Senchyne 2020

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Senchyne, Jonathan. The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020.


Once it functions as a substrate carrying inscriptions, paper is meant to be self-effacing because it is supposedly secondary to meaning-making processes.

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Even among the early twentieth-century founding figures of the academic discipline of bibliography—those scholars who we might expect to take the greatest interest in the material facts of the book—we find that the flipside of attending to typography and composition is a tendency to overlook paper.

Page 1

Paying attention to the most mundane material elements of our reading surfaces brings focus to the processes of making and distributing language, art, and information through print.

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…ever since papermaking began in what would become the United States, readers, writers, printers, and papermakers have invested much in their relationship to paper. This book is about what paper makes present, how it creates meaning, and what difference this makes for literary criticism and book history. Specifically, I trace a phenomenology of reading that finds expression throughout the era of rag paper production in colonial America and the nineteenth-century United States, roughly between 1690 and 1867.

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Rag paper signifies from the rags embedded within it, as well as from the ink printed or written on it. Paper is the thin plane where presence and meaning, the ontic and the mimetic, the bibliographic and the linguistic cohere and become mutually constitutive.

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This book brings to the surface an archive of writing about paper from multiple genres and registers, including poetry, fiction, personal narratives, and advertisements. Across genre and period, writing about rag paper animates thought about readers’ sensual relationships with material texts, revealing similarities in ways of writing and feeling. These works theorize sensemaking and dwell in the oscillation between attention to the presence of paper and attention to the meaning of letters and images written or printed on it. The haptic dimen- sion of material texts becomes the site for political and aesthetic argument.

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This book makes the claim that paying attention to rag paper and writing about it sheds new light on how early and nineteenth-century American read- ers and writers understood the materiality of texts. In everything from adver- tisements to popular poetry …

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Those who wrote what we might, adapting from Herman Melville, call “paper allegories,” expressed in written form how paper mediated intimacy and what meaning was created in the contact between rags and readers.

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The recent project of developing a critical bibliography is a move to dissolve barriers between theoretically informed cultural studies and deep attention to the materiality of texts. Rag paper contains and represents narratives about gender, race, and labor, and the writers I study here try to bring these to the surface. The Intimacy of Paper studies how the materiality of paper directs attention back to the laborers who made it and to the layers of meaning inher- ent in rag paper.

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The first paper mill constructed in the colonies that would become the United States was built in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1690 by William Rittenhouse, a German-born immigrant to Pennsylvania by way of Holland.

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… not paper,” the poem also hints at the fact that paper was the most important upfront cost for a printer or publisher. Whether in the colonial, early national, or antebellum period, printers and publishers had most of their capital tied up in paper stock.

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Business historians of the book trade who have studied book costs of large nineteenth-century publishers have shown that paper represented most of the risk in the trade: Paper tied up substantial amounts of capital throughout the process of composing, printing, collating, and binding before a book finally hit the market, where publishers hoped it would sell.

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Hand papermaking was the norm in colonial America and the early national United States from 1690 until 1817, when the first paper machine was built on the Brandywine River in the mid-Atlantic region. In Europe, the machine paper era began around 1800.

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Near constant rag shortages were also a problem. The rag problem could not be solved by automation, but the speed and labor problem could be. After 1817, U.S. papermakers began replacing the hand mould with various kinds of paper machines. Eventually, these would replace the hand mould with a mesh belt. I…

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As early as 1756 the popular macerating engine called the “Hollander beater” largely replaced the water- driven triphammer beater in colonial America, greatly reducing the neces- sary time for beating rags from several days to several hours.

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23Like the eclipse of hand presses by machine presses for printing, the switch from hand to machine dramatically increased the speed and scale of papermak- ing, while lowering the cost.

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It wasn’t until 1867 that a wood-based pulp replaced a rag-based pulp as the pri- mary ingredient in the majority of American papermaking.

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The readings in The Intimacy of Paper explore how the rag content of paper mediates intimacy by transmitting material history and narrative, and by making bodies present to one another.

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But when inspected closely, the seemingly two-dimensional surface of the page turns out to be three dimensional: there are visible fibers, bits of unshredded rag, bumps and depressions.

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Every sheet of paper is an archive of human labor. This is true of the work of the paper mill, but it is also true of the rags that make up paper. We know hands touched each page as they came into being in the mill, but what about the cloth that became rags and the flax plants that became linen?

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The sense that a sheet of paper con- tained the history of all the people who encountered its material components was so strong that several “it narratives” exist in which a sheet or a quire of paper tells its story from flax seed to cloth to paper to print or manuscript and back to the earth again.

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One of the qualities of rags and paper enabling the sense that it carries so many contacts and contexts within them is their absorptiveness. Rags and paper literally and figuratively absorb things around them and carry them forward.

