Early African American Print Culture

9780812223347: Paperback
Release Date: 2nd December 2014

43 illus.

Dimensions: 152 x 229

Number of Pages: 432

Series Material Texts

University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.

Early African American Print Culture

Early African American Print Culture presents seventeen original essays that demonstrate how the study of African American print culture might enrich the study of print culture, while at the same time expanding the terrain of African American literature beyond authorship to editing, illustration, printing, circulation, and reading.

Paperback / £19.99

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw both the consolidation of American print culture and the establishment of an African American literary tradition, yet the two are too rarely considered in tandem. In this landmark volume, a stellar group of established and emerging scholars ranges over periods, locations, and media to explore African Americans' diverse contributions to early American print culture, both on the page and off.

The book's chapters consider domestic novels and gallows narratives, Francophone poetry and engravings of Liberia, transatlantic lyrics and San Francisco newspapers. Together, they consider how close attention to the archive can expand the study of African American literature well beyond matters of authorship to include issues of editing, illustration, circulation, and reading—and how this expansion can enrich and transform the study of print culture more generally.

Introduction: Early African American Print Culture
—Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein

Chapter 1. The Print Atlantic: Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, and the Cultural Significance of the Book
—Joseph Rezek
Chapter 2. The Unfortunates: What the Life Spans of Early Black Books Tell Us About Book History
—Joanna Brooks
Chapter 3. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the Circuits of Abolitionist Poetry
—Meredith L. McGill
Chapter 4. Early African American Print Culture and the American West
—Eric Gardner

Chapter 5. Apprehending Early African American Literary History
—Jeannine Marie DeLombard
Chapter 6. Black Voices, White Print: Racial Practice, Print Publicity, and Order in the Early American Republic
—Corey Capers
Chapter 7. Slavery, Imprinted: The Life and Narrative of William Grimes
—Susanna Ashton
Chapter 8. Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print
—Jonathan Senchyne

Chapter 9. Notes from the State of Saint Domingue: The Practice of Citation in Clotel
—Lara Langer Cohen
Chapter 10. The Canon in Front of Them: African American Deployments of "The Charge of the Light Brigade"
—Daniel Hack
Chapter 11. Another Long Bridge: Reproduction and Reversion in Hagar's Daughter
—Holly Jackson
Chapter 12. "Photographs to Answer Our Purposes": Representations of the Liberian Landscape in Colonization Print Culture
—Dalila Scruggs
Chapter 13. Networking Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Hyper Stowe in Early African American Print Culture
—Susan Gillman

Chapter 14. The Lyric Public of Les Cenelles
—Lloyd Pratt
Chapter 15. Imagining a State of Fellow Citizens: Early African American Politics of Publicity in the Black State Conventions
—Derrick R. Spires
Chapter 16. "Keep It Before the People": The Pictorialization of American Abolitionism
—Radiclani Clytus
Chapter 17. John Marrant Blows the French Horn: Print, Performance, and the Making of Publics in Early African American Literature
—Elizabeth Maddock Dillon

List of Contributors

Early African American Print Culture
Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein

The present volume takes its cue from a historical convergence. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessed the consolidation of what historians have come to know as "print culture" in the United States. Spurred by technological improvements to the printing press, innovations in papermaking and binding, increasing divisions of labor and automation, and the expansion of distribution networks enabled by railroad and steamship, print shops turned out a huge variety of printed goods in unprecedented quantities. These goods included recognizably literary items such as books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, and broadsides, as well as nonliterary items such as stationery, lottery tickets, currency, and ledgers. Printed matter became a part of everyday life, mediating and reshaping the already fluctuating social relations of the early United States.

At the same time, these years also mark the inauguration of what scholars have identified as an African American literary tradition. Despite the fact that education was often explicitly prohibited for slaves, and effectively placed out of reach for many freepersons, publications by African American authors appeared in increasing numbers. The year 1760 saw both the first published poem by an African American, Jupiter Hammon's broadside "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries," and the first published prose text, Briton Hammon's A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man. (The first known poem by an African American, Lucy Terry's "Bar's Fight," probably composed in 1746, was transmitted orally before being committed to print in 1855.) The first black publishing house, the African Methodist Episcopal Book Concern, was founded in 1817. The first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, appeared in 1827, and over the next thirty years, black periodicals from Albany to Cleveland to New Orleans to San Francisco followed suit. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, African Americans also established numerous literary societies, circulating libraries, political conventions, and church organizations, all of which articulated themselves through print media. African Americans worked alongside whites as compositors in print shops, as sailors transporting both raw and printed materials, and as educators instructing with books.

