Are We All Book Historians Now?

Tomorrow at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I’ll be participating in a special edition of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies’ Friday seminar reflecting on five years of the Mellon Early American Literature and Material Texts Initiative. The Initiative began in 2009 as an effort to get early Americanists taking a material-texts approach to their research to step out of their respective fields and into a general conversation about the methods, theory, and potential of that approach. Over the course of five years, the initiative has provided funding for ten dissertation fellows to be in residency at the McNeil Center and make use of the tremendous resources of the Library Company and other area archives. In addition, the Initiative has contributed funding to conferences and sponsored a workshop each summer bringing together both junior and senior scholars to discuss their work and the trajectories of material-texts research. For Friday’s seminar, four former material-text fellows will discuss short selections of our current work and how our experiences in the Initiative have affected it. 

From the abstract:

John Garcia (2013-14 fellow) investigates the publication history of biographies of George Washington written by Mason L. Weems and John Marshall in order to argue that bibliographic format can influence the reception of literary texts, leading him to suggest that bibliography is crucial to studies of book history and print culture. Mark Mattes (2011-2012) discusses how media-studies approaches help bring to light the Native communicative practices embedded within the textual archive of Dunmore’s War in his essay, “Letters, War Clubs, and the Medial Turn in Early American Studies.” My essay, “Signifying Scripture: Authority and Materiality in Early Mormonism,” explores the connection between the form and composition of early-national bibles and the availability of “scripture” as a genre in which new authoritative religious texts could participate. Finally, in his essay “Print Culture and the GIS Turn,” Steven Carl Smith (2012-2013) will discuss the possibilities of using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology for book history by looking at the spatial dimensions of the New York publishing trade and how such an approach can broaden our understanding of social, political, and economic relationships between printers, booksellers, bookbinders, and their customers in the early American republic.

At the risk of being blatantly self-promoting, I think it will be pretty fun. There’s more information here.

In the run-up to the seminar, I’ve been thinking about one of the central questions that has recurred throughout the three summer workshops I’ve been privileged to attend. Though phrased differently at different times, it amounts to this: Is it enough for book history to be a corrective to the abstracted, disembodied way in which past scholarship approached its primary sources? The answer espoused during the workshops has been a resounding No: book history is not, or not just, an add-on to existing disciplines, but a discipline in its own right, with its own questions and unique contributions.

I’m convinced by that – the Initiative’s goal has been to cultivate exactly that sense, and, well, mission accomplished. The questions of material-text research are crucial and deserve to be primary rather than ancillary subjects of study: How does the material form of a text affect its reception, use, circulation, meaning? How have the ideas dealt with by historians, literary scholars, religion scholars, whomever, actually moved through past human societies? How have the terms of that movement changed over time; what difference has it made; to whom?

At the same time, there are other ways to see book history that I think have at least a kernel of validity—ways that treat book history more as a corrective than as a discipline unto itself.

Maybe, from one perspective, book history is like the study of race and gender—an aspect of human experience that used to get a mention in a textbook or a week on the syllabus, if that, but which the best thinking about the past now wouldn’t think of doing without. It’s not that the material facts of texts are incorporated reflexively, organically into the best work: it’s that “incorporating” is a word that doesn’t even apply, since it implies something separable in the first place. I seem to run into material-texts approaches everywhere.  While not specifically works of book history, monographs as different as Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages and Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an take book objects as their starting points, make their sources viscerally present, and attend to material questions of the circulation and presentation of texts. Like those other “correctives,” of course, progress continues—while an interesting analysis of biblical arguments in support of the Revolutionary War, James Byrd’s recent Sacred Scripture, Sacred War, for example, doesn’t really consider how those arguments might have been made recognizable to their audiences through bibles and other forms of religious print culture.

Or maybe book history is like digital humanities—a widespread (virtually (ha!) universal?) set of methodologies that some scholars want to reify into a discipline unto itself. We all spend time thinking about old books, same as we all use digital archives and tools: is it even possible now to do intellectual history, say, without attending to the material circumstances of how texts circulate? Does that expectation make us all book historians? (Or am I just wrong to expect that book-history sensibilities are really that widespread?)

Lest I be accused of taking a poke at digital humanities, I’ll bring up my own discipline’s insecurities: Maybe book history is like religious studies, territory some scholars stake out as their own that others assume is epiphenomenal, the product of the subjects of other fields and therefore difficult to distinguish from them (for book history, this list could include, I guess, literature, history, communications, art history?). Even the sciences aren’t immune to this sort of challenge.

At the end of the day, disciplinary boundaries don’t matter all that much, except when they do (as in, when there’s grant money or a tenure line involved). But I think that it’s important for those of us who think of ourselves as book-historians and of our field as something distinct to maintain that we are not just a corrective, partly so that we can continue to be good one. The sort of work encouraged by the Material Texts Initiative may have its longest-reaching effects by demonstrating book-history methods and questions to those who will borrow them, piecemeal and as needed, for their own work in other fields.

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