An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic – SMITH (THT)

SMITH, Steven Carl. An Empire of Print: The New York Publishing Trade in the Early American Republic. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. 264p. Resenha de: ARENDT, Emily J. The History Teacher, v.52, n.4, p.727-728, ago., 2019.

New York City has long been considered the center of the American publishing industry. Although scholars have examined the mid-nineteenth-century figures— titans like George Palmer Putnam and the Harper Brothers—who are often credited with establishing the Big Apple’s preeminence in the book trade, Steven Carl Smith offers a rewarding glimpse into the lesser-known figures who preceded them and laid the crucial groundwork for print culture to flourish in the United States. Tracing the rise of New York’s publishing industry from the 1780s through the 1820s, Smith demonstrates how those involved in the book trade (printers, publishers, and booksellers) built local, regional, and national networks that allowed them to supply domestically manufactured books to a “population that had an insatiable appetite for knowledge” (p. 5).

Smith accomplishes this task through five extraordinarily well-researched case studies, most of which are organized around a key figure in the industry. The first looks at Samuel Loudon, an on-again, off-again state printer, to illustrate how printers helped rebuild political communication networks following the Revolution. Next, Smith uses William Gordon’s history of the American Revolution and its roundabout path to publication in the United States to argue that the domestic publishing industry played a vital role in the project of nation building. His next chapter reveals the power of printers to divide rather than unite Americans by exploring the bookshop politics of John Ward Fenno, a devoted Federalist who challenged Republican competitors and reflected the growing partisan spirit gripping the country by the late 1700s. The next case study focuses on the literary fairs that proved pivotal in crafting the trade into a movement for national self-sufficiency, as printers and publishers convinced booksellers and consumers to buy American-made rather than imported texts. The final chapter surveys the emergence of a national book trade as exemplified in the work of Evert Duyckinck, an enterprising capitalist involved in the sale and distribution of texts—especially cheap schoolbooks—that he solicited based on a keen understanding of what American readers wanted and needed. These examples demonstrate the key role played by early printers, publishers, and merchants in making New York’s publishing trade nationally significant.

Although An Empire of Print primarily offers an in-depth look at some major players in the emergence of a domestic publishing industry, Smith also provides a useful contribution to bigger debates over the rise of the market economy and the creation of a national print culture that connected Americans together through the act of reading. Indeed, he very successfully shows that the distribution networks built by men like Fenno and Duyckinck helped shape a national market for printed works well before 1830. Although it is intuitive that the creation of a national print market would entail the emergence of an “imagined community” of diverse readers, further examination of reception alongside distribution is warranted. In all, however, Smith’s impressive use of newspapers, personal correspondence, estate inventories, account books, and other financial records offers ample evidence to support his contentions.

While this monograph will prove essential reading to scholars interested in the history of the book in early America, it is probably not appropriate reading for most students at the secondary level or in college survey courses. I can imagine, however, that motivated educators would find much of interest and use in preparing lessons on the early republic. In particular, the chapters on print and ideology could be used as background for really excellent lessons incorporating primary sources into the classroom. For instance, Gordon’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Establishment, of the Independence of the United States, the topic of Chapter 2, is readily available in digitized forms and could be excerpted for students to explore how printers in the late 1700s “helped shape the new nation’s understanding of its history and its possibilities for the future by creating a national reading public attentive to its recent past” (p. 46). The third chapter on Federalist John Ward Fenno could likewise provide inspiration for educators interested in helping students explore the rancorous partisan print culture of the 1790s so readily apparent in periodicals from the time. Well-written and meticulously researched, this volume offers an important look at how New York’s publishing industry helped shape the social, economic, and political life of the early republic.

Emily J. Arendt – Montana State University Billings.

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