Yet despite this historical convergence, print culture and African American literature have rarely been considered in relation to one another. As Leon Jackson observes in a recent state-of-the-field essay on African American print culture, although the trope of the "talking book" remains one of the standbys of African American literary analysis, "we know very little about the production, dissemination, or consumption of the books that deployed that trope, and still less of the books that were begged, borrowed, stolen, owned, or encountered by the authors who wrote them"—to say nothing of African Americans' engagements with forms of print other than books. To the extent that scholars of African American literature have addressed the matter of print, they have generally done so with a dependence on critical models that assume that print is a stabilizing technology that subtends the establishment of African American identity. Such models understand literature as a primary tool with which African Americans articulated their personhood, forged bonds of racial solidarity, and laid claims to history. These models have performed immensely valuable work for the study of African American literary history—not least, of course, by underwriting its formation as a field of study. But such models hit their limits in many of the earliest African American texts, whose meandering plots, numerous plagiarisms, and multiple rewritings defy nearly any notion of textual stability. These texts instead beckon to much recent scholarship in book history, which has shown how abstract concepts central to literary study—authorship, readership, intellectual property, textual integrity, literary professionalism, and, indeed, literature itself—were very much in flux during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

For their part, however, book historians have been slow to incorporate the evidence of African American literature into these theoretical interventions. As a result, if scholars of early African American texts have ignored much theoretical work in book history in favor of stable notions of identity and print, it is equally true that scholarship in book history has often ignored African American literature, however broadly conceived. Jackson, for one, combs the archives of book history and bibliography periodicals for essays on African American topics, with sparse results. This neglect is all the more surprising given the abundance of potential material. In colonial and antebellum America, African Americans figured prominently in literary production both on the page (as writing subjects as well as subjects of writing) and off (as readers, editors, printers, engravers, compositors, papermakers, librarians, and so on). The sheer breadth and diversity of their experiences has a great deal to tell us about American print culture, while their omission from critical accounts renders even the freshest reconsiderations of the field inevitably partial.

Moreover, the rewards of studying African American print culture appear especially clear in light of growing efforts to consider how print culture studies and critical race studies might fit together. This conversation has produced excellent work on Hispanophone print archives (including studies by Anna Brickhouse, Kirsten Silva Gruesz, and Rodrigo Lazo) and early American communications media (including the work of Matt Cohen, Jeff Glover, Andrew Newman, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, and Phillip Round), but as yet it has not produced an equivalent body of work on the eighteenth and nineteenth century's rich history of African American print culture. To be sure, the field of African American literary studies boasts a long history of bibliographic scholarship and exceptional archival work, but these have, until very recently, tended to be more descriptive than critical.

Scholarship of the last decade or so suggests that book historians and critics of African American literature are beginning to turn this tide. Recent methodological essays by Frances Smith Foster, Xiomara Santamarina, and Leon Jackson have paired illuminating genealogies for African American print culture and its critical analysis with suggestions for new paths of inquiry. Important books and articles by scholars including Sarah Blackwood, Michael Chaney, Jeannine Marie DeLombard, Marcy J. Dinius, John Ernest, Eric Gardner, Beth A. McCoy, Elizabeth McHenry, and Edlie Wong have taken a materialist approach to African American texts, with enlightening results. Similar interdisciplinary work by historians such as Janet Duitsman Cornelius, David Waldstreicher, and Heather Andrea Williams has enhanced our understandings of African Americans' experiences with, uses of, and educations in print and literacy. The second and third volumes of A History of the Book in America (covering the period 1790¬-1880) have each included a chapter devoted to African American print culture. Vincent Carretta's controversial biography of Olaudah Equiano has urged scholars to see Equiano's Narrative as a book whose story is very different from that of its author, and it has in turn sparked new scholarship on the publication history of the narrative. At the same time, critical investigations at the intersection of race and performance studies by scholars such as Daphne Brooks and Tavia Nyong'o have expanded our knowledge of African American representational practices and the methodologies we might use to understand them. Such work brings together archival methods and African American literature in fresh ways that have helped sharpen this volume's focus on sustained textual and material analysis, as well as propel it toward an elaboration of the theoretical frameworks proper to such investigations.

