- The Bookrunner: A History of Inter-American Relations—Print, Politics, and Commerce in the United States and Mexico, 1800-1830
Nancy Vogeley's transnational study of the book trade between Philadelphia and Mexico City in the early nineteenth century provides a welcome departure from national book histories. Through an exploration of twenty-two letters exchanged between the Philadelphia publishing firm of Carey and Lea and their agent Thomas W. Robeson in Mexico City over the course of 1822-23, Vogeley uses the book trade to interrogate the ways in which economic initiatives and the circulation of political ideas combined in the work of decolonization. The firm's foray into the Mexican market came at an important juncture in that nation's history: just after Agustín de Iturbide secured the nation's independence from Spain with his successful assault on Mexico City; and just before General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched the countermovement that ousted Iturbide, who had declared himself emperor, and established Mexico as a republic. The instability of the period forced Robeson to negotiate both formal and informal economies in importing books. Vogeley's use of the term "bookrunner" to describe Robeson invokes the tradition of smuggling illegal goods into uncertain territories and reminds us of the differences in the economic and political cultures of the two postcolonial nations. Books that circulated freely in one were subject to the whim of the government, the Church, and a residual colonial morality in the other. Despite the hurdles, Robeson found appreciative consumers for specific types of books. [End Page 162]
That the publishing firm sponsoring Robeson's "adventure"—its term for exploratory ventures into new foreign markets—was located in Philadelphia should not be a surprise, Vogeley argues. Early Republic Philadelphia served as a crossroads for Spanish American plotters, revolutionaries, and opportunists. During their temporary retreats to the city in the midst of their Atlantic wanderings, such men availed themselves of its presses to publish their manifestos and memoirs. US publishers, such as the firm founded by Matthew Carey, proved happy to have their services as authors, compilers, and translators. An early experience trading with his native Ireland piqued Carey's interest in the viability of transnational trade, while the failure of American copyright law to protect the works of foreign authors made the reprinting of such works attractive. Networks formed through both the Catholic Church and Philadelphia's Masonic Grand Lodge, which connected the city with lodges throughout French and Spanish America, gave the firm confidence to seek out Atlantic World markets.
Correspondence between Robeson and Carey and Lea reveals a rough-and-tumble world where cookbooks served as decoys, archbishops threatened confiscation, and the winds of political favor shifted rapidly. Vogeley presents the correspondence chronologically, summarizing the contents letter by letter, although the richness of detail made this reader wish for a more narrative treatment. Throughout this crucial period, Robeson documents the challenges facing foreign businessmen attempting to import works into the country, the power of the Church and State to censor works, and, most poignantly, the desire of Mexican consumers for political works that supplied a necessary language for revolution. Novels and religious works could be more cheaply and reliably secured from Spain, Robeson quickly discovered, but for the works of Paine, Rousseau, Voltaire, and the revolutionaries of the United States and South America, Mexicans relied upon foreign importers. Ultimately, the venture might have supplied the ideological needs of Mexican republicans but failed to compensate Carey and Lea for the money advanced. One of the last letters reveals that only $600 had been received on a $10,000 investment.
Success in the Mexican marketplace depended upon correctly understanding the nature of political discourse. Vogeley persuasively shows how Robeson's critique, that Mexican men and women read little and instead indulged in "disputation" and "intrigue," reflected less their interest in the world of print than it did the reality of their limited access to it. A crackdown on printing and a...