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…ies in which I found so many things.” 36Paper mediates presence and creates proximity; it absorbs traces of people, places, and actions, making them available for thinking and touching. The Intimacy of Paper excavates these traces stuck to pieces of paper.

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Taking up paper and the document as the organizing principle opens up different questions about the materiality of texts. “Surface” and “inscription” become more important terms for analysis than are “book” or “print.” The way paper cuts across, or under, as it were, the division between manuscript and print dissolves the hold of that division on the mind.

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What emerges between embod- ied reader and embodied text? Here I argue for an approach to material tex- tuality that asks readers to dwell in the structures where meaning and matter are entangled.

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We are used to talking about books and print as conglomera- tions of different kinds of human labor and craft assembled into book form. But the notion of the assemblage that comes to use from new materialism prompts us to think about other, nonhuman actors in these negotiations of material textuality…

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Throughout this book, I am keen to dwell in the oscillation between materiality and textuality, between presence effects and meaning effects. This oscillation is at the heart of what material textuality, a configuration that links these terms and creates generative tension, offers as a paradigm for our field.

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Early and nineteenth-century American print often conveyed the printed words of elites, but these words are carried by paper made of the rags worked by women’s hands, collected by ragpickers, and made into paper by artisans and factory laborers. Traces of these people are available in the presence dimension of rag paper, and they allow us to conceive of books and print on paper as archives of a drastically different kind of community to be read and sensed within the raggy contents of the sheet.

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Paper becomes the material substrate of both the literary public sphere and and the body politic. In the eighteenth century, the early republic was figured as a commoning of rags in paper that had to emerge before a community of readers became possible.

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Just as paper’s materiality is intertwined with embodied relations to gender, sexuality, and nation, so is it intertwined with social processes of racialization. As technologies for producing, pro- tecting, and discerning racial whiteness consolidate during the nineteenth century, so do technologies for producing whiteness in paper.

Chapter 1: Paper Publics

Paper, as long as it was made from cloth rags, and its production offered writers of everything from advertising copy to poetry and fiction a set of material metaphors through which to figure the nation. 4Because a sheet of paper was made from the particles of thousands of rags that were shredded, pulped, and reconstituted into a single sheet, and because those rags were often collected from the homes of those living near the mills, the sheet of paper came to be seen as a concrete manifestation of the body politic. Put sim- ply, one could say of both the nation and the sheet of paper: e pluribus unum, that is, out of many, one.


This chapter is concerned with the ways rag paper drew people together into recognizably political, even national, affiliation before it circulated and was read as a printed text, or even as a precondition of a printed text’s circula- tion. The assemblage of what I call “paper publics” is readily visible in histori- cal moments of crisis when paper’s continued production and its availability was highly uncertain. During the lead-up to the Revolutionary War and later during the Civil War, the viability of nations and local communities is, inter- estingly, figured in whether or not a newspaper can be maintained.


…how early and nineteenth- century Americans understood paper as a material enactment of political affiliation. Paper modeled and materialized forms of “drawing together” in common and as a community. What does this tell us about the theories of print and publics that have structured our work?


Anderson’s account asks us to accept that the newspaper will simply be there.26 This is not how colonial Americans experienced the newspaper. Rags were always in short supply, threatening to choke the progress of papermaking, which meant that pleas for rags were present in the everyday lives of readers. These pleas yoked the fate of printed material to the fate of the colonies and then the nation, recruiting readers to do a patriotic duty by collecting rags for the production of pape…


During the seventeenth century, before the earliest mills began operation, few books and pamphlets were published in the colonies. During the first decades of the eighteenth century, periodical publication took off in such urban areas as Boston and Philadelphia. While books and pamphlets could be printed in London and imported to the colonies, the periodical press was, owing to the spatial and temporal necessities of newspapers, far more local in its production. 27Necessary for the periodic issue of print were paper mills, which proved to be a fairly lucrative industry.


Sheets of paper made in Massachusetts during the late eighteenth century bear the watermark, “Save Rags.” 28The demand called out to readers from within the sheet itself, bringing to mind an interrelated set of political and material conditions in the colo…


While many of the actions to promote the paper trade were taken by legislative bodies, calls for rags were present in the everyday experiences of readers. In broadsides and newspaper ads, calls for rags linked the material processes of papermaking and the ideological processes of political life.