Inspired and challenged by this scholarship, Early African American Print Culture focuses on bridging early African American literature and print culture studies. The essays that follow do not take a single approach to this project; nor do they attempt to map its contours comprehensively. Rather, they showcase the variety of discoveries scholars might make when they ask what early African American literature looks like when read with an attention to its material conditions, and what print culture looks like when it turns its attention to African American archives.


If this volume thus proceeds from an understanding of how investigations into early African American print culture might be focused, it does not proceed from a single, agreed-upon understanding of what early African American print culture is. The following essays subject each of the terms in our titular phrase "early African American print culture" to some reflexive scrutiny. Nevertheless, readers of these essays will notice the following definitional tendencies for each of the volume's key terms.

"Early," in the present usage, refers to African American print culture before the Harlem Renaissance. This aesthetic movement—along with an attendant constellation of developments in American culture, critical practices, and the literary marketplace—established an undeniable place for African American writing in the United States. But it did so in part by crystallizing a set of concepts, including "author," "literature," and even "black." These categories subsequently helped carve out claims for African American literature in the canon (including those made by post-1960s critics); but, conversely, their fixity seems to have hampered scholars' abilities to understand the terrain of African American print during a period before these definitions gained purchase. Viewed from the time following the Harlem Renaissance, the archives of earlier periods—with their often unknown authors, limited audiences, baffling narratives, and dubious claims on identity and plausibility—are consequently understood to be artless, immature, desultory, partial, unreadable, fraudulent, fragmentary, or, simply, unstable. As a result, the achievements of the Harlem Renaissance have ironically tended to obscure the more disparate racial, political, and cultural formations that existed before. While critical attention to print culture may tell us a great deal about the entire history of African American literature, then, such an interpretive task is especially pertinent with regard to the periods before the Harlem Renaissance's perceived high-water mark of African American writing.

This definition of "early" may strike some readers as quite late. However, its apparent dislocation reflects one of this volume's historiographic challenges: the periodization of early African American print culture does not necessarily coincide with more conventional (which is also to say, whiter) narratives of American literary history. Focusing on "early" African American print culture, our contributors have located surprising flash points in the convergence of African American print culture and racialization: the late eighteenth-century surge of gallows literature by the black condemned (DeLombard); John Marrant's immensely popular 1785 conversion narrative (Brooks, Dillon); the 1825 publication of The Life of William Grimes, the first book-length narrative of a fugitive slave written and copyrighted by the fugitive himself (Ashton); the black state conventions of the 1840s (Spires); the 1855 U.S. reprinting of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (Hack). Other contributors take a radically nonlinear approach to temporality, emphasizing historical loops, gaps, and repetitions (Cohen, Jackson, Scruggs, Gillman). The diversity of these events (from publication to reprinting to citation) leads us to conclude that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African Americans' experience of what Joanna Brooks calls "disrupted social fields" created temporalities whose significance has been underappreciated by the conventions of American literary history (Chapter 2). However, rather than arguing for an alternative set of events that might anchor early African American print culture within the time of literary-historical convention, these essays seek instead to open the issue to questions: what are the periodicities of African American print culture, when do they come into focus, and how do they relate to other periodicities?

The definition of "African American" that emerges across this volume's essays is similarly capacious, spanning hemispheric and transatlantic locations, and giving critical attention to editors, readers, printers, and distributors, as well as authors. In this respect, the volume resonates with Kenneth Warren's recent contention that African American literature is defined not by race but by racialization, such that, "[a]bsent white suspicions of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority, African American literature would not have existed as a literature." While Warren locates the mechanisms of racialization operative in the era of Jim Crow segregation as key for the production of African American literature as such, the following essays nevertheless also find varieties of racialization at work in earlier periods, but find them productive of a greater range of print and literary forms. In these accounts, the "African American" texts examined achieve that designation by virtue of their participation in a wide range of ideological and material ways that blackness becomes culturally "legible," from visual representations of the distinction between blackness and whiteness (Senchyne, Capers, Scruggs) to the legally "mixed character" of the slave as both person and property, which made criminality the clearest basis of early black personhood (DeLombard). The cultural process of racialization both does and does not overlap with the more biographical details of race, and thus some of the following essays posit that it might make heuristic sense to designate a text as African American even if its author was not (Gillman, Clytus), or to argue that a text might usefully be considered so despite its failure to conform to expected generic protocols of African American literature (Ashton, Pratt). The very difficulty of pinning down the category "African American" reflects one of the volume's key goals: to recognize print's role in the process of racialization. Placing the emphasis here, rather than on race and racial identity, means that the present volume requires of its reader a willingness to engage the possibility that Early African American Print Culture might unmake identity as plausibly as make it, as this volume posits that the richness of African American history can be told with recourse to moments where identity diffuses as much as moments where identity consolidates.

