Book History 5 (2002) 161-185
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The Return of the Publisher to Book History:
The Case of Allen Lane
The art of Biography
Is different from Geography.
Geography is about maps,
But Biography is about chaps.
—E. C. Bentley
There has been a loss of legitimacy within book history for the kind of exercise that critically examines the role of a publisher as an autonomous individual, rather than as an agent subordinating personal will to impersonal forces emerging from the nexus of cultural change, the marketplace, and legal liabilities. This loss forms part both of a more general erasure of the human from book history and of an authorial view of the publisher as enemy rather than as facilitator or collaborator. Looking through the pages of Robert Escarpit's Sociologie de la littérature (1958), one of the key progenitive texts of book history, one is struck by the absence of names. There are titles of books, but few names of authors; there are references to publishing houses, but few, if any, names of publishers or editors associated [End Page 161] with them. Escarpit provides an influential model of literature, supported by impressively marshaled statistical figures and maps, but one that has lost sight of the human personalities involved in each stage of the production, distribution, and reception circuit. Escarpit's discussion, for example, of Penguin Books in the United Kingdom notes its great success in quantitative terms: "plus de 1,000 titres vingt ans après sa fondation . . . vers 1955 un tirage total de 20 millions d'exemplaires par an, chiffre qui, s'il est exact, représente 7 à 8% de la production britannique." 1 Nothing is mentioned of Allen Lane or any Penguin editor; no account is given of Penguin's immense social impact through personal testimonies gleaned from correspondence, diaries, autobiographies, and other records of the individual reader. Tolstoy has eclipsed Carlyle; the concept of the mass movement has triumphed over the influence and actions of the individual.
At this point, it might be possible to indulge in what historians term "counterfactual" speculation. If Q. D. Leavis's Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) had not been a premature contribution to book history, and therefore largely neglected in our field, then perhaps a "third way" might have been found between the dryness of the French school of historians and the unctuous, uncritical attention to personality too typical of the standard British house history. Mrs. Leavis can move easily between statistical generalization and accounts of particular authors, publishers, and readers. Although too early to incorporate Penguin Books into her narrative, she does give a sense, in her discussion of "Woolworth literature," of real lives being lived by real people. 2 Her precedent has not been often followed in book history and yet her work demonstrates that arguments can be advanced today for a rediscovery of the human element in our writing of the history of print culture. We are still, to appropriate Robert Darnton's phrase, "freezing human beings out of history." 3 We are still too influenced by the Annales school and its emphasis on the mass movement of history. Even the Barker and Adams revision of Darnton's model of the communications circuit moves away from his stress on agents to an emphasis on events in a process with an implied loss of the individual's power to affect, to act, to choose. 4
This emphasis forms part of a deromanticization-to-death of the author, of challenges to the legitimacy of authorial intention in the light of our increased knowledge of editorial and publishing practices, and of a perspective that looks beyond both the canon of texts and the shores of Europe and the United States. Ian Willison has linked the development of book history to the "crisis in the humanities" of the 1960s and the consequent enlargement of our definitions of culture. Willison catalogues this enlargement in its various aspects—social ("the reception into literary and scholarly discourse of popular, alternative, youth, and feminist cultures"); ethical [End Page 162] ("the...