- Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America by Uriel Heyd
The newspaper was a critically important medium for early American literature and culture. It was the site of publication for many of the poems, debates, songs, plays, advertisements, reviews, correspondence, and reports that we include in rightfully capacious definitions of early American literature and culture. The cultures of print and reading surrounding the periodical press are the starting point for theoretical constructs [End Page 830] of the public sphere and national cultures. In Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America, Uriel Heyd continues and extends this engagement with the eighteenth-century press. Here, though, “reading” is understood as more than the act of a single reader, and print and reading cultures are tracked through an archive of texts and practices that early American literary scholars will welcome. The book, in six chapters with an introduction and three appendixes, explores the “news culture” of eighteenth-century Britain and the British North American colonies and early United States (3). Heyd assembles a fascinating archive of paratexts, performances, and practices surrounding the newspaper, including the newspaper prospectus, the newspaper index, the newspaper collector, and even the figure of the obsessive reader on the theatrical stage.
Through these, Heyd examines how writers and readers imagined, discussed, and managed the impact of periodical print. As noted, the book expands the definition of what “reading newspapers” meant in the period. With this expanded idea of reading at work in the book, Heyd argues that we also need to reconsider the temporal and spatial dimensions of newspaper reading. For Benedict Anderson, the “obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing” gave rise to the “mass ceremony” of virtual community marked out in periodical time (Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. [Verso, 2006], 36). Heyd, on the other hand, shows that newspapers anticipated themselves and projected their aims in prospectuses; they also lived long after the day of publication and assumed new meaning in indexes and collections. Focusing on the function of newspapers before and after the day of publication, Heyd demonstrates that the “spatial and temporal impression” of newspapers was often far more complex than the place and date on the masthead (1).
Chapters 1 and 2 focus on the newspaper prospectus or introductory column. “Between a manifesto and an advertisement,” these appeared in the first issue of a paper and were a space where editors could project their idealized audience (since a first issue de facto has no existing readership) and attempt to shape the habits and expectations of actual readers’ periodical consumption (31). London papers used this column to respond to increased market segmentation in a robust printscape, positioning their papers as more current, better suited to particular business interests, or [End Page 831] more politically partial or impartial than the next competitor. By comparison, American editors placed more emphasis on the independence of the press (before as well as after the Revolution) and paid much more attention to women readers as part of their intended audiences. Importantly for Heyd’s argument about the newspaper’s expanded spatial impression, these columns also reveal that papers were conscious of audiences and events very distant from the place of publication. Some found their niche in the market by publishing the latest from ships coming to port from afar; others addressed rural readerships accessible only by post. Heyd’s comparative study outlines many reasons why editors brought papers into existence, and, importantly, that papers had a community-constructing function before the first issue circulated.
Heyd’s argument takes fuller form in chapter 3 when he turns to newspaper indexes. Here, the binding of various papers into annual volumes with indexer’s categories (including foreign news, politics, war, commercial information, society news, and crime) recontextualizes information across readerships, locales, and dates. In their manifestoes, editors may have projected an audience and a set of aims, but indexers arranged these very same papers through a different set of readerly priorities...