Many of the essays that follow treat the "American" in "African American" as a further site for investigation, for early African American print culture is not always confined by national boundaries. In part, this porousness reflects a shifting historical understanding of the term: national boundaries were more coherent—and more frequently represented as coherent—in the United States after the 1870s. To be sure, African American print culture participated in nation formation, sometimes quite visibly and sometimes in ways that have gone unrecognized (Capers, Scruggs, Spires). At other times, however, African American print culture pushes against such national formations, positing alternative geographies, communities, and modes of belonging (Cohen, Hack, Ashton). And more often than not, the nation itself, too often seen by scholars as a uniform field, emerges here as quite an uneven one, furrowed by regional difference (Gardner, Pratt, Dillon). Thus, the following essays often take spatially comparative approaches (Rezek, McGill, Gillman), as well as temporally comparative ones.

Finally, the contributors to the volume try to think through "print culture" in a robust way that attends to different kinds of print media over different periods. Though we emphasize print, this volume is ultimately not a media-specific study, and its essays consider print in relation to the oral, visual, and manuscript mediations that nevertheless persist in a world where print has become commonplace. In saying so, we distinguish between "print," a technology that fixes impressions, and "print culture," a world in which print both integrates with other practices and assumes a life of its own. This conceptual distinction emphasizes that print does not merely function as an instrument of human needs; it directs our attention instead to the ways that print affects (and sometimes effects) personhood, circulates to unintended readers, is subject to reiteration and reappropriation, solicits publics that may not yet recognize themselves as such, and allows equally for representation and misrepresentation. Such an expansive understanding of print yields a corresponding proliferation of "culture," and if "print culture" is therefore difficult to define adequately, this difficulty is part of the point. Throughout, the essays in this volume highlight the dynamic tension between "print" and "culture" rather than treating their pairing as a single reified entity.

Generically, the volume covers wide ground: book-length novels, journals, and narratives; broadsides and pamphlets; anthologies of poetry and biography; newspaper articles, serial fiction, poetry, and editorials; verbal and visual texts. Together, these demonstrate (but certainly do not exhaust) the broad array of early African American print production. But our contributors also aim to expand what we as readers take to be our texts—and what we read for—when we study print culture. Their objects of inquiry include not only the printed words of what we generally consider "the text" but also typography, format, and bindings (Rezek, McGill); frontispieces and mastheads (Ashton, Clytus); engravings and photographs (Capers, Scruggs); and the very materials of paper and ink (Senchyne). Other chapters take up the ways that print indexes seeming antitheses such as music, performance, and bodily presence (McGill, Spires, Dillon).

Such a dynamic sense of print culture means that the essays suggest no congruence between the study of early African American print culture and the genres that have historically denoted it, such as the slave narrative. We suspect this is so because the abundance of work on this genre in particular has allowed our contributors to look outside of it, in part because the slave narrative has been so illuminatingly discussed by others, and in part because its very prominence calls for such a decentering. Speculations aside, the following essays clearly demonstrate that a host of other types of writing by and for African Americans flourished at the same historical time as the slave narrative—poetry, historiography, literary criticism, political speeches, conversion narratives, and more. The understandable tendency of literary critics studying slavery to focus on slave narratives can (unintentionally) create the impression that slavery only enters the picture when it is being recounted. And so our desire here to expatiate in other generic areas should be seen not only as bibliographical but also as political, as these essays show the much wider and more complex ways that slavery inflected early African American print culture, and indeed American culture more broadly. While slave narratives, then, may be noticeably absent in this volume, slavery makes its presence felt everywhere.


The volume's essays are grouped topically rather than chronologically, in order to bring diverse archives and historical periods into conversation. Focusing on circulation, representation, adaptation, and publics, respectively, the volume's four parts progress dialectically in their emphases between the questions of how African American literary production shapes print culture (Parts I and III) and how print culture shapes African American identity (Parts II and IV).

