- An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic by Steven Carl Smith
Print culture, New York City, Evert Duyckinck, Publishing, Bookselling
It is ironic that New York City has often been overlooked as a center of publishing in the early United States, though that distinction is not without reason. The two figures traditionally seen as the dominant publishers of the early republic, Mathew Carey of Philadelphia and Isaiah Thomas of Worcester, each have deep archives of their business records available at libraries with a longstanding commitment to the study of the printing and book trades (the Library Company of Philadelphia and its neighbor, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, for Carey and the American Antiquarian Society for Thomas). Though plentiful records exist for New York’s major publishers, they are not similarly concentrated. In An Empire of Print, Steven Carl Smith aims to restore New York City to the forefront of the conversation about books in the early United States.
Smith complicates Trish Loughran’s argument that the United States lacked a coherent national publishing culture before the 1850s.1 By contrast, An Empire of Print shows how New York’s booksellers and publishers were indeed forging national business ties through which they circulated their books and other printed materials much earlier. Smith [End Page 362] supports this argument through a series of case studies of printers and publishers from the American Revolution to the 1830s. These include Samuel Loudon, one of several Patriot printers forced from the city during the British occupation and State Printer after the war; William Gordon, author of one of the earliest histories of the Revolution; John Ward Fenno, who inherited the Philadelphia Federalist newspaper The Gazette of the United States from his father and then the New York bookshop of Federalist William Cobbett; and Evert Duyckinck, a onetime sailmaker who became the leading book publisher in New York by his retirement in 1830. Through each of these examples—with an additional chapter on the New York literary fair of 1802—Smith shows how New York’s publishers and booksellers fought for competitive advantage within the city and made connections throughout the new nation. Of particular importance in this regard is Duyckinck, whom Smith seeks to elevate as a figure in early U.S. publishing to the same status enjoyed by Carey and Thomas. Using fourteen account books held at the New York Public Library, Smith demonstrates in granular detail how Duyckinck developed a nationwide network of agents to distribute his publishing stock. His network was particularly strong in the South and the trans-Appalachian West. Furthermore, Smith argues, Duyckinck’s connections in the mid-Atlantic and New England challenged the supremacy of the networks operated by Carey and Thomas.
The most compelling contribution of An Empire of Print may well be as a showcase for Smith’s meticulous research and analysis of the business records of the book trades. For each case study, Smith processed account books, estate inventories, waste books, and other records into a digestible narrative illustrated with clear and helpful tables. Even for scholars of the printing trade, these records are often difficult to use because they are so often fragmentary, poorly kept, or illegible. Smith’s analysis is a monumental achievement of data analysis that offers a more detailed portrait of the printing trade than any other available study. To offer just one example, Smith combines the account books and estate inventories of John Ward Fenno’s bookstore in tandem with his advertisements for the store to re-create its inventory and thereby demonstrate the ways in which Fenno was trying to establish his store as a space for New York Federalists to gather and discuss literature and politics.
Smith also enriches our consideration of how early Americans decided what made a book “American,” building on the conversation of scholars [End Page 363] in such venues as the multi-volume History of the Book in America.2...