- The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture, Volume 5: US Popular Print Culture to 1860 ed. by Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray
Print culture, Print production, Book history, Cultural history
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A volume with the name “Oxford History” imprinted on it often evokes a specific vision: a weighty tome with hundreds of pages between its boards and a title embossed in neat gold lettering on the wide spine. The book likely sits on the shelf of a personal or university library. This staid vision is the opposite of the kinds of reading matter, and implied readers, that US Popular Print Culture to 1860 takes as its subject in its forty chapters. The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture is a nine-volume series; Volume 5 is the third to see publication. In it, editors Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray offer up an interdisciplinary set of forty-one contributors from history and literature departments as well as schools of communication and library and information sciences. The result is a collection that not only contextualizes a diverse array of popular texts but also expands the boundaries of what forms constituted “popular print” to begin with.
The entire Oxford series centers on the question, “What kind of reading was ‘popular reading’?” (61). The editors of Volume 5 intend to upend any quick and easy answer that their own readers might have in mind. Zboray and Zboray charge that the field of book history in the United States, with which these essays are in conversation, is “too top-down, value-laden, object-centered, supply-sided, processual, and restrictive for a history of popular print culture” (5). While Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin might have sold more copies than any book except the Bible, the Zborays’s volume moves away from privileging bestsellers and even the book form itself. US Popular Print Culture to 1860 strives instead to take cues from early American readers and embraces a capacious definition of “popular print.” In this telling, any kind of text that readers often engaged with falls under the scope. This includes imprints that were produced cheaply and inexpensively for wide distribution. These chapters, however, are attentive to how “alternative literacies” contributed to popular reading (61). Early Americans read letters and wampum belts, copied lines into commonplace books that they circulated among friends, attended lyceum lectures by well-known authors, and viewed commercialized pictures. The editorial decision to focus on the intersection of “popular” print with these oral and manuscript cultures distinguishes this volume from another epic undertaking on the subject, the multi-volume A History of the Book in America series produced in the 2000s by the American Antiquarian Society and published by the University of North Carolina Press.
This volume is divided into four parts that are carefully crafted to avoid conveying a progressive narrative or imbuing certain genres with [End Page 764] significance over others. The editors stress that the four parts emphasize “stratification” and that much of the content introduced in early chapters “remains valid throughout ensuing chapters” (10). Within Parts II through IV, chapters appear in alphabetical order to avoid the appearance of ranking each subject’s importance. Such organization drives home two primary goals of the volume. First, Zboray and Zboray take issue with the argument that the history of print in the British North American colonies and the early republic could be characterized by a shift from “scarcity to abundance” (7).1 Second, they demonstrate significant continuities in the production, distribution, and usage of popular print amid technological, economic, and cultural changes.
Parts I and II provide a baseline understanding of the production and distribution of texts as well as the genres familiar to early Americans. Part I, “Foundations,” includes synthetic overviews of staple topics of book history: print and book production, authorship, literacy and education, and the circulation of print from the colonial period through 1860...