Part I, "Vectors of Movement," begins with circulation, one of the most widely theorized dimensions of print culture. Joseph Rezek's essay, "The Print Atlantic: Phillis Wheatley, Ignatius Sancho, and the Cultural Significance of the Book," argues that "book publication, as distinguished from other kinds of printing, made these writers uniquely available to white readers as 'specimens,' as sites for the discussion of racial hierarchy, and, ultimately, as evidence either to support or to oppose the institution of slavery." Rezek demonstrates how cultural assumptions about the book—its significance, its materiality, its heft—shaped the ways that Wheatley's and Sancho's texts circulated. Stressing the importance of a media-specific approach to early black writings, Rezek encourages us to see that that a "black Atlantic" was born out of the movement of print, as well as people. Joanna Brooks's essay, "The Unfortunates: What the Life Spans of Early Black Books Tell Us About Book History," considers how race factors into the chances of survival for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books. Using The Journal of John Marrant as a platform for articulating "a view of book history alternative to mainline histories of the book centering on the book trade," Brooks shows that the books most likely to endure had two "vectors of movement": they emerged out of social movements, and they appeared in mobile formats that traveled effectively across the fractured terrain of African Americans' lived experience. Likewise, in "Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and the Circuits of Abolitionist Poetry," Meredith McGill puts the movements of authors and texts into dialogue. She argues that in both their ephemeral print formats and their direct modes of address, Harper's poems supplement the temporal dislocation that characterized her own circulation on the lecture circuit. When we read Harper's work under the protocols of lyric poetry, individual authorship, or orientation toward a book, we overlook its aspirations to oratory and its solicitation of a collective response. Finally, Eric Gardner's "Early African American Print Culture and the American West" calls on scholars to extend the map of African American print culture beyond its usual northeastern perimeters. To demonstrate the contributions of western African American print culture, Gardner takes as his case study nineteenth-century San Francisco's burgeoning black press. He finds that African American writers and editors in San Francisco were particularly attuned to experiences of "black mobility"—both the geographic dislocations that characterized many African Americans' lives and the freedoms of movement particular individuals seized for themselves—while holding out California as "a destination where the versions of blackness that had been seeded in the East might finally flower." Treating in equal measure the movements of historical persons and material objects, this group of essays builds on existing theories of circulation by reading the movements of texts against both the forces that set them in motion and the consequences of those movements.

Following these studies of circulation, Part II, "Racialization and Identity Production," considers textual circulation's consequences for personhood. This cluster examines how African American identities in the early United States were constructed and reconstructed through multiple kinds of print production, from gallows narratives to genteel engravings, and from slave narratives to racist broadsides. Although the African American literary canon has historically privileged what Jeannine Marie DeLombard terms "exemplary blackness," in "Apprehending Early African American Literary History," she challenges this tradition to include the confessions of condemned criminals that enjoyed immense popularity in the late eighteenth century. DeLombard discerns that the legal system actually assigned African Americans dual identities: under civil law, they were treated as property, but under criminal law, they were punishable as persons. Thus gallows narratives have the ironic distinction of being the literature that first enabled black subjects to claim public personhood. In "Black Voices, White Print: Racial Practice, Print Publicity, and Order in the Early American Republic," Corey Capers interrogates how certain practices of publicity came to be marked as "black" in the first place. Examining the early nineteenth-century "Bobalition broadsides," which satirized African American celebrations of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, Capers shows that by translating abolitionist activism into ridiculous parades, malapropisms, and overeating, these accounts worked to make blackness synonymous with disorder. Susanna Ashton's "Slavery, Imprinted: The Life and Narrative of William Grimes" recovers one of the earliest and most successful self-conscious attempts by a slave to construct his own identity in print. Ashton argues that Grimes's narrative grapples with "his own fraught experiences with the print world," which confined and exploited him but also provided him with opportunities for self-definition—most crucially, by registering the first copyright by an African American author for a full-length book. The final essay in Part II, Jonathan Senchyne's "Bottles of Ink and Reams of Paper: Clotel, Racialization, and the Material Culture of Print," reexamines the language of blackness and whiteness that came to dominate printing in the nineteenth century, giving new meaning to Henri-Jean Martin's claim that the history of typography charts the "triumph of white . . . over black." Senchyne points out that while stories of mixed-race women such as William Wells Brown's Clotel hinge on their heroines' proximity to whiteness in order to critique ideologies of racial dualism, the accompanying engravings rely on techniques that graphically instantiate notions of white transparency and black markedness, producing illustrations that break down the texts' insistence on racial ambiguity. All the essays in this part illuminate the tensions and ironies by which print both enabled and compromised the agency that African Americans exerted in their acts of self-making and their claims to property. Together they complicate our understanding of African American literary producers' entry into U.S. print culture by showing that establishing identities in print meant contending with preestablished terms.

The widespread critical emphasis in African American literary studies on originality finds a powerful counterpoint in the collection's third part, "Adaptation, Citation, Deployment." The essays in this cluster emphasize the strategic and challenging ways that African American literary producers rewrote, repurposed, and imaginatively plagiarized from previously published materials. Lara Langer Cohen's essay, "Notes from the State of Saint Domingue: The Practice of Citation in Clotel," examines this aesthetic in William Wells Brown's 1853 novel, which stitches its narrative together with contemporary poetry, fiction, slave narratives, and newspaper reportage to make a kind of patchwork of a contemporary antislavery print culture. Focusing on Brown's use of passages from a biography of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture to describe Nat Turner's failed rebellion, it hypothesizes a relation between citation as a form and these citations' counterfactual content, which "pits the print archive against history as we know it." In "The Canon in Front of Them: African American Deployments of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade,'" Daniel Hack investigates the surprising currency of Tennyson's poem in African American newspapers. Demonstrating that the poem became a key site to interrogate the intersections between nation, race, and culture, this essay asks what happens if we reconfigure an African American literary tradition to include engagements with non-African American texts. Holly Jackson's "Another Long Bridge: Reproduction and Reversion in Hagar's Daughter" begins with the observation that Pauline Hopkins's novel repeats almost verbatim the most famous scene in Brown's Clotel, in which the heroine, thwarted in her attempt to cross the Potomac to freedom, jumps to her death from the bridge instead. In a plot that does not so much unfold as fold back on itself, Hopkins likewise turns to history, invoking Brown to figure Reconstruction's failure to bring the nation into a new era of freedom. Turning from verbal to visual copies, Dalila Scruggs's "'Photographs to Answer Our Purposes': Representations of the Liberian Landscape in Colonization Print Culture" explores the afterlives of two daguerreotypes of Monrovia taken by black photographer Augustus Washington. Scruggs follows the images as they are reproduced as wood engravings, cropped, and mobilized to new ends, using their history to trace "the American Colonization Society's efforts to manage the image of Liberia" amid the flurry of reprinting. Susan Gillman's essay, "Networking Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Hyper Stowe in Early African American Print Culture," proposes that the "models of interactive digital scholarship" so popular today have their forebears in "African American traditions in print and performance." To demonstrate this claim, she turns to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which not only thematizes adaptation as an African American cultural practice but also generates an extensive web of text networks itself. If Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel seems like a surprising example of African American print culture, for Gillman, this is precisely the point, as her essay "works to question and potentially to redefine what counts as 'Early African American Print Culture.'" By making a case for the interpretive significance of "unoriginality," the essays clustered in Part III argue that the instabilities they associate with Early African American Print Culture challenge the most basic categories—author, text, identity—of both African American literature and print culture studies.

