Eliot and Rose on “North America and Transatlantic Book Culture to 1800”

Eliot, Simon, and Jonathan Rose, eds. A Companion to the History of the Book. Oxford/Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007. Z4 C73 2007; ISBN 978-1-4051-2765-3.

“North America and Transatlantic Book Culture to 1800”

Shortly after Gutenberg invented the printing press with movable type, the discovery of America was documented through this technology. For instance arguably the most famous voyage to the “new world” Epistola Christofori Colom was reprinted eleven times published in multiple European cities. Travel narratives such as Hakluyt’s three part Principall Navigations, Voiages and Discoveries of the English Nation served as templates for a new genre of popular literature. These texts not only described the perils of transatlantic exploration, they also gave a coveted glimpse of the landscape and native cultures that defined this wild frontiers. Printing came to the New World in 1539, and these travel narratives continued to be popular throughout the 1700’s and were often published as serial monthly installments in the colonial newspaper and journals. Some of these tales, such as Antonio de Solis’s Historia de la conquista de Mexico pushed the boundaries of non-fiction to the point of being “like novels.” (Perhaps this is why the term “history” was re-purposed in the eighteenth century by authors pioneering the generic form we now call the “novel”).

These narrations were followed by the more scientific bibliographic guides such as Bibliotheca Americana and European Americana: A Chronological Guide to Works Printed in Europe Relating to the Americas. the North American Imprints Program (NAIP) is now trying to create a digital archive of these records. These records allow us to compare which texts were reprinted in both Britain and America, and question those that were contained in one country.

Printing in the New World was established in Mexico City in 1539. In 1638 a press in was established in Cambridge, MA where the famed Bay Psalm Book was the first to be printed in the United States. After this, the print industry developed rapidly. By the end of the seventeenth century there were permanent presses in all of the major colonial cities and by 1740, five printers in Boston alone were issuing their own newspapers: “More than any other factor, the rise of newspapers changed the nature of printing in the British colonies.” (In 21st century America can we say the same for blogs? E-books? Online newspapers?)

In America the market, rather than the government, drove the printing industry. This meant a wider variety of materials were printed in greater numbers than in England (and most of Europe). Shorter works were far more common; religious texts such as sermons or psalms, government pamphlets, and broadsides were cheaper and therefore printed in greater numbers at a faster pace. One of the most popular genres was the almanac. Many almanacs were also diaries, giving the reader an intimate portrait of figures such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Almanacs were also used as propaganda during the American Revolution.

While printed material indisputably circulated propaganda, it also facilitated education in the United States. John Fenno is quoted as claiming: “The middling and lower class of citizens will therefore find their account in becoming subscribers for this Gazette, should it pay a particular regard to this great subject” in the first issue of The Gazette of the United States in April 1989. This sentiment expressed that through their patronage of a paper on the subject of educated, they would be receiving an education.Newspapers also helped publicize the issue of slavery. Both political statements on freedom and advertisements for runaway slaves often occupied the same space. Likewise Johns writes “the printed word gave women a broader audience as well and helped to focus attention on their altered roles in the newly established republican order.”

But newspapers were not the only affordable way to access reading material. Benjamin Franklin wrote that subscription libraries “have improved the general Conversation of Americans, made the common Tradesman and Farmers as intelligent as most Gentlemen from other Countries, and perhaps have contributed in some Degree to the Stand so generally made throughout the Colonies in the Defence of their Priviledges.” In fact, more than 100 book catalogs of various kinds were published in America before 1801. From both academic and popular catalogs it can be determined that religious titles, textbooks, professional manuals, guides, personal narratives, and a small number of imaginative works were frequently reprinted and circulated.

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