- The Portrait and the Book: Illustration and Literary Culture in Early America by Megan Walsh
Walsh's The Portrait and the Book embraces new methods in studying the history of print media and argues that American reading and visual tastes were driven by the market in illustrated British and European books. This sounds straightforward enough, but it is actually breathtakingly important. Walsh helps us recognize how much our attention to the words of our beloved historical books has enabled us to write literary history in the absence of the more palpable cultural investments of early readers. They loved illustrations! By tracing illustrated imports and [End Page 611] American reprints of British and European books, Walsh demonstrates that readers sought to participate in a visual media culture that evolved, in the hands of American printers seeking to meet the needs of American readers, into a specific form of nationalist (and antinationalist) literature. Her important contribution to study of the early national era relates to her insistence that Americans' visual literacy has been occluded in discussions of the literature, discussions that tend to feature themes like sentimentalism and coquetry or critiques of enlightenment. Walsh argues that early readers would have sought not just the written words but accompanying images as marks of their culture. Walsh's notion of Americans' visual literacy includes not just actual illustrations in books but the writerly method of ekphrasis, graphic verbal descriptions of scenes and works of art. Speculating on readers' "imaginative experience of reading illustrated books," Walsh argues that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, "Americans made use of verbal descriptions of images in order to speak to one of the most pressing visual questions of their day: the profound trade gap in illustrated books" that existed between North America, on the one hand, and Britain and Europe, on the other (12). Her primary goal is to illustrate for her own readers the literary culture of North America as it formulated its own cultural goals from the middle eighteenth century onward.
As Walsh tells the story, illustrations in books from Italy, France, and the Netherlands were common in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Britain lagged behind. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, "British books were suddenly bursting with images" (2). The result was that "formal experimentation, especially the emergence of the novel, was inextricably tied to authors' and printers' use of visual paratexts" (2); "[f]rontis-pieces in particular influenced readers' conceptions of novels" (2). Even as frontispieces began to be used more regularly, other kinds of illustrations in novels tended to fall off during the second part of the eighteenth century. Yet changes in technology made many different kinds of illustrations possible, so that "by the first decades of the nineteenth century, the demand for engravings, both in books and as stand-alone prints, was booming" (3). In British North America during this same time, printers and booksellers tended to import books from abroad and sell them in their shops. Books that would sell well—Bibles and literary materials—were imported with greatest frequency. By the end of the eighteenth century, [End Page 612] printers often reprinted British books for American readers. This began, of course, with Benjamin Franklin's "reprinting" (really a much watered down version) of Samuel Richardson's Pamela, but the practice gained momentum and solidified in the very late eighteenth century, and American consumers grew fond of British books and British-authored books. "It was this investment with the culture of the mother country through the patterns of consumer culture that gave the United States its own distinctive culture," Walsh notes, "a culture built on appropriation, adaptation, and reinvention" (5–6).
Walsh summarizes the printing techniques used by American printers, pointing to two kinds of printmaking methods, relief printing (in both wood and then in metal, by the mid-eighteenth century and later) and intaglio printing. Printers tended to prefer intaglio printing, which employed a "relatively durable and precise technology to produce the illustrations commonly found in expensive...