According to these advertisements, it is not reading newspapers and partici- pating in public debate that generate the public sphere or a print-nationalist structure of feeling but rather people entering into the material circuit of linen and paper. National feeling—“love of country” and a sense of the “public good”—here pertain to “collecting supplies of this essential requisite to paper-making.” Nationalism is not produced merely by the arrival of the newspaper in serial time but from the specter of the newspaper’s absence. In these cases, national consciousness arises out of awareness of the strangers whose rags are mixed into paper in contact with your own, not the notion of strangers who read the same text else…


This call for rags deploys the rhetoric of republican motherhood by explicitly “politicizing private behav- ior,” framing the domestic space of the home and the domestic space of the nation as parallel spheres of women’s influence without granting women full citizenship in the nation. 37Thus we see the paper mill owners making the case that saving rags harmonizes the private interests of domestic economy with the public interest of domestic manufacture:


Periodicals frequently reprinted simple verses meant to both encourage and reward women to collect rags and supply them to mills.


While rags were frequently scarce throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was an acute crisis in the paper industry during the Civil War’s economic depression and wartime disrup- tions.


…hose who would correspond with each other have resorted to taking apart the house to find a substrate for writing, not mere cartoonish fancy when Confederate printers later used the undecorated side of wallpaper to print newspapers, as we will see shortly.


With wallpaper newspapers in circulation, jokes about writing letters on shutters seems less far-fetched. Under General William T. Sherman’s explicit orders, Union forces burned paper mills all over Georgia, a move that speaks to an awareness of paper’s importance in the maintenance of governments and publics.


On April 8, 1863, the editors of the Pictorial Democrat in Alexandria, Louisiana, finally ran out of paper. Finding that they couldn’t smuggle any through the coastal blockades or from the dwindling number of Confederate paper mills, they printed the newspaper on the blank side of rolls of unused wall- paper. The Pictorial Democrat was only one of several newspapers to issue


58 C ha P ter 1 a “wallpaper newspaper.” The Pictorial Democrat’s editors lament: “We are forced, contrary to our expectations, to come down to the pictures, (or wall- paper), and issue this scant specimen of a newspaper.


Wallpaper newspapers introduce another material textual path between private and public spheres, between domestic space and national space. The material for the newspaper is paper meant for the walls of the home; the periodical that ties the community together in print is itself an artifact of the home.


Such connections result from a particularly scarce market for printing paper and rags but are also an extreme example of a circuit that is always running between the intimate cast-off cloth rags of a home. Wallpaper newspapers are an object lesson on the always-present linkage of the private domestic sphere and the public sphere within texts printed on paper.


The public sphere of authors and readers is inseparable from the materials and the labors that support it: meaning making words and presence making paper are simultaneously available in the encounter with print.


Chapter 4

Rag merchants traded in “white” and “brown” rags, terms that connoted the relative coarseness and staining of rags, and also their value on the market. Cheaper “brown rags” created “brown paper,” which was less expensive stock intended to be used for wrapping paper and other utilitarian purposes, whereas more expensive “white rags” became “white paper,” for printing and writing. Paper companies segregated “white mill” buildings where fine writing papers were made from “brown mills”


126 C ha P ter 4 where coarser papers were manufactured.


By reaching back to into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conversations about paper, we find that the social context brought into focus includes dis- cussions about how racial whiteness is formed and maintained, about gen- der and racial marking, and about how all these are “read” or become “legible” in the world.


It is no mere coincidence that during the mid-nineteenth century, the whiteness of paper was economically valued and prioritized at the very same time that norms defining and policing racial whiteness intensified. In this chapter, I argue that “whiteness” as a self-effacing, yet highly valued, back- drop against which other, usually black figures become legible was a crucially important technology of print culture and also of racialization. Put simply, whiteness, in both paper and persons, came to be understood as the common ground of representation, against which “blackness” became visible. There- fore, if learning to read words was figured as learning to “pick the black from the white,” as one children’s book had it, then both racial legibility and alpha- betic legibility are linked by a common technique.


The methods of racial pseudoscience having to do with “where” race inheres in the skin or whether the “blush” of “black blood” on the face of the mixed-race person are certainly not the same kind of looking that we practice when we approach material texts scientifically with the expectation that they will reveal their secrets. Nonetheless, when new and fascinating archival or auction finds promise to bring new texts to our attention, we look at their surfaces and features with scrutiny so that we might authenticate them. This seems especially true when the author is purported to be an unknown or little-known nineteenth-century African American person.


These logics of reading and seeing have significant import in the period, as we will see, because they recruit material texts for the construction and maintenance of antiblack racism and white supremacy in the years leading up to the Civil War.


This chapter explores how two important discourses—print legibility and racial legibility—informed each other in the nineteenth century. By making meaning out of a field of white spaces and black marks, antebellum print carried racial significance for writers, readers, and print practitioners.


… possibilities of “inscription.” By the middle of the nineteenth century, white- ness and virginity had become common metaphorical ground for description of paper. In 1842’s “The Poetry of Printing,” virginal sheets are fed to “supply” the press’s appetite…