An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic by Steven Carl Smith
Starting in the 1780s, seemingly nationalistic rhetoric appeared from the pens of many American manufacturers, patriots, and political figures, but none used it more than printers. "This work is an original American production," a prospectus might read; others titled their new magazines or newspapers The American Magazine, American Apollo, and The Columbian Magazine, to name only three.1 Title pages promised that novels were written by Americans or American ladies; some printers urged their legislators to enact protectionist laws to promote domestic printing. For a long time, scholars who studied this rhetoric interpreted it as evidence that newly independent Americans wanted to sponsor an indigenous literary culture that could ultimately free them from their bonds to British literature. Michael Warner's Letters of the Republic (1990) was the first to challenge those interpretations, suggesting that this late eighteenth-century rhetoric did less to evoke a national public imaginary or cultural nationalism (which were later phenomena, in his view) than to promote the commercial success of domestically printed material. Trish Loughran's The Republic in Print (2007) disputed the earlier views on a different level. For her, this rhetoric represented the pure fantasy that print might tie the nation together. The nationalism present in early republican print culture, she argued, covered over the fact "that there was no 'nationalized' print public sphere in the years just before and just after the Revolution, but rather a proliferating variety of local and regional reading publics scattered across a vast and diverse geographical space." This was a virtual nationalism: an aggressive rhetorical effort to imagine something that did not, and could not yet, exist due to the severe geographic and material constraints on the printing trades.2
In An Empire of Print, Steven Carl Smith enters this conversation from a slightly different angle: by examining a series of figures crucial to the early New York printing trades who managed to establish extensive interstate networks during the early Republic. Even if scholars cannot say that American [End Page 382] printing overall had a fully national reach in the early Republic, Smith nevertheless finds some instances in which printing entrepreneurs moved far beyond local influence. In this regard, he suggests, Loughran and Warner's skepticism concerning the scope and possibility of that nationalistic rhetoric within print media should be tempered, for some individuals did discover ways of instituting broad print networks. In particular, he points to the achievements of specific New York print entrepreneurs in establishing expansive commercial webs. These, he claims, reveal that "New York City may have been the capital of the nation's publishing trade in the early nineteenth century, much as it is today" (5). As New York printers cobbled together influential publishing and distribution networks, he argues, they not only linked the nation but established the foundations for New York to become its widely acknowledged media center.
An Empire of Print's five case-study chapters scrutinize the business records and correspondence of a group of men who stretch the descriptors scholars have used to describe printing in this era. These entrepreneurs were not merely printers, publishers, and booksellers; sometimes they knew nothing of the craft of typesetting at all. Rather, they were capitalists. This point is brought home by close scrutiny of these men's financial accounts. Twenty-six tables presenting data represent a significant effort to understand financial information that less quantitatively oriented scholars often set aside in favor of qualitative material, and they vividly underscore Smith's point by showing precisely how far his subjects' business networks extended.
Smith demonstrates a fundamental appreciation for the work and ambitions of these men, providing meticulous descriptions of their lives and careers along with a data-driven understanding of their businesses. Despite the preponderance of financial material, however, the book succeeds most effectively when unpacking the world the printers made in early New York; readers should take seriously the author's promise from the outset to tell the "stories of the men who built the city's thriving trade just before New York became the nation's publishing capital" (2, emphasis added). These stories can be rich, beautifully detailed, and evocative. In the chapter on the Federalist bookseller John Ward Fenno, for example Smith describes the area of Pearl and Water Streets near Hanover Square where he set up shop as featuring a remarkable density of printers, booksellers, and bookbinders whose shops sat cheek by jowl—displaying a true appreciation for the material and geographic textures of urban life. Later, when Fenno moved uptown to Broadway, Smith shows that he purposefully established himself just down the street from a Republican bookstore run by a French émigré, thus mounting an unsubtle Federalist challenge to the symbolic literary politics of that part of the city. Likewise, in his treatment of Evert Duyckinck's extraordinary book distribution network, Smith describes the home Duyckinck furnished in grand style to display his genteel economic status: the library, the parlor, the expensive mahogany furniture. Smith's revelation of this granular texture [End Page 383] greatly helps readers understand the world of printing in the early Republic. An Empire of Print shows us elements of the book trade and the careers of its practitioners that have not been seen before, as Smith ties together intimate biographical details, the sputtering starts and stops of young capitalists' early careers, and the gritty financial elements of their businesses into a fully realized story.
