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  • The History of the Book in New EnglandThe State of the Discipline
  • Matt Cohen (bio)

The region of New England has been fertile ground for the study of what has been termed "print culture." Such work has been remarkable for its impact beyond the field of American book history. Work by David D. Hall, Robert A. Gross, Michael Warner, and Cathy N. Davidson, to name just a few, appears in debates in political science, religious studies, and postcolonial theory, in addition to the usual homes to book history, literary and historical studies. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery's Book History Reader (2001) includes essays by Jane Tompkins on Nathaniel Hawthorne and by E. Jennifer Monaghan on literacy instruction and gender in New England. Studies of New England's media history have also persistently troubled the boundaries of book history, asking definitional questions about literacy, the relationship between orality and literacy, the existence of a "public sphere"—even the definition of the "book" and of "culture." Institutionally, too, New England has been an epicenter for Anglo-American book studies. The American Antiquarian Society (AAS), founded in 1812 in Worcester, Massachusetts, launched its influential Program for the History of the Book in American Culture in 1983.1

The mulling over of books, society, consciousness, and power has a long pedigree in New England. Two years before he helped found the AAS, Isaiah Thomas, one of the republic's most successful printers, published his History of Printing in America (1810), which is to this day the starting point for most historians of the book in North America. A little over a decade later, Lydia Maria Child's Hobomok (1824) asked its readers to think about the connections among textual media, meaning, and sociopolitical power in colonial New England. Child's audiences are expected to know that Hobo [End Page 301] mok's young heroine, Mary Conant, is in for trouble when she unwraps a package from her lover and finds a "prayer book, bound in the utmost elegance of the times," which is "ornamented with gold clasps, richly chased; the one representing the head of king Charles, the other the handsome features of his French queen; and the inside of both adorned with the arms of England." Her nonconformist father's lectures on the evils of the Book of Common Prayer and the sins of adornment jar with her lover's romantic binding, inducing a readerly reflection on the place of the physical book in the moral and intellectual worlds.2

Child's work was part of a wave of fictional writing that helped promote a notion that underwrote much of the early attention to New England: In that region and its Puritan culture were to be found the national origins of the United States. Providentially guided on a special path to political self-determination and economic success, it was imagined, the United States was incubated in New England's complex mix of financial ambition, religious perfectionism, and English sociopolitical inheritance. In the wake of decades of American Studies scholarship interrogating this sort of exceptionalism, a host of assumptions embedded in that approach have given way to a new spectrum of questions. Scholars across the humanities have emphasized border crossing, transnational, and transregional approaches. The study of the writing, publishing, distributing, and reading of books remains central to this new research. But if New England is no longer, as Philip Gura puts it, "the omphalos" of the United States, why organize an essay around its print culture?3 In this essay I will outline the exciting work that has been done to pull New England book history out of its regional comfort zone. But I will also suggest why book historical studies delimited by the region are still productive when performed in ways that attend to the cross-cultural communications environment of colonial New England. Such studies can show how book culture has been used to construct "New England" as a region, while interrogating the connections between print and region reveals an occluded media sphere that nonetheless gave shape to the history of the New English book.

The chronological parameters here are necessarily constrained for lack of space. Even focusing on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1499
Print ISSN
1098-7371
Pages
pp. 301-323
Launched on MUSE
2008-09-12
Open Access
No
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