- London and the Making of Provincial Literature: Aesthetics and the Transatlantic Book by Joseph Rezek
From the start, transatlantic literary studies sought to break calcified traditions that prescribed the isolation of national literatures. Over time, however, transatlantic approaches developed familiar flow patterns of their own, especially as they [End Page 167] examined "special relationships" between North American and British authors who deeply influenced one another. Paul Gilroy's broader vision in The Black Atlantic (1993) set aside one-to-one correspondences in favor of a highly complex, "fractal" map of how cultures interact, remix, and radicalize ideas in the Atlantic world. In this spirit of complexity, Joseph Rezek's London and the Making of Provincial Literature provides a fascinating, highly detailed geography of textual exchanges in the first half of the nineteenth century. Rezek's clearly defined and persuasively argued concept of "provincial literature," and its cognates, "the aesthetics of provinciality" and "provincial nationalism" (pp. 4, 64, 149, emphasis original), synthesizes the studies of British, Irish, and American Romanticism and promises to make lasting marks on the field of Romantic studies.
This impressive book renders the granular quality of transatlanticism visible as it applies the methodologies of book history to Romantic criticism. Rezek tracks annotations by individual readers, compares editions published on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and considers the roles prefaces, reprints, and advance circulation played in shaping a transatlantic market for distinctly national books. Focusing primarily on Maria Edgeworth, Sydney Owenson, Walter Scott, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper, Rezek creates a composite picture of how "Irish, Scottish, and American literatures were 'made' as material products of the book trade and cultural artifacts of the literary field" (p. 9). Instead of pitting these writers against one another in competition, the book trade made them "allies" in their similar relationships to metropolitan London (p. 12). Rezek's work aims to go "beyond the political determinism that has governed the study of Irish, Scottish, and American literature at least since Katie Trumpener's Bardic Nationalism (1997) expanded the Romantic canon under the rubric of empire and the rise of ideology critique made complicity or resistance to the hegemonic U.S. nation-state the most pressing question in American literary studies" (p. 13). In six chapters that fuse extensive archival research with analytical reading and witty accounts of transatlantic literary dramas, Rezek's book succeeds in rebalancing literature and politics.
Each chapter tells a lively and engaging story about the book trade's transatlantic routes. Beginning with the key point that until 1891, no law protected international copyright, Chapter 1 highlights London's dominance, which "registered differently around the Atlantic: in Ireland as the almost exclusive location for publishing, in the United States as the origin of texts for reprinting, in Scotland as the distribution center for books" (p. 36). As books produced in London were considered more authoritative as well as more beautiful, provincial publishers were forced to develop alternative strategies to feed readers' hunger. Rezek explores one such instance in Chapter 2, where he links Walter Scott's publishers Archibald Constable in Edinburgh and Matthew Carey in Philadelphia through the practice of reprinting. Constable catered to Scott's London publisher, who then shipped Scott's books immediately to Carey, and Carey eventually wrangled advance sheets in order to publish the wildly popular [End Page 168] novels with near transatlantic simultaneity. These advance sheets became known as the "American Copy," and Scott himself referenced this arrangement in one of his final works, Tales of My Landlord (1831). The truth of the transatlantic book trade was indeed stranger than fiction, for as Rezek notes, "dissemination occurred in multiple directions" (p. 61).
Rezek's work takes a more traditional literary turn in Chapter 3, focusing on what he terms "the aesthetics of provinciality" in Edgeworth's and Owenson's writing and how they moved "from irony to sympathy to a radical vision of aesthetic communion" (pp. 64–65, emphasis original). Chapter 5...