Academic journal article Early American Studies

Afterword

Academic journal article Early American Studies

Afterword

Article excerpt

The case studies in this volume do the work we expect of such pieces: calling received wisdom into question, providing fresh evidence about Benjamin Franklin as printer and intellectual, revisiting a familiar genre, modeling how to connect the particular to the general. All rely on assumptions and methodologies that are the meat and drink of book history, some of long standing, others introduced more recently. Readers actively appropriate a text, booksellers ply their business in a "market" that both satisfies and frustrates writers and readers, the colonists in British America rely on a mixture of imported books and those that are locally produced, like the almanac.

As these essays suggest, book history is anything but static. New questions keep emerging, sometimes in the company of new strategies for answering them. Two such strategies leaven these essays, an interest in the "materiality" of the text and a questioning of the nation (or national history) as a framework for understanding the world of print during the decades when virtually every writer, printer, and bookseller in British North America thought of themselves as members of an imperial culture. To pursue the first of these is to reimagine what we mean by text; to pursue the second is to reimagine what we mean by "colonial" or "American." Implicitly if not explicitly, these essays do not rely as much on the term print culture as might have been the case a decade or more ago. What lies behind the newer strategies, and what do they portend for future work?

Materiality is one of those kudzu-like terms that suddenly are everywhere, though a casual survey suggests that it is most commonly evoked by literary historians. To say that it denotes the material features of a printed book is true but also inadequate, for the term has acquired a wider significance as a counterweight to the assumption that literary texts inhabit a timeless realm of their own. Materiality is put to this use in Roger Chartier's insistence that the meaning of a book is "inseparable from the material conditions and physical forms that make the text available to readers." For the literary historian David Scott Kastan, the turn toward the circumstances of production and material form changes the meaning of author: "Focus on the documentary particularities of a text frees our reading from the fantasy of literary autonomy. . . . The specific forms of textual embodiment speak the complex history of its making, and speak as well the remarkable productivity of the medium [reminding us that] it is a technology that not merely passively conveys its content but one that actively shapes its very intelligibility." When another literary historian calls for an "unediting" of the Renaissance, she does so in the service of a similar argument: "No single version of a literary work, whether Renaissance or modern, can offer us the fond dream of an unmediated access to an author ... ; the more aware we are of the processes of mediation to which a given edition has been subject, the less likely we are to be caught up in a constricting hermeneutic knot by which the shaping hand of the editor is mistaken for the intent of the author." Whenever we encounter the term in recent work, therefore, we may find that it evokes a larger discontent provoked in part, but only in part, by a fresh attention to the specific features of a printed text.1

The good news is that these evocations of materiality begin to restore descriptive bibliography to a place of honor within book history. The term "print culture" has had almost the opposite effect, for it alienated bibliographers who confined the word print to printed images. Weighed down, perhaps, by their awareness of the particularities of each printed book, bibliographers rarely don the wings of culture and take flight, as book historians have been doing since the 1970s under the influence of cultural anthropology. This parting of the ways licensed book historians to say very little about actual books. …

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