In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • IntroductionKeywords in Early American Literature and Material Texts
  • Marcy J. Dinius and Sonia Hazard

Material Texts, Catchwords, Keywords

This special issue of Early American Studies contributes to the flourishing body of scholarship that Raymond Williams initiated with his 1976 book Keywords. Since Williams’s publication of his project as a “record of an inquiry into a vocabulary”—that is, “a shared body of words and meanings in English, of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society”—keywords collections have proliferated, as scholars in various disciplines have inquired into the specialized vocabularies of specific areas of culture and society.1 Though the essays collected here focus on the vocabulary of early American literature and material texts, they share with keywords scholarship in other fields the commitment to explore how words “change their meanings over time and across space” and to “speculate about the ongoing significance of those debates,” as Bruce Burgett and Glenn Hendler described the aims of their Keywords for American Cultural Studies.2 In line with this tried-and-true keywords model, we asked contributors to offer positioned conceptual or genealogical analyses of their chosen terms. We also asked each author to do something different for this collection and organize those thoughts around one particular archival object. What follows are keyword essays reflective of the dual strengths of material texts scholarship, in both their broad-minded powers of interpretation and their archival depth. Each offers a conceptual analysis inseparable from the concrete particularity of archival encounter. [End Page 579]

In our conversations about how to introduce these essays, it occurred to us that we might shift our title from keywords to catchwords. Since the nineteenth century, catchwords has been used to describe the words that appear at the head of pages in dictionaries, encyclopedias, and the like, which is the most basic organizing function they serve in the present collection.3 Yet catchword is especially appealing because of its connection to the history of material texts. It refers to the dangling lone word that appears below the last line of a page of text, in the bottom right-hand corner, that anticipates the first word of the next page (figure 1). In the print shop, the use of catchwords was widespread from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries; catchwords served as aids for compositors, pressmen, and binders, who consulted them to ensure, at a glance, that pages were ordered correctly. Like many things in the history of printing, printed catchwords originated from conventions in earlier manuscript cultures: according to Roy Stokes, medieval scribes included these words “at the end of each section of the book as a guide to the binder in the arrangement of the sections.”4

Catchwords have proven differently useful for readers of material texts. The historian of reading William Slights observed that catchwords, though mostly intended to be overlooked by readers, were inevitably registered “at some level of consciousness.” They worked to enable a “continuous flow in the reading experience” across discontinuous pages.5 Building on Slights, the medievalist Maura Nolan elaborated on the effects of catchwords on the body of the reader:

The catchword thus functions in two ways, which correspond to the relationship between body and mind that is made manifest by reading. In a material sense . . . the catchword acts as an instruction. It commands the body of the reader to take a certain action—turning the page. In this sense, they carry the reader’s mind through the interruption of turning the page, thereby producing a continuous flow of information from the page to the thoughts of the reader. . . . The catchword thus merges form and content in such a way that the action of the reading body is supplemented by a transitional unit of meaning that compensates for the gap inherent to the form of the book: the end of one page and the beginning of the next.6 [End Page 580]

Click for larger view
View full resolution
Figure 1.

Leaf with the catchword “Books,” in a book owned by Benjamin Franklin. The Satirs of Aulus Persius Flaccus: Translated into English Prose; Together with the Original Latin; and Illustrated with Annotations. Printed by Edward...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 579-583
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.