- London and the Making of Provincial Literature: Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book Trade, 1800–1850 by Joseph Rezek
Joseph Rezek’s London and the Making of Provincial Literature identifies London as the shared center of influence for a transatlantic Anglophone book trade during the first decades of the nineteenth century. In particular, he traces the exchange of strategies among certain white fiction writers— Maria Edgeworth, Sydney Owenson, Walter Scott, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper—who collectively exhibit what Rezek calls an [End Page 85] “aesthetics of provinciality”. The term “names the representational modes of Irish, Scottish, and American fiction that devised new theories of literature’s distinctiveness from the tense crucible of subordination” (8). Though the authors wrote about and from their own colonial and post-colonial nationalisms, London’s importance as the book trade’s central marketplace meant that they had to modulate divisive nationalisms in favor of a universalizing literary model that would appeal to a metropolitan set of publishers, booksellers, and readers. They therefore downplayed separatism and conflict in favor of transcendent cultural exchange that used literature as the apolitical realm of communication and communion. Rezek claims that the importance of his book, especially for Americanists, is that it demonstrates how “fundamentally transatlantic provinciality was”, as evidenced in the ways these white authors from Ireland, the U.S., and Scotland were in conversation with and influencing each other (7). Unlike other studies that have addressed these literary histories separately, he contends that attentiveness to transatlantic provinciality reveals the “interdependen[ce]” of “the history of books with the history of aesthetics” (8).
Rezek lays out the argument and scope of his book in the introduction, noting that by mid-century, London’s importance had been offset by the emergence of a U.S. marketplace. In the epilogue, Rezek demonstrates how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter epitomizes that shift, wherein British and American marketplaces are both present, neither dominating. In between the introduction and epilogue, the book follows a tripartite structure. The first two chapters plumb book trade records to demonstrate the ways that provincial booksellers and publishers negotiated copyright laws and geographic distance in order to acquire and sell books. Here, Rezek is interested not in the reprint trade, but in new works. He identifies the 1801 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland as the piece of legislation that cemented London as the center of the Anglophone book trade for the next several decades. The back-and-forth between metropolitan and provincial nodes emerges as a courtship wherein provincial players must find matchmaking agents in London to cajole early copies and other forms of access. These chapters craft narratives from the scattered minutiae of business records and letters, highlighting London’s importance.
In the next section, chapters three to five, Rezek traces something of an arc that moves from Ireland to the U.S. to Scotland in order to explain the evolution and exchange of the aesthetics of provinciality. In chapter three, he argues that novels by Irish authors Edgeworth and Owenson should not be seen solely as national tales that favor reconciliation between Ireland and England through the use of a romantic plot that ends in marriage [End Page 86] between a Wild Irish Girl and a usually Anglicized suitor (64). Rather, their narratives moderate political difference due to the economic demands of a London marketplace that eschews a separatist Irish nationalism. In the next chapter, Rezek turns to Washington Irving’s The Sketch Book. Though initially he published much of it in the U.S., Irving made revisions in order to secure a British copyright. Comparing the American originals to the British edition—the latter since becoming the preferred version—Rezek demonstrates how Irving engaged in “transatlantic revision” in order to appeal to a London marketplace that might not enjoy reading about American exceptionalism or understand regional American English or references. By altering what London audiences might read as incomprehensible and nationalist language, Irving...