- The Rise of the Print Culture Canon
In each of the three studies under review, we are asked to reconsider facets of early American print culture that, whether intentionally or not, have been marginalized or misunderstood by American literary scholarship. For Jared Gardner, it is the early American periodical, which has long taken a secondary position below that of the novel. Yet as Gardner shows, it was the periodical form that early American authors repeatedly turned to in their search for a generic model that matched the values of the early republic. For Michael Everton, it is the near ubiquitous language of ethics, the “moral vernacular” that appears in almost all literary debates of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that has been passed over in scholars’ privileging of the political, juridical, and economic dimensions of print culture (92). For Sandra Tomc, meanwhile, it is the figure of the eccentric author, conventionally mischaracterized as an adversarial response to the emergence of industrial printing, but who Tomc argues was [End Page 533] in fact formative to the emergence of the American mass entertainment industry. Now in the second decade of the twenty-first century, print culture studies and its closely related field of book history have been thriving for almost forty years, since the pioneering work by Elizabeth Eisenstein, Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, and others. What this new wave of studies reflects is a determination to read print culture in nuanced, frequently counterintuitive ways that destabilize certain ossified beliefs within American literary studies: specifically, the novel as the privileged genre of the early Republic, political economy as the prevailing currency of print culture methodologies, and the romantic author as a countercultural reaction to bourgeois commerce. In this sense, these studies each do us the crucial service of pointing out what have become some of the comfortable blind spots and complacent assumptions of American literary studies, and of denaturalizing those increasingly invisible methodological frameworks by offering alternative approaches to the study of early American print culture.
It is this unsettling of received truths, this revision via archival rigor, that has characterized the best recent work in American print culture studies, including Meredith McGill’s examination of cultures of reprinting, Leon Jackson’s exploration of alternative authorial economies, and Trish Loughran’s puncturing of long-held national printing myths. In such studies, attention to the lived experience of print—its physicality, its circulation, its reception, its rhetorical self-conception—overturns antiquated notions such as American exceptionalism, the economically overdetermined marketplace, or tidy fantasies of the print public sphere. And it is a testament to the continued vitality of print culture methodology that new works continue to destabilize core assumptions of American literary studies in ways that invigorate the discipline.
Print culture scholarship as currently practiced is a remarkably broad tent that includes everything from its original concern for the cultural impact of print technologies and reimagined marketplace approaches to post-Marxist sociology on the model of Pierre Bourdieu. While many scholars pursue emphatically material concerns with the book as physical object, others explore the cross-pollination of alternative print media like periodicals or literary anthologies. Despite its name, book history is only sometimes about texts as codex. Rather its scope extends from manuscripts and marginalia to literacy and reception studies to oral and non-print [End Page 534] cultures. At times, print culture approaches continue to dovetail with the older scholarly traditions from which the field emerged—particularly bibliography, political economy, and publishing history—while today, in this late age of print, both book history and print culture studies have left the domain of printed texts altogether, venturing into the open future of the digital realm.
The three studies before us reaffirm this sense of the study of print culture...