The historiographical intervention of An Empire of Print appears strongest in the book's last three chapters, which treat, respectively, Fenno's creation of a network of Federalist printers in the 1790s, the American Company of Booksellers' national book fair in the very early years of the nineteenth century, and Duyckinck's distribution empire of schoolbooks, bibles, and other steady sellers during the thirty years leading up to about 1830. More so than the early chapters, this part of the book displays how the different approaches by which print entrepreneurs built their businesses enhanced New York's national reputation for printing. This process relied on both men who buttressed one another's economic success because they shared ideological principles and on booksellers who found ways to cooperate, rather than compete, to sell books.
Nonetheless, the connections between the details Smith has assembled and his larger goals can at times be tenuous. The reader often loses the forest for the trees. Chapter 2, which analyzes the publication history of William Gordon's History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States, features long digressions about the book's subscribers and the professions of those who checked it out from the New York Society Library that have fragile connections to Smith's overall goal of unfolding the nascent national print networks. The eleven meaty tables that Smith provides in chapter 5 represent enormous amounts of effort and will surely benefit scholars who subsequently scrutinize Duyckinck's financial records, but not all of them advance the author's claims. Do we need a table listing the occupations of subscribers to one of Duyckinck's books? Does the table laying out debts owed to Duyckinck—primarily from mid-Atlantic and Connecticut debtors—help us understand his growing national ambitions as a businessman? One wonders whether Smith had trouble killing his darlings: acknowledging that the hard effort he had expended making sense of this data—valuable as it may be for future scholars—was not always material to his book's central arguments.
As a result of Smith's ingenious but disconnected analyses, the reader is left with questions about each of the two parts of Smith's overall argument, as well as the connection between them. His research certainly demonstrates that some men created extensive and successful business empires that stretched far beyond local influence; Duyckinck's, most prominently, was indeed a mighty business. But however important the early book fairs were in tying printers together, what are we to make of the fact that there were [End Page 384] only a few of them and that they fizzled out after 1805? And considering the lack of coordination between the men Smith studies and the halting growth of their firms, is it fair to suggest that their efforts during the early Republic sowed the seeds of New York's much-later publishing reputation?
Nor does Smith help us understand some of the conundrums that Warner and Loughran laid out earlier. If we accept his perspective, it remains unclear whether we should interpret the nationalistic rhetoric used by printers as a means of encouraging domestic manufacture, a stance of protectionism to staunch the flow of popular British print materials, a reflection of the commercial ambitions of specific industry entrepreneurs, or a consequence of the process by which the emerging networks of printers and booksellers began to etch distribution lines across the vast country. Even if Smith wants to find all of those elements, it would be useful if he addressed these issues.
The second part of Smith's argument, laying out the process by which New York allegedly began to exert control over the publishing industry as a whole, also appears shaky. Even if we are willing to see these men establishing New York as an emerging powerhouse of the nation's publishing and book distribution, Smith does not compare their efforts to the same kinds of attempts by publishers and distributors in Philadelphia and Boston. His thin attention to Rosalind Remer's Printers and Men of Capital (1996) appears especially glaring, considering that she traces strikingly similar dynamics taking place among Philadelphia publishers such as Mathew Carey.3 By making the ambitious claim that we can see in the early Republic the genesis of New York's eventual rise to national prominence in print production, Smith extends his argument a step beyond what his evidence can show.
Nevertheless, this book will be vitally important to those of us who are concerned with the nature of the book trade in the early Republic, most so for how it forwards our understanding of these crucial New York figures. It also reads beautifully, for all its deep diving into the weeds of minutiae. But compared to the far reach of books such as Loughran's and Warner's that have influenced a large interdisciplinary readership, Smith's is likely to have a more localized impact within this subfield. [End Page 385]
1. "New American Novel," Dec. 21, 1792, [Boston] American Apollo, , quoted in Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass., 1990), 119.
2. Trish Loughran, The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870 (New York, 2007), xix (quotation); Warner, Letters of the Republic.
3. Rosalind Remer, Printers and Men of Capital: Philadelphia Book Publishers in the New Republic (Philadelphia, 1996).