The book's final cluster, Part IV, "Public Performances," moves from the material conditions of texts to the phenomenological experiences of reading, identifying, and otherwise enacting a print "public." Lloyd Pratt's essay, "The Lyric Public of Les Cenelles," takes up the first anthology of African American literature, a collection of Francophone poetry published in New Orleans in 1845. Focusing on their use of apostrophe, Pratt argues that the poems in Les Cenelles offer "a mode of being in common with others" that cultivates multiple scales of affiliation—a mode of sociality that challenges both the individualism of lyric reading and the more rigid frameworks of the "spatial turn" in literary studies. In "Imagining a Nation of Fellow Citizens: Early African American Politics of Publicity in the Black State Conventions," Derrick Spires analyzes the printed proceedings of black state conventions in the 1840s, which he reads as "performative speech acts that seek to manufacture the very citizenship practices from which the delegates had been excluded." The convention proceedings' rhetorical strategies and modes of address, Spires argues, complicate models of a "counterpublic" often associated with African American discourse and suggest instead the possibility of a "mesopublic," which exists in the interstices between the state and the people. Radiclani Clytus's study of the American Anti-Slavery Society's 1835 pamphlet campaign, "'Keep It Before the People': The Pictorialization of American Abolitionism," shifts the customary focus on the writings of the AASS to explore their "ocularcentric ethos." In the hundreds of thousands of illustrated materials that it distributed, as well as the visually inflected language it used, the AASS drew on Christian tropes of visual piety to propose that the best way to grasp slavery was to picture it. In the volume's final chapter, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon argues that early African American print culture is best understood not in terms of singular, reproducible texts but as a series performances or interactions with various publics—publisher, consumer, reader, critic. Her essay, "John Marrant Blows the French Horn: Print, Performance, and the Making of Publics in Early African American Literature," elaborates Marrant's signal position in the revisionary framework print culture offers. Marrant's narrative, which itself revolves around scenes of performance, helps dislodge the familiar notion that print fixes meaning and offers a new, more dynamic way of reading print culture in its place. This final part, like the first, engages a critical term that has proved a central one for print culture studies. Rather than simply employing this term, however, the essays in Part IV problematize its use in relation to African American literary production, suggesting that we must understand print publics not as stable entities but as improvised and shifting scenes.


In the present usage, "early African American print culture" synthesizes and challenges the frameworks from which it emerges, yielding three sizable insights that resonate across the volume's essays. While those essays also yield far more local insights about early African American print culture than can be adequately described here, these larger points should be recognized as key elements of the overarching theoretical contribution this volume has to make and, moreover, as evidence of the ways that African American literature and print culture stand to transform one another.

First, these essays mount a collective challenge to the presumed universality of what we might call the print-capitalism thesis. Scholars of print culture customarily refer to "the literary marketplace" as shorthand for the circulation of print, a connection cemented by an influential tradition of scholarship on the economic underpinnings of print culture. The synonymy between print culture and economics was introduced at least as early as Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin's contention that the production of printed goods had to be "firmly based on a business footing" or "it was doomed to failure"; was reinforced by Jürgen Habermas's narrative of print commodities and the rise of the bourgeois "public sphere of letters"; and was condensed in Benedict Anderson's term "print-capitalism." Anderson's argument insists that "nothing served to 'assemble'" disparate communities "more than capitalism," which "created mechanically reproduced print-languages capable of dissemination through the market." The print-capitalism thesis possesses undeniable explanatory power. Yet the essays in this volume show that its model is not as generalizable as scholars tend to imagine, for the circulation of early African American print proves not to have been strictly (or even necessarily) an economic issue. Rather, the following essays demonstrate that print tracks with political movements (Brooks, Spires), racial ideologies (Rezek, DeLombard, Jackson), regional practices (Gardner, Pratt, Dillon), and generic conventions (McGill, Scruggs), all of which could be buttressed by economics, but, as these case studies show, all of which often are not. Economic circulation, these essays imply, is an aspect of social circulation in print culture, rather than the other way around.

Second, the essays in this volume provide an alternative paradigm to the study of "black authorship" that has for so long been the only significant paradigm by which to estimate African American print culture, and African American literature more generally. As literature written by (rather than for or about) African American persons is the almost universal criteria for defining African American literature, theoretical arguments for displacing the author have usually been read as hostile to the intellectual and political project that has carved out space for that literature. Twenty-five years ago Barbara Christian influentially articulated the terms of this supposed opposition, according to which recognition of "the literature of blacks, women of South America and Africa, etc., as overtly 'political' literature was being preempted by a new Western concept which proclaimed that reality does not exist, that everything is relative, and that every text is silent about something." However, the following essays reject this opposition, by way of the collective insight that critical investigation into the idea of authorship complicates—and therefore does not nor should not displace—attention to racialization or its historically lived experience. Taking for granted that African American literature may not exclusively count as literature by African American authors, the following essays consider African Americans variously as narrative protagonists (DeLombard), performers (Dillon), booksellers (Brooks, Ashton), editors (Gardner, Cohen, Hack, Jackson), and signifiers (Senchyne, Scruggs, Clytus). These essays also find that print production is a collective endeavor, whose collaborations, for better and for worse, work across the color line (Rezek, DeLombard, Capers, Senchyne, Hack, Gillman, Scruggs, Clytus). Extending the force of these insights, we might further recognize that African Americans were printers, readers, laborers, teachers, subjects who desired literacy (and refused it), and, above all, participants in a rapidly emergent media culture whose impact on everyday life scholars are only beginning to understand. Authorship is one part of this story, to be sure; but it no longer seems necessary to insist that it is the only intellectually exciting or politically meaningful aspect of that story. Collectively, this volume demonstrates the uneven ways in which print culture enables the coexistence of historical subjects and rhetorical figures.

Following from critiques of both the print-capitalism thesis and the black authorship premise, the third major insight of this volume is an optimistic take on the importance of not being original. Copying—one of the most prominent and various aspects of any print culture—emerges as a central concept in this volume. Drawing on Meredith McGill's justly influential work on the antebellum "culture of reprinting," the essays in this volume track further variations on copying, including adaptation (Gillman), citation (Cohen), deployment (Hack), reproduction (Jackson), and cliché (Rezek). (We have chosen not to prioritize one of these terms over any other, in an effort to honor the varieties of creative unoriginality, with their distinct—in some cases idiosyncratic—political and historical valences.) Such copying usually embarrasses a marketplace that rewards novelty with economic success or a critical mode that privileges personal accomplishment with the sobriquet of genius. Yet as Peter Stallybrass has argued persuasively, "Learning requires imitation and inspiration, which today are marginalized by a concept of originality that produces as its inevitable double the specter of plagiarism, a specter rooted in the fear that we might have more to learn from others than from ourselves." Putting varieties of copying at the conceptual center of this volume entails a rejection of the specious criteria that maintain that financially compensated original productions are the only meaningful mark of distinction in a print culture. Instead, financially uncompensated, generatively unoriginal productions are shown to be a cultural dominant of early African American print culture, pushing us to consider their prominence in early America print culture writ large.

These three insights underscore the present volume's aims to bring into focus the methodological interventions implicit in the conjunction of these fields, to ask how they intersect, and to suggest how each field may contribute to the other. Accordingly, a critique of the print-capitalism thesis should register as one of the ways in which attention to African American texts questions some of the assumptions of print culture studies, while the suspension of the singular value of black authorship should be read as one way in which print culture studies challenge the habits of African American literary studies. Moreover, the conceptual emphasis among this volume's essays on copying implies a disputation with any field—literary criticism and bibliography both included—that organizes itself around the author function.

As our interest in highlighting these mutually transformative encounters between African American literature and print culture suggests, part of the goal of this volume is to clear space for fresh approaches to underexamined material, as much as for that material itself. Thus while Early African American Print Culture participates in a critical tradition of expanding the archive through "recovery projects," it also asks how we might pursue our inquiries beyond the logic of "firsts" and "canons" that have often subtended such projects. For recovery requires more than the excavation of forgotten texts; it also requires the knowledge to read them. In addition to being an attempt to expand the fields of African American literature and print culture, then, this volume should be read as a series of methodological provocations or invitations. In this respect, we hope its claims will prove portable enough to generate a conversation about the theories that underwrite archival and recovery work, that pair critical race and material culture studies, and that shape the relationship between criticism and description that informs the most promising work in the field. After all, one key point of convergence for both African American literary studies and print culture studies is the insight that any book that is made by its authors can also be remade by its readers.

Lara Langer Cohen teaches English at Swarthmore College and is author of The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Jordan Alexander Stein teaches English at Fordham University.

"A must-read for scholars of African American literature and those who study the development of print culture in the early American republic. . . . The book's seventeen chapters admirably illuminate the multifaceted ways African Americans engaged with the world of print between the mid-eighteenth and the early twentieth centuries."—Journal of American History

Selected by Choice magazine as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2013

"Illustrated by engrossing and, at times, disconcerting visual images, [the book] productively brings together the work of established critical figures."—Modern Language Review

"Early African American Print Culture reads like a manifesto, a call to action—sometimes directly, by cataloging the work that remains to be done, and sometimes simply by offering models of scholarship on familiar and unfamiliar authors and texts. The central point, of course, is that we need to attend to the whole of American print culture if we are to understand the complexities of African American writing throughout the nineteenth century."—John Ernest, West Virginia University

"Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein have fashioned seventeen well-conceived and -executed works into an anthology that advances our understanding of how early African American literature fits into the historical landscape of communication arts."—African American Review