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  • Book Objects, Archives, and Ritual Repertoires in Colonial New England
  • Peter P. Reed
Hall, David D. Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8122-4102-0. 248 pages. $49.95.
Brown, Matthew P. The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-8122-4015-3. 288 pages. $65.00.

In these two offerings from the University of Pennsylvania Press's "Material Texts" series, scholars of the early American book explore the connections between material objects and performed culture. While taking distinct interpretative turns, Hall and Brown both attend to the solidity of codices and the disappearing acts that produce and surround those texts. Ways of Writing and The Pilgrim and the Bee both entangle colonial New England book objects within processes of production, collaboration, revision, reception, and ritual repetition. In one sense, this perspective builds incrementally on the carefully descriptive book history emerging from the early American archive. In another sense, these studies both represent meaningful moves away from treating book objects as static, self-contained, and self-evident artifacts.

Hall and Brown agree on some basic assumptions. The physical presence of texts—form, format, construction—remains central, even as both studies openly headline their attention to "practices", "politics", "text-making", "reading rituals", and "book culture". Early American texts, they agree, operated within vernacular, protestant, and Atlantic landscapes of durable texts and persistent rituals. The two studies also concur that divergent forms of texts coexisted—printing appeared alongside scribally published texts, as Hall argues, and performance culture, as Brown shows. For both authors, texts appear as contingent phenomena, always emerging in varying practices and rituals, shaped by and influencing political interactions.

These two books part ways, however, in some fundamental aspects. As [End Page 148] his title implies, Hall focuses primarily on textual production rather than reception. Ways of Writing explores the material possibilities of textual productions; scribal publication, for example, appears as a valuable alternative mode of textual production. Manuscript form (characterizing a significant proportion of early American texts) does not signal the failure of publication, Hall argues persuasively. Instead, such examples of non-printing still had their utility and their publics. In addition, Hall contends, collaborative and frequently transatlantic modes of social authorship produced those texts. Deferred and multiple authorship remade texts such as manuscript poems and spoken sermons (via handwritten notes) into printed books. Hall's study moves from broad-ranging discussions of practices to case studies, integrating specialized knowledge with renewed attention to some of the more frequently discussed early American literary figures like John Winthrop, Anne Bradstreet, and Edward Taylor.

Turning from his notable scholarship on the importance of the oft-read devotional "steady seller" texts, Hall focuses on the text in and as crisis. Ways of Writing reads local property disputes, the Antinomian Crisis of the 1630s and 1640s, and intra-imperial negotiations as fields of conflict characterized by the production, distribution, and suppression of material texts. The focus on crisis and conflict provides a useful emphasis on the complexities of textual production and transmission. At the same time, Hall's staging of the book object's apparent contradictions and problems relies for effect on a certain orthodox sense of book objects as static products of intentional and authoritative processes. The hybridity, for example, that characterizes Hall's socially authored texts at times seems a problem of textual analysis rather than a constitutive element of the Atlantic book culture. Likewise, the deferral of authority that arguably permeates Anglo-Atlantic protestant and colonial culture frequently seems instead a deficiency of early American textuality.

Brown's study takes textual conflict and contingency in stride, attending to the subtle tidal forces of vernacular culture and transcultural contact. His analysis avoids monumental moments of crisis and conflict, attending instead to ritual, repetition, and convention. Brown's book objects circulate within gift and market economies, operating in ritual performances of fast days and mourning. Translating the Puritan notion of heart piety into the performative and materialist categories of "eye piety" and "hand piety" (treated in detail in chapter...


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pp. 148-150
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