Davidson 2004

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Toward a History of Texts

focus on 1) mentalites, 'the interpretive grid (lost but largely recoverable) in and around which those readers read" (60) and 2) "the codes or rules of fictive discourse" (60)

combining history of the book and reception theory to create a history of the text (61)

using diaries and letters, as well as marginalia, to show how readers read

unstatistical survey of early American novels: women's signatures in the books outnumber men's ~2 to 1; male names outnumber female in subscription lists, though

"archaeology of reading"; "thick description" (Geertz) of reading from multiple sites of evidence

"The novel, I argue throughout this study, became the chapbook of the c19 -- that is, a cheap book accessible to those who were not educated at the prestige men's colleges, who were outside the established literary tradition, and who ... for the most part read few books besides novels. Given both the literary insularity of many novel readers and the increasing popularity of the novel, the new genre necessarily became a form of education, especially for women. Novels allowed for a means of entry into a larger literary and intellectual world and a means of access to social and political events from which many readers (particularly women) would have been otherwise largely excluded. The first novels, I would also argue, provided the citizens of the time not only with native versions of the single most popular form of literary entertainment in America, but also with literary versions of emerging definitions of America -- versions that were, from the first, tinged with ambivalence and duplicity." (67)
"All history is choice, discourse that begins with the very questions the historian chooses to as (or not ask) of his or her own version of the past. Fiction cannot be simply 'fit into its historical context', as if context were some Platonic pigeonhole and all that is dark or obscure in the fiction is illuminated when the text is finally slipped into the right slot. If we argue that history provides the context, then who or what, we must also ask, provides the history?" (70)

The Book in the New Republic

book business in early national period is "strikingly small and localized", supplies obtained from England; changed dramatically in second half of c19 (74)

"The struggles of the book industry during the early national period and the struggles by native American novelists to establish their own genre mirror each other. In both cases, the spirit was willing, even if the economy was not." (75)

James Fenimore Cooper, 1820s; first wide-selling author able to support himself by his writing (75)

obstacles to earlier publishers and authors -- cumbersome printing techniques, inefficient distribution, no national/int'l copyright laws (76)

printers would add capitals, different spacings, for emphasis

  • "Such printing devices naturally helped to sell books; such devices also testified that the book sold thereby was a product of both the writer's and the printer's art." (79)

Philadelphia as most important site for manufacturing presses (because of Adam Ramage, country's finest press buidler) and center for papermaking; became center for printing (81)

"new american novels tended to do best where they could best be distributed" (82) -- better road structure in the North, rather than the South

books expensive; novels ~$.75 and $1.50, around a day's wages for a day laborer, a schoolmistress's wages for a week (85)

circulating libraries; "book borrowing was singularly intertwined with not just the rapid growth of reading and readerships but with an increasing demand for novels" (97)

  • social/subscription libraries
  • institutional libraries, circulating libraries
  • "these early libraries were the single most important source of books (especially novels) for many new readers and thus served as a bridge between the restricted print world of the Colonial reader and the world of the mid-nineteenth-century reader for whom books were avilable virtually everywhere" (90)

of 65 American novelists published pre-1820, less than 1/3 named on title pages, > 1/3 appear anonymously or pseudonymously but are no known today; remaining are and remain anonymous (92)

  • weren't writing for fortune or fame

aesthetic sensibility of printing; gentleman's art, must look good (96)

copyright laws; by 1786 all states had passed them, but of "very severity, vigor, and uncertain application" (96)

  • Federal Copyright Act, 1790, granting authors copyright privileges for 14-yr period, could be enacted by author for a 2nd 14-yr period

Ideology and Genre

"the novel threatened not just to coexist with elite literature but to replace it ... The crucial matter was not so much a question of how common citizens invested that time allowed for reading but the question of where the society vested the voice (or voices) of authority." (105)

critics of the novel predicted its rise -- were scared of it before it grew in popularity (105)

ministers as experts in culture, history, literature in local communities; largest libraries; novels erode his authority (106); by 1853, commentators note ministers already have lost their authority (107)

fiction is "dyadic sender-receiver form" communication (Dell Hymes);

