- Continuity and Change in the Long Eighteenth Century:Two New Works of Cultural History
As some of the groundbreaking works of Lynn Hunt, Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier, Keith Baker, and others begin to approach their thirty-year mark since publication, the cultural historical approach they helped pioneer still has much to offer academia, as demonstrated by these two new works by Barbara E. Lacey and James M. Brophy. Both Lacey's From Sacred to Secular: Visual Images in Early American Publications and Brophy's Popular Culture and the Public Sphere in the Rhineland, 1800–1850 offer a rich illumination of the transition from premodernity to modernity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a transition that was as much a result of changing perceptions of the world as it was of political events. Both have much to contribute to our general understanding of how culture interacts with society at multiple levels and how it defies easy categorization into popular and elite.
As the author herself explains, From Sacred to Secular is an examination of printed material in Colonial and Early Republican America that is situated "at the intersection of American studies, art history, material culture, the history of the book, word-and-image studies, and early American social and religious history" (15). By focusing on visual images found in printed materials, she is able to extend her analysis of print culture beyond its literate consumers. Lacey's thematic approach covers a wide range of images, from portraits of religious figures in frontispieces and broadsides to children's primers, vision and dream literature, Bibles from different denominations, changing stereotypes of Native Americans, visual portrayals of the American Revolution, and cityscapes. Each of these themes is placed in the context of the shifting religious mentalities of early Americans.
As the title implies, Lacey's work contributes to the debate over the relationship between religion, secularization, and modernity. Her research will therefore appeal to a wider audience than just Americanists. While she points out a clear shift in religious attitudes over the eighteenth century that parallels the classic model of secularization in Enlightenment Europe, she defines sacred and secular not as polar opposites but as "a spectrum of religious, cultural, and political ideas that sometimes reinforce each other, occasionally coexist, and yet at other times are apparently in opposition" (15). As with religious or Enlightenment culture in general, none of these printed materials were produced or interacted with in a uniform, monolithic way, and so modern scholars need to approach them from multiple angles.
Given the circumstances under which many of America's colonies began—particularly Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, where so many of the images in question were published—a religious perspective underlies much colonial literature in a way that is uniquely American. Many early colonists crossed the Atlantic with a sense of missionary zeal that colored everything from their perceptions of the land and its native inhabitants to the expectations of the children they raised in the New World. This religious sense is reflected in their print culture. Among the earliest [End Page 616] and most telling examples of this perspective is the Massachusetts Bay Colony seal, which was developed in the early seventeenth century and depicted a stereotyped Indian with the words "Come over and help us" on a scroll coming from his mouth (23–25). Thus the prominent commercial interests of the English colonies often aligned neatly with a sense of duty to deliver the Gospel to the heathen.
The same sense of divine purpose is evident in the ways early colonists sought to inculcate Protestant values in their children, who were "to supply the church with members and the state with citizens" (40). The use of visual images was meant to amuse, thereby instilling the sense that pleasure is derived from books (41–42). Children's books often commingled secular with religious imagery, as with the famous New-England...