Personal Networks and a First Draft of the Literary Canon

RufusWGriswoldAntebellum editors were bulk retailers. Whatever else their business involved, it happened at scale, and I’m often astonished by how much prose a nineteenth-century newspaper or magazine editor could churn out in a day. Of course, most of that prose was recycled, and much of it was banal. As a forthcoming article by Ryan Cordell, based on research by the Viral Texts Project at Northeastern University, observes, the most-reprinted antebellum newspaper articles were pieces of “information literature”—not news, but scrapbookable things like an 1853 starch recipe or a clipping about the dietary value of tomatoes.[1] Apparently, antebellum readers welcomed such textual flotsam—but it was especially useful to editors, who needed a steady flood of context-free, easily resized gobbets of writing for their pages.

The bulk-retail principle applied to literary editors, too, and the difference between “literary” and other kinds of antebellum periodical work is hard to define. For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about what that meant for the formation of an American literary canon in the antebellum period.

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Set in Stone

Stone LibraryEvery president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.” Continue reading

Locating the Literati: Charles Brockden Brown in Philadelphia

Charles Brockden Brown - NYPL Digital GalleryIt’s hard to write about early American print culture or intellect without thinking a lot about geography. Scholars like Trish Loughran, Richard John, John Fea, John Brooke, and Mary Kelley have suggested, in all sorts of ways, that it’s often wise to understand “the” early American public as a web of fundamentally local reading and writing publics. Intellectual culture meant something different from what it means in an age of mass media. But tricky questions come up when you try to write a local history of ideas or culture. Just how local can we reasonably go? How much detail can we actually use in an intellectual map of the early United States without getting lost in coincidences and irrelevance?

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“The True Key of the Universe Is Love”

Cayton - Love in the Time of Revolution - UNC Press

During a panel at this summer’s Revolution conference in Philadelphia, someone asked Annette Gordon-Reed whether she sees any hope for a synthesis of contemporary scholarship on race, class, and gender. She answered that she tries to achieve this by talking about people—that is, telling stories about particular lives.

Whether biography represents the culmination of decades of historical scholarship on identity and social power or an admission of its shortcomings is an interesting question. Either way, biography, including biographical microhistory, has a growing place in the field.[1] British and American historians have taken part in the “biographical turn” with special enthusiasm, though it is hardly unique to us.[2] 

With Love in the Time of Revolution: Transatlantic Literary Radicalism and Historical Change, 1793-1818, Andrew Cayton advances biographical historiography by binding it unusually securely to two other trends in early American historiography: studies of print culture, broadly conceived, and studies of the Atlantic world as a system. Cayton builds the family life of Mary Wollstonecraft into the center of a narrative about what it could mean to be a revolutionary intellectual in the Atlantic republic of letters. Continue reading

An Alt Canon of Early American Primary Texts?

davidwalkersappeal-uncdocsouthWe hear a lot about the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, when conservative (and neoconservative, and Straussian anti-anti-liberal, and pre-New-Left liberal) critics raised the hue and cry against relativizing multiculturalism, which was replacing War and Peace and The Scarlet Letter on college reading lists with just any random thing that wasn’t written by a wealthy straight white man. Or, if you prefer, when left-wing critics advanced the radical notion that women, homosexuals, minorities, and the poor are conscious human beings too. Or when cynical politicians and self-important idealists conspired together to undermine public confidence in higher education and the humanities. Or whatever.

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