Early African American Print Culture

Early African American Print Culture

Early African American Print Culture

Early African American Print Culture


The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw both the consolidation of American print culture and the establishment of an African American literary tradition, yet the two are too rarely considered in tandem. In this landmark volume, a stellar group of established and emerging scholars ranges over periods, locations, and media to explore African Americans' diverse contributions to early American print culture, both on the page and off.

The book's seventeen chapters consider domestic novels and gallows narratives, Francophone poetry and engravings of Liberia, transatlantic lyrics and San Francisco newspapers. Together, they consider how close attention to the archive can expand the study of African American literature well beyond matters of authorship to include issues of editing, illustration, circulation, and reading--and how this expansion can enrich and transform the study of print culture more generally.

Published in cooperation with the Library Company of Philadelphia.


Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein

The present volume takes its cue from a historical convergence. the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the consolidation of what historians have come to know as “print culture” in the United States. Spurred by technological improvements to the printing press, innovations in papermaking and binding, increasing divisions of labor and automation, and the expansion of distribution networks enabled by railroad and steamship, print shops turned out a huge variety of printed goods in unprecedented quantities. These goods included recognizably literary items such as books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and broadsides, as well as nonliterary items such as stationery, lottery tickets, currency, and ledgers. Printed matter became a part of everyday life, mediating and reshaping the already fluctuating social relations of the early United States.

At the same time, these years also mark the inauguration of what scholars have identified as an African American literary tradition. Despite the fact that education was often explicitly prohibited for slaves, and effectively placed out of reach for many freepersons, publications by African American authors appeared in increasing numbers. the year 1760 saw both the first published poem by an African American, Jupiter Hammon’s broadside “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries,” and the first published prose text, Briton Hammon’s A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man. (The first known poem by an African American, Lucy Terry’s “Bar’s Fight,” probably composed in 1746, was transmitted orally before being committed to print in 1855.) the first black publishing house, the African Methodist Episcopal Book . . .

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