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Reviewed by:
  • American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1834–1853
  • Marta Werner
McGill, Meredith. 2003. American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1834–1853. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 081223698X. Pp. 352. $42.50.

In focusing on the shadowy milieu out of which the canonical works of the “American Renaissance” emerged, McGill seeks to recover the dynamics of a radically decentralized literary culture in which the circulation of unauthorized works both promised and threatened to exceed authorial and editorial control. By exchanging for the diachronic text of an autonomous literary history the synchronic text of a cultural system, she offers a newly complex vision of American writers’ vexed relationship to the marketplace. McGill’s cultural poetics involves a kind of reverse rescue work: instead of saving the bibliographical fugitives—the thousands of anonymous, pseudonymous, and pirated texts produced under the system of reprinting —from their disseminated condition, she attempts to restore to them their essential contingency. The result is a penetrating analysis that illuminates not only the logic of reprinting, a wholly original system in which texts perpetuate or iterate themselves with apparently scant regard for the very source they seek to reproduce, but also the idiosyncratic nature of texts themselves—“things” at once “something less and something more than mere commodities” (9).

McGill’s study harnesses the interpretive strategies of the history of the book; at the same time, textual scholars will recognize McGill’s work as shaped by the central debates of the last two decades that have divided, galvanized, and ultimately reinvigorated our own heterogeneous discourse. McGill’s awareness of the complicated interplay between linguistic and bibliographical codes, her attention to multiple versions of works, and her reconceptualization of the author as a “plural identity” all mark her engagement with recent work in our discipline. McGill’s work represents what might be called a “third wave” (to appropriate a term from feminist discourse). Here at last “textual materiality” is invoked “not as an answer to but as a means of reframing questions about the nature and limits [. . .] of literary culture”, and as a way of “expanding what scholars understand to comprise the matter of text” (7).

The opening chapters of McGill’s work register her concern with the historical, social, and political conditions and consequences of both literary production and reproduction. First, McGill re-opens the case of Wheaton v. Peters, the first Supreme Court copyright case, remarking a crucial difference between American and British interpretations of literary property. While copyright legislation in Britain recognized the author’s perpetual [End Page 172] rights to his work under the common law, corresponding legislation in America held that there could be no common-law property in a manuscript “after the author shall have published it to the world” (47). This difference, McGill argues, simultaneously promotes the principles of reprint culture by linking them with republican ideology and delays the emergence of that familiar yet seemingly atypical figure at the center of traditional accounts of American literary history: the “rights-bearing author” (75). In McGill’s reading of the case, moreover, the arguments of the prosecution and the defense are refigured as narratives of possession and dispossession, in which the definition of the “work” (alternately seen as an autonomous craft object momentarily estranged from its maker and as the common property of readers whose claims exceed the author’s) is problematized. Witness the title page, where the copyright notice that “serves to secure individual ownership” also “gives notice of the date on which that right expires” (68).

Next, McGill investigates the phenomenon of international literary piracy fueling the culture of reprinting, reading the international copyright controversy in relation to concurrent deliberations over tariff rates, banking systems, and, most importantly, the extension of slavery into the territories. As McGill points out, the Jacksonian commitment to decentralized power that played a significant role in the Wheaton v. Peters decision is magnified in the debate over international copyright. Thus, while pro-copyright petitions stressed the centrality of the author to the production of a national identity and the injuries suffered by foreign books under the system of reprinting, anti-copyright documents constructed the reprint market itself as the locus for national...


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pp. 172-174
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