The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture: Volume Five: US Popular Print Culture to 1860

Edited by Ronald J. Zboray and Mary Saracino Zboray, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019, 736 pages, $135.00 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-198-734819)

US Popular Print Culture cover

The most recently released volume of the nine-volume series The Oxford History of Popular Print Culture will likely serve as an excellent resource for scholars of print culture for years to come. The forty essays in the present volume, which is focused on print culture in the United States from that nation’s colonial beginnings through to its antebellum period, aim to provide “a people’s history of popular print culture” (4). As such the focus is on “imprints” in their many varied forms—that is, essentially anything a press might produce (5). The volume’s authors contextualize reading cultures within their broader interaction with the written word, including, for example, oral performances and larger social, production, and circulation environments, and also the ways in which non-literate populations have interacted with and been affected by print. The resulting volume is a broad-reaching resource that greatly contributes to our understanding of popular print culture even as it opens innumerable paths for further research.

The volume’s four parts are arranged to resist chronology and with it, presumably, any appearance of progression or hierarchy. Instead, they are organized to represent “stratification,” with an eye to demonstrating a “dynamic of continuity and change” (10). What this looks like in practice is that the chapters within the individual sections are arranged alphabetically by topic, and each of the parts build conceptually upon those proceeding. Part I, “Foundations,” focuses on the infrastructure and origins of early governmental, business, and religious imprints, and explores approaches to readership and authorship, as well as education and circulation. Part II, “Preindustrial Era,” sets a stage soon to be greatly altered by advances in technology, and introduces a diversity of important categories of imprints (including almanacs, captivity narratives, ephemera, and magazines). Part III, “Mass Market Emergence,” examines changes precipitated by technological advances, including the proliferation and increasing importance of engravings, lithographs, and photographs used as illustration, and the different ways in which oral and stage performances also interacted and interfaced with print culture. “Segmentation and Diversity,” the volume’s final section, focuses on imprints marketed to and created by a number of diverse populations. Throughout the volume, diaries, letters, and annotated, hand-copied, or otherwise altered published texts act as important source material, and are presented as a means of reconstructing the voices and everyday experiences of Americans.

Of course, such a method is necessarily limited, and the impossibility of the task of building anything like a representative sample of early-American readers is acknowledged throughout the volume. The focus on “fleeting” materials such as ephemera provides a different type of valuable perspective on the “micro-historical,” as William Huntting Howell puts it (207). The editors of the volume resist providing a guiding or unified definition of “popular,” and this approach has its limits. Each author is left to tackle—or, as is more often the case, to avoid establishing—his or her own working definition. Perhaps more enlightening than any single definition offered by an individual author is Seth Perry’s list of caveats to his own use of the word (176). These caveats help to illustrate one of the book’s unspoken challenges: the very term upon which the study is organized is a fraught and problematic one.

When viewed as a whole, several recurring themes emerge from the volume and offer important, broad take-aways significant to any study of print culture in early America. Importantly, attention is paid, for example, to the pre-existing discourses that were supplanted or altered as a result of European colonialism, to alternate forms of literacy, and to the enduring prevalence of print imports from England. Nearly every chapter touches on the changes ushered in by technological advances, and, when taken together, the chapters provide a complicated picture of the varied and uneven ways in which such advances had significant, multifaceted impacts on print production, circulation, and readership. Chapters that focus on the importance of visual culture are welcome additions for their acknowledgement that textual print and visual print increasingly operated hand-in-hand. Further attention to the visual—including not only illustration but also overall design, layout, and other facets of visual presentation—would have been welcome as well.

Perhaps the most innovative and intriguing section of the book is also in some ways the volume’s weakest. The chapters in Part IV are notably more descriptive than analytical, although they read as self-aware that this is the case, and by necessity they serve only as introductions to their underexplored topics. This gesture towards a wider diversity of topics, together with the expansion of currently emerging scholarly approaches being brought to bear upon the study of imprints, will surely result in a more nuanced understanding of the materials at hand in the years to come. In Part IV, then, the fundamental value of the volume as a whole is brought into sharper focus: this collection is an important resource as it stands, but it is also a set of valuable guideposts towards further lines of scholarly inquiry.

Tracy Bonfitto, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin