- Thinking Outside the Book by Augusta Rohrbach
Literary critics have a relatively limited vocabulary for thinking about books and their production. Augusta Rohrbach’s Thinking Outside the Book proposes a more flexible metaphorical vocabulary that can describe the history of the book in relationship to larger archives and account for diverse publishing practices in both the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. These two eras are characterized by changes in textual production that in turn were brought about by innovations in printing technologies and increased literacy rates in the nineteenth century and digital publication in the twenty-first century. Rohr-bach argues that the flexible publishing practices of the nineteenth century both reconfigure literary history and model strategies for thinking about print alongside the dizzying rise of digital publishing. She focuses on an eclectic [End Page 206] group of nineteenth-century American women writers uniquely positioned on the fringes of an expansive literary marketplace, authors whose “collaborations, resistances, and challenges to authorial practices” can effectively “radicalize our thinking about the book itself, the fundamental object of nineteenth-century literary history” (11).
Each of Rohrbach’s five chapters revises a key term from book history using the work of a single woman writer. Her terms—(re)mediation, memory, history, testimony, and loss—function less as replacements for existing vocabulary than as invitations to abandon literalism, and instead forge connections between historical and contemporary literary production. Chapter 1 rethinks literacy in terms of a potentially reparative (re)mediation, “foregrounding efforts to repair or remedy the historical damage done to Native peoples” (14). Rohrbach examines the publication and circulation of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft’s English and Ojibwe poems and her English translations of Ojibwe tales, arguing that these works illustrate both Schoolcraft’s multiple literacies and her attempts to balance competing Ojibwe and Anglo cultural practices in her work. Chapter 2 uses the textual and visual archive of Sojourner Truth, who participated actively in the cultivation of her own public image despite remaining illiterate all her life, to argue that we should move beyond questions of literacy altogether to consider authorship in terms of the production of cultural memory. Chapter 3 takes up the unpublished manuscript of Hannah Crafts’s The Bondswoman’s Narrative, discovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001, to situate publication in relationship to history and the historical and aesthetic possibilities available to African American writers in the nineteenth century. Rohrbach’s final two chapters focus on white southern women writers’ Civil War texts. She uses multiple editions of Augusta Jane Evans’s novel Macaria, published on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to great success beginning in the 1860s, to argue that we should employ testimony as a lens for understanding the edition in relationship to cultural context and readerly expectations. Finally, Rohrbach argues that a series of editions of Mary Boykin Chesnut’s postbellum Diary of Dixie, which emerges as a dramatically different document in serial and codex forms in 1905 and in later editions in 1949 and 1981, highlights editors’ prominent roles in posthumous literary production and emphasizes the way loss can restructure authorship.
This eclectic archive is productive in part because Thinking Outside the Book shows us what these disparate women writers have in common. In her work with Schoolcraft, Crafts, and Chesnut, for instance, Rohrbach offers critical language for considering the reasons women writers might choose not to publish, expanding our capacity to answer a pressing question in nineteenth-century literary studies: what do we do with an unpublished text? Rather than reading [End Page 207] unpublished documents as unfinished, private, or failed, Rohrbach takes these documents seriously as a canon of their own. In the context of Schoolcraft’s multiple literacies, Rohrbach argues that selective publication allowed School-craft to protect some works from the pressure of the literary marketplace and limit the circulation of works that might be overly Anglicized, while for Crafts, avoiding publication meant retaining a wider set of aesthetic possibilities and ensuring her personal safety. In this context, Chesnut’s failure to publish...