- America's "Cumbersome Democracy" in Print:Histories of Reading and Writing in Early America
Book history, as Robert Darnton reminds us in The Kiss of Lamourette, is a complex field of historical inquiry. Covering a wide array of subjects—bookbinding and papermaking, publishing and copyright, foreign letters and types, authors and readers—"it might even be called the social and cultural history of communication by print, if that were not such a mouthful" (107). A branch of the social sciences in which "books" are treated as artifacts, Darnton explains, the history of the book investigates not only "how ideas were transmitted through print" but also "how exposure to the printed word" has affected society "during the last five hundred years" (107). In both Robert A. Gross and Mary Kelly's An Extensive Republic and Konstantin Dierks's In My Power, the richness, depth, and complexity of this steadily expanding field are on full display.
An Extensive Republic is the second of five volumes in the American Antiquarian Society's History of the Book in America series. Masterfully edited, this collection of essays written by key scholars in the field reveals compelling stories of early America as a nation of readers who feverishly consumed books, newspapers, leaflets, and broadsides. In covering the expansion of public schools in America (Moran, Vinovskis, Monaghans, Grodzins, Jackson, and Kelly); the development of copyright and the American author (McGill and Shields); and the reading practices of rural, urban, German immigrant, African American, and Native Americans (Nipps, Larkins, Pretzer, Roeber, Gundaker, O'Connell, and Gross), this useful book reveals portraits of America between 1790 and 1840 as a cumbersome democracy in which Americans from many different walks of life consumed print and used it in multiple ways. In this narrative, mostly about books and readers, printers and publishers in the United States assumed a central role in the development of the new Republic.
Indeed, central to those fresh starts were books, books that were meant to define the new nation as free and democratic. Shortly after the dust began to settle from the American Revolution, books and newspapers offered many Americans opportunities to begin anew. And as Scott E. Casper explains in his essay, "Case Study: Harper & Brothers," there was little time to waste. In the wake of independence, America needed literary "works of a [distinctly] American character" (129). For that reason, James and John Harper started a publishing company and took on the daunting task of writing the new nation into existence. Adopting British models, and initially British authors, the Harper brothers began issuing a multivolume series celebrating America's unique charm. By publishing such books [End Page 151] as Thatcher's Indian Biography, Pauling's A Life of Washington, Byrant's Selections from the American Poets, the Harper brothers were perhaps some of the earliest bookmen to engage in this business of nation building (128-36).
Although useful in its account of how these two printers-turned-publishers helped to create through books an exclusively American character, Casper's essay is far too abbreviated. For instance, he does not fully explicate the strategies the Harpers' firm used to reach the public at large. Nor does he make much of the hundreds of agents, from clergymen to students on vacation, whom the brothers employed. An otherwise interesting story, Casper's essay also does not further explicate the various book-binding and advertising schemes the brothers used to get the word out. As a result, what emerges is a narrative in which the Harper & Brothers' multivolume series are circulated among only a select group—those who could buy books— thus overlooking an equally telling story of how their "Library" series found its way into the hands of less well-to-do Americans.
David Paul Nord's essay "Benevolent Books: Printing...