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REVIEWS William Kuskin, ed. Caxton’s Trace: Studies in the History of English Printing. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006. Pp. xxvii, 394. $60.00 cloth, $33.50 paper. This collection of newly commissioned essays is a substantial attempt at a new version of the early history of printing in England. Its ten contributions explore not just Caxton’s own activities as printer and translator , but the various ways in which the technology of printing was to be absorbed into the commercial structures of late medieval and early modern book production, and the kinds of impact it was to have on reading, reception, the formation of a literary canon, and cultural history in the broadest sense. The concerns of the essays stretch from the manuscript transmission of fourteenth-century texts forward to sixteenth-century printing of the works of Chaucer and Langland, and onward still, in a ‘‘coda’’ provided by Seth Lerer’s overview of ‘‘Caxton in the Nineteenth Century,’’ to the formalizing of Caxton’s reputation in enterprises like Blades’s Life and Typography of William Caxton and the Oxford English Dictionary. The essays are grouped in sections (‘‘The Introduction of the Press: The Culture Machine,’’ ‘‘Manuscript and Print Strategies,’’ and ‘‘Language , Book, and Politics’’) whose titles flag the political, economic, and social emphases that are foregrounded in Kuskin’s own lengthy introduction . Kuskin opens with a quotation from Adorno on the paradox that books can be both material things and vehicles for ideas, and goes on to explore the varieties of ‘‘trace’’ (best understood here as ‘‘following ,’’ perhaps, without implications of continuity or replication) in the practices of the English book producers who worked alongside Caxton and after him. After summarizing Elizabeth Eisenstein’s concentration on the new mechanical fixity of printing and Adrian Johns’s arguments about the social relations of the printshop, Kuskin moves to an investigation of the variety of ways in which ‘‘trace’’ informs the transmission of Chaucer’s ‘‘Gentilesse’’—a short poem about ancestry and inheritance —whose successive copyings and printings in the course of the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries (alongside Chaucer’s other works) offer a model of the ways in which ‘‘the trace of the first stock’’ can filter through time and change. This is deftly done, and it makes clear that the book will not be simply about book production, but about PAGE 505 505 ................. 16596$ CH13 11-01-10 14:08:30 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER the production of culture, and more specifically the production of literary history. The contributors are all professors of English, with a take on the history of English printing visibly shaped by their practices as readers and sometimes as literary or cultural theorists, and their essays are in the main less about printing than about ‘‘the symbolic layer of early English books’’ (p. 7), and the ways in which ‘‘English literary history . . . is constructed by a variety of readers, each consolidating previous readers’ efforts in different material conditions’’ (p. 18). The essay that broaches most directly here the mechanical practicalities of early printing is David R. Carlson’s informative survey of Caxton’s practice of weaving the printing of ephemera into his work on longer, more labor-intensive volumes, provocatively entitled ‘‘A Theory of the Early English Printing Firm: Jobbing, Book Publishing, and the Problem of Productive Capacity in Caxton’s Work.’’ Carlson urges the abandonment of a sentimental attachment to Caxton’s translations and his large folio volumes, and recommends instead the study of his handbills, indulgences, and smaller pamphlets, giving much enlightening detail on the working practices that enabled them to be turned around between more challenging undertakings. For Carlson, such study illuminates ‘‘the class-based means of production current at the time’’ and indeed the ‘‘class struggle’’ itself, as Marx and Raymond Williams are invoked. Whatever the terminology, exploration of these areas of Caxton ’s activities is indeed revealing, and Carlson’s suggestions that Caxton may have had to revise his initial overinvestment in ‘‘the potential of the elite, courtly market for his products’’ (p. 52), taking on the printing of more remunerative service books and devotional works, seems plausible. Upturning the more conventional view...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 505-508
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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