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  • Author
  • Joseph Rezek

History of Authorship, African American Literature, Black Atlantic, Early American Literature, John Marrant, Early American Print Culture, African American Print Culture, Book History, Textual History, Race, History of Print, Religion, Slavery, George Whitefield, Selina Hastings, the Countess of Huntingdon

The author is not dead, for book historians, but she has been desacralized. From the Latin auctor—one who approves or sanctions, provides evidence or expertise; a prime mover; a progenitor of a race or nation; or one who creates a work of art—the English term author came to signify the sole originator of a literary text long after its association with God, the “Author of Nature.”1 Its literary meaning acquired a hallowed, quasi-mythological connotation only after the mutual imbrication of bourgeois individualism, professional authorship, and proprietary copyright in the eighteenth century. It was the modern, deified Author (capital “A”) that Roland Barthes sought to demystify. “We know now that the text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God), but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”2 Writing in Barthes’s immediate wake, Michel Foucault defined authorship exclusively through its function in discourse.3 These famous refusals of an author’s originating power and autonomy remain influential in literary studies. They also helped legitimize book history’s commitment to embedding authors within a “communications circuit,” a “field of cultural production,” or other contingent historical, personal, and economic relationships.4 And yet most book historians believe, contra Barthes and Foucault, that authors (lowercase “a”) play active if not [End Page 599] autonomous roles in constructing their texts. Authors, for us, are historical actors who compose texts, not works of mystical genius; they are embedded in and susceptible to historically specific circumstances and influences; they are directly beholden to the numerous individuals who control and distribute media technology (and not only print); and they are just as strategic in their navigations of the world of media and communication as any of their equally historically embedded and actively engaged readers.

Despite this general commitment to author-as-actor, one Foucauldian insight continues to resonate. The “author function,” Foucault writes, “does not affect all discourses in the same way at all times and in all types of civilization.”5 This has been especially generative for early Americanists, who have labored to differentiate the story of authorship in early North America from familiar European narratives. They have emphasized early America’s fragmented and provincial print industry; its dependence on trans-Atlantic material, interpersonal, and cultural networks; the absence of copyright monopolies; indigenous media practices; and the consequences of slavery, settler colonialism, radical Protestantism, and republicanism. A unique picture of early American authorship has emerged from all this. Important studies have considered oral, non-alphabetic, and community-oriented authorship in Native American materials (Weaver, Round, Cohen, Mt. Pleasant et al.); the mutual imbrication of literary authorship and provincial moral and social life (Amory and Hall); the performative aspects of Puritan authorship (Neuman); the anonymity and pure negativity of republican authorship (Warner); African American participation in and resistance to dominant modes of white authorship (Foster, Brooks, Cohen and Stein); the belated rise of professional authorship (Charvat); the rise of female authors, especially in the nineteenth century (Kelley, Homestead); the persistence of amateur authorship (Jackson); and antipathies to authorship itself as a rubric for organizing literary culture (McGill).6 [End Page 600]

While enumerating such distinctiveness, early Americanists have also attended to the way authors faced conditions not all that different from those in Europe—with a shared technology of the letterpress, a print culture similarly affected by orality and manuscript practices, and a media landscape shaped by some of the same cultural, economic, and ideological forces. John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings (1785) is both distinctively American—composed by a member of the African diaspora who lived in the colonies—and materially European, as it was a popular religious pamphlet published in London. This makes it an ideal text to help us think about the meaning of the keyword author in early American studies...


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pp. 599-606
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