  • "With this form, the meaning of the text is embedded in the experience of decoding the message and thus cannot be separated from the act of reading itself. although a scientific treatise may be paraphrased without any significant loss of validity or substance, a novel cannot, and to summarize the argument of the plot is not to convey the essence of the fiction. In a sense, the novel is its reading, and that reading must finally be private and personal." (106-7)
"with the advent of the market-model of literary production, exemplified by the rise of the novel, we have not just a new form, new authors, and a new audience, we also have a new contract between the producers and consumers of print." (108)

no more middle man in literary discourse

flood of print -- "readers were increasingly eager to participate in the creation of meaning, of public opinion, or culture -- not just to serve as the consumers of meanings articulated by others" (109) -- Bakhtin, "authorizing" readers as interpreters and participants in culture

"main object of censure is the woman reader, who, not coincidentally, is also the implied reader of most of the fiction of the era"; issue of "legitimacy -- who is and who is not the legitimate audience of literature and, lses theoretically, who are to be the legitimate heirs of the Republic" (110)

critique of fiction coming from Scottish Common Sense philosophers (Henry Home, Lord Kames, Thomas Reid, James Beattie, Vicissimus Knox)in 1740s, 1750s; tracts and books imported to/reprinted in New World (114); well-born men concerned about lower-class women

novels full of fantasies; but "also a hard core of formal realism in the novel that was not acknowledged by the critics of the time" (118)

  • biographies, histories create distance between reader & events depicted
  • novel "creates its own truth by involving the reader in the process of that creation"; "the reader is privileged in relationship to the text, is welcomed into the text, and, in a sense, becomes the text" (118)

Literacy, Education, and the Reader

on literacy rates, "necessary to ask not only who could read but what they read; not only what they read but in what context" (122)

"what any statistics obscure is that literacy is a process, not a fixed point or a line of demarcation" (126); more like "literateness"

how much did education in early America facilitate or discourage egalitarianism? (128-9)

"The official educational program proposed for the new nation did nothing to revolutionalize either the traditional Puritan pedagogy or the social hierarchies supported by that procedure. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers repeatedly stressed the need for an educational system that would reinforce political quiescence and social order. Women, of course, were a primary target of a conservative social message. They should be educated at public expense, the typical argument ran, but educated to a certain set of beliefs, primarily to the traditional belief in feminine subordination that, in the past century, had kept them out of the public schools in the first place." (129-130)

excitement about education in early America; "virtually every American novel written before 1820 ... at some point includes either a discourse on the necessity of improved education ... or a description of then-current education" (134)

  • novels tended to refigure education not as rote memorization but as learning by example, fun and useful (134)

educational reformers insisting on active learning (136); proliferation of self-improvement books encouraging self-reliance and free-thinking (137)

novels small, in duodecimo ~15cm high (139)

novel as "a source of education ... presenting new subjects, new vocabulary, a new range of experiences" (139-141)

Rolf Engelsing, aruges that by end of c18 in Germany, reading no longer limited to the Bible/religious texts; change in quantity effected change in quality of reading -- no longer read the Book "intensively" (over and over again) but "extensively" (one book replacing another, proto-mass consumption of print); novel as "primary contributing factor to this change and its chief beneficiary" (141)

  • however, extensive reading is not passive reading, as implied by the Leserevolution model, but imaginatively active and engaged (142)
"The education of the novel allowed was often, I would insist, distinctly active and not a mere passive perusal of the word." (143)

survey of marginalia, readers' marks, showing readers treasured/prized their novels (144f)

"the pertinent fact is the lost reading, not the surviving book" (148)

"the first novels [of early America] did not simply expend themselves through their strained stories as consumable plots, as prepackaged entertainment and escape. On the contrary, these books, even the most unlikely (especially the most unlikely), playe da vital role in the early education of readers previously largely excluded from elite literature and culture." (149