Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America by Uriel Heyd (review)
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History of newspapers, Reading

Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America. By Uriel Heyd. (Oxford, UK: Voltaire Foundation, 2012. Pp. xii + 302, 11 illustrations, £65.)

Newspapers are notoriously difficult for scholars to get a handle on, compared with other types of printed literature. Books and pamphlets [End Page 297] are discrete entities with beginnings and endings that can be read in their entirety, listed in bibliographies, and stored on shelves, and usually cover only one subject or author. The more variegated content of early American magazines can be consumed in entire runs of issues spanning decades, because they were published only monthly or less. Newspapers are another matter. Full of miscellaneous content (advertising, price lists, government documents, speeches, essays, and poems, along with the news items), they would appear never-ending. Published far more frequently—at least weekly—and in greater numbers of distinct issues than other print publications, newspapers poured from the presses.

Most scholars shy away. When Charles Evans set out to catalog every item ever published in his American Bibliography, he left out the newspapers, and Clarence Brigham had to compile two additional thick, oversized volumes to catalog all the newspapers he identified. Brigham’s publishing dates had to be stated in ranges and his titles given in long lists of variants that might change year to year. Those few scholars without the sense to avoid such a morass have tended to produce massive tomes, teeming with titles and quotations even when covering only a decade or two.1

Israel-based scholar Uriel Heyd, either emboldened by distance or hampered by limited access to sources, takes a much more telescoped approach. In a slim but handsome volume laced with charts and illustrations, Heyd attempts to analyze the newspaper press as a whole, in both Britain and America, across the entire eighteenth century. The results are as hazy and scattered as that description suggests. Heyd tries to take in not just the supply side of Anglo–American press history, the newspapers themselves, but the demand side as well, the lived experience of newspaper reading. Such comprehensiveness is a laudable goal, but meeting it in a small space requires taking some problematic shortcuts.

To map out the “role of the press” in his long initial chapter, Heyd relies entirely on sampling the opening “manifestoes” of newspapers, a kind of mission statement and self-advertisement that eighteenth-century [End Page 298] newspapers commonly published in their early issues. These are interesting documents, but highly ritualistic in the way editors almost always pledged to be fair and impartial, avoid personal attacks, and provide useful information and entertainment for a broad audience. These generic promises varied relatively little from paper to paper, but did not necessarily predict the editors’ actual behavior once the publication got going. Heyd does not address this problem effectively, given his chosen source material. Instead he treats the editors’ announced intentions as reality, leading to serious omissions. Noting that American newspapers “claimed a more ambitious role in the advancement of society” (77) toward the end of the century, Heyd highlights the Enlightenment-derived language of several of the more strident partisan newspapers, including Benjamin Franklin Bache’s General Advertiser (later the Aurora) and Phinheas Allen’s Pittsfield Sun. Yet he never mentions their most important civic role as pillars of the Democratic Republican party, despite announcing that “community formation” à la Benedict Anderson was one of the press’s most important roles.

Heyd’s main primary source on a newspaper reader’s experience is the annotated and hand-indexed collection of Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr, best remembered by professional historians as the devoted hater of the colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson. Dorr’s collection is a rich source, but it was mined thoroughly by Bernard Bailyn in both his Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson and a spin-off article on Dorr. Little seems to have been left over for Heyd, whose discussion largely re-confirms the observation that Dorr was a person who was thoroughly absorbed by newspapers and indexed the political topics he was interested in.

With little to go on, Heyd writes, “this study has purposefully looked for...