Academic journal article Journalism History

The Significance of the Printed World in Early America: Colonists' Thoughts on the Role of the Press

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Significance of the Printed World in Early America: Colonists' Thoughts on the Role of the Press

Article excerpt

Williams, Julie Hedgepeth. The Significance of the Printed Word in Early America: Colonist's Thoughts on the Role of the Press. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. 320 pp. $65.

One of the biggest problems for a historian is moving beyond seeing the past in terms of the present. Julie Hedgepeth Williams's latest book should help both professional historians and their students to better understand just how important the printed word was several hundred years ago. Clearly, she loves the printed word and conveys something of the sense of wonder it used to evoke in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries when it was "[t]he most far-reaching mass medium." Yes, that printing process now seems risibly slow and cumbersome, but a press back then could produce in one day what a scribe would take a year to complete.

Williams, an assistant professor at Samford University, depicts immigrants to America as treasuring the printed word for its linkage to their pasts and for its permanence. It was more reliable than evanescent memories, and it seemed "a rock of accuracy in a land where many activities were riddled with doubt" in the period from the sixteenth century through 1765. The author alludes to the printing press as a multiplier of literacy, although American colonial literacy rates are devilishly hard to pin down. Signatures on documents such as wills have been seen by some scholars as paralleling literacy in society, as Williams dutifully (if rather uncritically) reports. …

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