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Reviewed by:
  • The Visual and the Verbal: Image/Text in American Print Culture to 1900
  • Amy Breimaier (bio)
The Visual and the Verbal: Image/Text in American Print Culture to 1900American Antiquarian Society and Worcester Polytechnic Institute Worcester, Massachusetts November 21–22, 2014

What was the relationship between image and text, the visual and the verbal, in early American printed material? This question formed the central theme of the seventh annual Center of Historic American Visual Culture conference, cosponsored by the Program in the History of the Book in American Culture, held over two days at the American Antiquarian Society and its neighbor, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. In grappling with this theme, which seeks to bridge the gap between book history and material culture studies, presenters challenged the traditional notion that the image was subordinate to the text in printed material. Representing a number of disciplines, including English, art history, history, American studies, and women’s studies, graduate students and senior scholars explored the various ways in which authors, illustrators, publishers, and readers ascribed meaning to images and texts. Many also grappled with how images influenced conceptions of identity, authenticity, and nationalism, especially as the medium and use of images shifted from the mid-eighteenth century to the late nineteenth century. This review highlights a selection from the seventeen papers presented during the conference.

Founded in 1812 by Isaiah Thomas, the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) provided the perfect setting for exploring the relationship between the visual and verbal in early American printed material. As the home of the largest repository of books, broadsides, periodicals, newspapers, and other printed ephemera up to 1876, the AAS offered conference participants and attendees the unique opportunity to actually view the material [End Page 961]discussed throughout the presentations. For those in attendance, this experience emphasized the materiality and often the fragility of the printed works under study and allowed for fruitful discussion. One of the most stimulating objects on display was a nineteenth-century tactile atlas designed for the use of the blind. For a conference dedicated to the visual and the verbal, this piece, as David Weimer (Harvard University) noted in his paper, “Visual Knowledge and the Difficulties of Tactile Atlases in the Nineteenth Century,” raised critical questions regarding the limits and necessity of visual knowledge.

Befitting a conference held at the AAS, the first session, “Publishing Strategies,” highlighted the significance of the society and its founder to the history of printed material in early America. Panel participants also brought to attention some of the key themes of the conference, including the relationship(s) between images and authenticity, identity, and nationalism. The first paper of the session, “Isaiah Thomas’s First American Illustrated Novel,” given by Megan Walsh (St. Bonaventure University), highlighted how Thomas and his business partner Ebenezer Andrews sought to use “authentic” imagery in their illustrated novels to simultaneously cultivate a market for such works while also attempting to instill nationalism in post-Revolutionary America. In a similar vein to Thomas, Mathew Carey, a Philadelphia-based publisher, used images both to develop a market for his Bibles and to unofficially copyright his work. As Marie-Stephanie Delamaire (Columbia University) demonstrated in her presentation, “The Preacher and the Publisher’s ‘Man-of-War’: An Illustrated Bible Conquers the American Book Market in the Early Republic,” Carey paid artists for the right to reproduce their works, thereby associating his text with specific illustrations that made it too costly for his competitors to reproduce at a profit. Presenting between Walsh and Delamaire, Gigi Barnhill, the curator emerita of graphic arts for the AAS, brought attention to the society’s continuing effort to catalog early American engravings, which allows scholars to trace the migration of images in texts further than ever before. Her paper, “Shifting Meanings: Texts and Images in Literary Annuals and Periodicals,” sought to encourage scholars to consider not only the relationship between the visual and verbal in these works but also the often obscured intentions of artists whose work appeared in print. Barnhill’s paper also briefly raised the issue of image and identity when she noted that in the [End Page 962]eighteenth century, woodcut portrait reliefs were frequently used...


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