- New Directions in Book History
To uncover the work of print and the ethos that surrounded it in the long eighteenth century, we are left to study the artifacts of textual production—books themselves, and the letters, agreements, and polemics from those who wrote, printed, published, advertised, and bound them. Two recent critical works ask us to consider anew the limits of the archive, its absences and silences, and what conclusions we can draw from what we find and what we do not. These two volumes shed new light on the following questions: Can the work of book history reconstruct what is not in the archives? What do we make of the people who are not represented, of the business deals that went well enough not to complain about, of the workers who are considered too paltry to mention? Can we induce a system of values and norms from letters exchanged and business deals made? Sometimes we come to archives only to leave frustrated and unsatisfied, wondering how many agreements among authors, booksellers, journeymen, and apprentices go unmentioned. In other instances, we hear a “Chorus of Complaint,” to borrow a phrase from the title of Michael Everton’s recent study of the business of authorship in the early United States, but what we do not hear is the chorus of contentment, of agreements reached, of authors satisfied with the way they were treated, or of indifference to the latest changes in copyright regulations.
Everton extrapolates an ethics that defined American authorship from the impressive amount of archival materials he examines in his book. He concludes that the uncodified rules of engagement for the business of books constituted a sense of moral propriety that functioned as “a tool of critique” (11). Everton explains how the burgeoning publishing business developed as “a marriage of conscience and capital” (17), focusing on the disharmonies in this union in his studies of Thomas Paine, Hannah Adams, Herman Melville, and Fanny Fern and their frustrations with the publishing tycoons of their day. He illuminates much about the grumbles and disturbances between authors and their publishers, and the reader is left to decide how the counterfactual might disrupt his conclusions about the book trade. [End Page 443] The uneventful and harmonious agreements between these groups have, we can assume, left much less of a trace in epistolary and newspaper invectives.
Questions around the lacuna in the archive confront scholars of early African American print culture in Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein’s Early African American Print Culture. this impressive collection was in part inspired by a conference at the McNeill Center for Early American Studies in March 2010, at about the same time that Leon Jackson lamented the dearth of productive conversation between African American studies and book history in his “state of the field” article in Book History, the journal of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP). Many of the contributions in Cohen and Stein’s collection come up against the paucity of letters, diaries, and accounts that could offer some window into the relationship between African Americans who authored, printed, and copyrighted printed matter. Joanna Brooks’s contribution to the collection, “The Unfortunates: What the Life Spans of Early Black books tells Us About Book History,” addresses this absence: “Few authors of color had individual access to the religious, educational and governmental institutions that served as saving repositories for personal manuscripts” (40). Contrasting the success of John Marrant’s Narrative (1785) with the relative obscurity of his Journal (1790), Brooks concludes that some books are left “stranded between places, between communities, or dynamic social contexts” (48). She ends with a list of considerations for an alternate orientation in book history, one that does not center so much on the book trade. Using Marrant’s experience with publishing to stand in for the fate of many early...