actor-network theory, bibliography, book trade, communications circuit, digital, female readers, intertextuality, manuscript, networks, New England, Puritanism, seventeenth century, temporality, transatlantic, travel narratives
Histories of the book have always paid attention to a variety of networks. Inevitably, and for better or worse, the term invites comparison to Robert Darnton’s “communications circuit,” first discussed in a classic 1982 article.1 Darnton’s functional model of communication usefully relates the life cycle of books to a range of actors, each of whom can assume a determinative role in the spread of information. The communications circuit, however, has been revised by scholars calling for more historical specificity or for equal attention to persons and things.2 Furthermore, developments in theory and method, including the affordances of digital tools, continue to prompt a more capacious model of the network. Over the course of a long [End Page 721] career, the philosopher of science Michel Serres has adamantly refused to privilege topology over temporality in theorizing and describing networked relationships, challenging instances in which the spatial is positioned as a domain of movement and connectivity is set within time’s stable container: the historical period, era, event, moment, and so forth. Anthropologists, literary scholars, and other theorists have explored similar lines of thought, arguing for any object’s capacity to enfold, combine, and exceed its moment.3
Digital humanities scholarship is certainly propelling book history to rethink the communications circuit paradigm, which implies a closed system, in favor of alternative topologies and networks that place cultural production and distribution in conversation with intertextuality, narrative, plagiarism, piracy, and various editorial functions, including the culture of reprinting.4 But technology alone cannot be said to monopolize critical interest in the topic. Caroline Levine reminds us that interest in networks preexists humanities computing, even as new scholarship emerges in tandem with the digital. “It is the rule, not the exception, to be enmeshed,” Levine argues, drawing on a host of social theorists and, in a compelling literary example, Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.5 It’s clear, following the example of Levine and others, that we don’t need to be full-fledged digital [End Page 722] humanists to marshal claims about the networks operative at specific historical conjunctures. Nor need we reduce such relationships solely to the circulation of information through print, since manuscript cultures, bookbinders, and papermakers have their own networks too; the latter two groups, of course, contribute to bookmaking without any necessary connection to textual meaning. Nor are “big data” required to excavate the terrain of a network, since it’s possible to elaborate an object’s spatiotemporal peculiarities and history of circulation using the tiniest evidentiary details. Book history’s “small data” have their own virtues.6 The remainder of this essay will demonstrate how methods and practices of bibliography can reveal aspects of emergent networks that were constitutive of literary culture in colonial North America. I conclude by drawing together Serres’s noncontemporaneous analysis of time with the special facility of bibliography to unfold the multitemporal networks indexed, juxtaposed, and put into writing by a particularly cunning emissary of trans-Atlantic book culture.
An early modern network of print distribution took root in a 1685–86 journey across the Atlantic by the London bookseller John Dunton, who spent six months in New England selling his wares, collecting outstanding debts, and operating two bookstores in Boston and Salem. The venture would have lasting cultural ramifications, including a publishing relationship Dunton would form with Cotton Mather.7 Dunton’s trans-Atlantic project took place amid a significant expansion in book culture. From 1679 onward, in the wake of the Popish Plot and the first lapse of the Licensing Act, booksellers and merchants like Dunton, Richard Chiswell, and John Usher oversaw the importation of a surprising range of titles to colonial readers: satirical Poems by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester; a quasi-pornographic book entitled Venus in the Cloyster; an apology for Catholicism by John Dryden; various “jest” books; a “History” of Dr. Faustus.8 For individual readers in colonial America, ownership of such imported books signified investment in the mother country on the level of the individual...