, and unanimity raised by the prosecution of the war for independence. [End Page 498]
These same questions reemerge in Loughran’s careful treatment of The Federalist and the ratification of the Constitution. Though long seen as a kind of standard operating manual for republican government and as a ubiquitous text in the early U.S. print public sphere, Loughran argues that The Federalist too was no “national” phenomenon. Seamlessly integrating rhetorical and political analysis, she shows how federalist theorizations of national extension were successful only insofar as they remained local: “It is precisely the incomplete and fractured underside of early American communication that made possible the fiction of bounded, seamless collectivity that has come to be called the federal state” (112). In this analysis, the insuperability of geographical, cultural, and intellectual difference works to render palatable notions of virtual representation for populations that had previously rejected them. Such an emphasis on the paradoxical importance of localism in the establishment of nationalism informs Loughran’s subsequent discussions of “metrobuilding,” an array of literary and cultural processes through which federalists imagined a “single national center” into virtual being.
In the final sections of her book, Loughran considers the fate of this “virtuality” in the materially different...