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  • The Visual Origins of the Material Turn
  • Gabriel Cervantes

Introducing Janine Barchas's "Prefiguring Genre: Frontis piece Portraits from Gulliver's Travels to Millenium Hall," first published in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 30, No. 2 (special number: "Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something Like It, 1684-1762"), summer 1998, pp. 260-86.

Sifting through the Studies in the Novel archives, I chose to nominate Janine Barchas's article "Prefiguring Genre: Frontispiece Portraits from Gulliver's Travels to Millenium Hall" for republication in the journal's fiftieth anniversary issue because it stands as an early example of what Jonathan Scott Enderle writing recently in PMLA describes as the "material turn in literary studies": that is, as most of us know, a methodological sea change that has worked to reveal literature as "material text[s], subject to contingency and decay…an irreducibly noisy channel of communication"; and not "the immutable creation of a sovereign poetic will," but rather "the fluid product of multiple collaborators, filtered through a divided poetic consciousness and misprinted on fragile slips of paper" (290).

Barchas's piece was first published in the 1998 special issue entitled "Making Genre: Studies in the Novel or Something Like It, 1684-1762." The article would become part of her 2003 book, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel. As such it prefigured a more expansive discussion of the topics and findings discussed in the article and this introduction. (If this article interests you, I highly recommend reading the book.) That said, this article represents an excellent opportunity to think through the implications of a "material turn," and to highlight the kind of innovative work that results from journal special issues, publications that take important and timely critical questions—as, in this case, the thorny question [End Page 114] of genre in the early English novel amidst competing historicisms—and solicit diverse approaches to them.

In embracing the methods and findings of studies of printing, book history, and material texts, literary scholars have chosen to involve themselves in a range of cross-disciplinary endeavors that engage with bibliography, history, economics, and even the physical sciences.1 Such cross-pollinations have moved toward a primary aim: to develop an empirical platform for discussions of texts. Common questions include: What incarnations of a literary work exist? How are they different, constituting a range of texts that can each be productively analyzed? What socio-economic forces shaped that output and its reception? What evidence is contained in the physical attributes of books themselves? And, perhaps most importantly, how does a broadened field of evidence allow us to revise, expand, or even upend what we have so far accepted as literary history?

Animated by questions like these, Barchas marshals evidence concerning the early novel's engagement with genre. This engagement, she shows, can be better understood by looking beyond the words that make up a literary artifact and looking at that artifact as a material object, revealing what those words meant in specific times and places. For, as she shows, the "portrait frontispiece"—rarely reproduced in modern editions of eighteenth-century works—"had been a convenient medium with which to signal the early novel's generic ambitions and augment its dominant interest in individual psychology, cult of celebrity, and private subjectivity" (281).

In substantiating this and other claims, Barchas's article traverses a spectrum of evidence that reveals early novels as objects subject to authorial control and as "fluid product[s] of multiple collaborators." Most of the article's discussions of author portraits reveal these images to be consonant with either the author's aims as expressed in the literary work or the marketing of that work. This is especially true of Gulliver's Travels. Yet her discussion of Hogarth's illustration of Pamela documents an instance of "contingency" in a printed book that frustrates authorial intentions. As we can see here (and elsewhere), the introduction of material texts into the literary critical equation does not necessarily unsettle long-standing tendencies to read literary works as organic wholes that express an author's unified vision. This article's evidence tends to reinforce the idea that material texts primarily amplify, "parallel" (262), "sanction...


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