Much as the study of ideas in U.S. history has often diverged from material actualities, studies of bibliography and book history in an American context have often veered away from literary studies. While literary studies have predominantly come to highlight politics and social justice, bibliography and book history have often been thought preoccupied with the presumably neutral and apolitical site of objects. This take, of course, is pretty reductive, but not completely inaccurate. A little over a decade ago, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus proposed "surface reading" as an antidote to the more commonplace "symptomatic reading" driven by the "hermeneutics of suspicion" in literary studies, and they identified book history as a key field built upon descriptive practices that might yield a less problematic form of cultural and political scholarship. While some bibliographers and book historians might have appreciated the arguments of Best and Marcus, not all concurred. Those who came to advocate for what has been dubbed "critical bibliography" have used the tools of bibliography and book history to develop a valuable partnership with the cultural turn in U.S. literary studies.
Jonathan Senchyne's new book is part of this broader move "to dissolve barriers between theoretically informed cultural studies and deep attention to the materiality of texts" (7). It joins other outstanding books that have yoked a capacious history of print culture and communication with studies of early and nineteenth-century American literature. Some personal favorites include Lara Langer Cohen's Fabrication of American Literature (Penn, 2011), Lindsay DiCiurci's Colonial Revivals: The Nineteenth-Century Lives of Early American Books (Penn, 2018), Derrick Spires's The Practice of Citizenship (Penn 2019); and Jordan Stein's When Novels Were Books (Harvard, 2020). Unlike these books, though, Senchyne's takes one of the lesser considered elements of book-making and print culture -- paper -- as an object of inquiry that is at once material, literary, cultural, and political. Despite some ideas to the contrary, Senchyne ably demonstrates that the literature of a pre-digital age should hardly be considered without the material on which it is printed or the diverse peoples whose labor brought it into physical being.
Senchyne's introduction surveys an impressive combination of theoretical work on media and intimate embodiment in texts that underscore an equally helpful history of paper-making. For those unfamiliar with rag paper-making processes, Senchyne reminds us of its two prominent periods: 1690 to 1817 for hand-made paper, and 1817 to 1867 for paper made by machines. While applying this history to material text studies and bibliography as well as to the study of print culture, which is central to his own project, he also cites studies that de-center the book and highlight other elements of media. Besides the work of Americanists like Lisa Gitelman and Ben Kafka, who study material texts, Senchyne invokes theorists of the materialities of communication. The critical practices of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Friedrich Kittler, he notes, are attuned to oscillations between layers of presence and layers of meaning rather than to contrasts between surface and depth that have long dominated literary studies. Using the theories of Gumbrecht and Kittler, Senchyne aims to bypass "strict adherence to any particular 'theory' and ... adopt aspects of bodies of thought when they illuminate something about a particular problem, genre, or interpretative tradition" (28). This approach yields valuable insights.
Filling some problematic gaps in comprehensive, field-organizing concepts made famous by Jürgen Habermas, Benedict Anderson, and Michael Warner, the first chapter shows how paper fed the emergence of the print public sphere and the imagined communities of modern nation-states. Rather than thinking of paper as a mute vehicle that let print do the talking, spreading ideas for public consumption, and then organizing communities into coherence and affinity, many historical figures considered paper crucial to the task of drawing people together, most often in moments of crisis when new communities were materializing. And given the ongoing fears of scarcity in the rag paper age, American colonials and early U.S. nationals could never be sure of having newspapers, as Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983) contends. Ranging over a century, from protest poetry published amidst the Stamp Act Crisis in 1765 to "wallpaper newspapers" printed in Louisiana during the Civil War, Senchyne's focus on paper "brings into view," he argues, "a wider range of subjects, bodies, and relations" than previous assemblages dominated by white men (37).
The next few chapters link paper to gender, sexuality, and race. Juxtaposing the seventeenth-century poet Anne Bradstreet with the nineteenth-century poet Lydia Sigourney, Senchyne shows how book history organizes such century-spanning conjunctions. In spite of radical differences in technology and social situations, Senchyne finds representative continuity between these two. Bradstreet was the most famous of seventeenth-century colonial American poets, and as Senchyne demonstrates, she has received significantly more scholarly attention than her nineteenth-century counterpart. Yet both of these poets, Senchyne shows, "highlight and animate the presence of rags within paper to make feminist claims about print and the print public sphere." In their poetry, he writes, they "argued . . . that because print required women's domestic labor with rags for its material existence, women were always already present in print and therefore belonged as writers too" (69).
To illustrate the changes precipitated by the mass production of paper, Senchyne turns from Bradstreet and Sigourney to Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville. Thoreau, he notes, thought paper and print culture impediments to a well-lived life. In his journal entries as well as in the "Sounds" chapter of Walden (1854), Thoreau contends that paper fails to re-present lived experience. But Melville's view was more nuanced. Citing his erotic letters to Hawthorne and his short story "The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids" (1855), a diptych of two sketches, Senchyne argues against the presumption of separate gendered spheres on the surface of both stories. Working through Melville's familiarity with the paper-making processes, he re-reads this diptych story through the lens of alternative and often queer intimacies made both imaginable and material in the production of rag paper.
In the final chapter, Senchyne shows how black-and-white norms in both print practice and racial taxonomies emerged in common step from the fifteenth century onward. In Senchyne's words,
'whiteness' as a self-effacing, yet highly valued, backdrop 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. (127)
He illustrates this point with the fascinating figure of William Wells Brown. In Brown's Narrative (1847), print marks stages in his life. In youth he carried heavy type through St. Louis streets; later on, he took stereotype plates on his London excursion to find an English publisher for his Narrative; and later still, he oversaw the first copy and later revisions of his novel Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (four versions from 1853 to 1867). Brown's first-hand knowledge of print and paper-making repeatedly provided material for his writing.
Beyond analyzing Brown's own work, Senchyne powerfully mines its implications. First, he notes that while Clotel is a mixed-race character who often passes as white in the novel, her face is darkened in the engraved 1853 frontispiece titled "The Death of Clotel":
This discrepancy between the text and the engraving underscores both the norms of a color line and the obvious gaps that works like Brown's -- and by extension Senchyne's -- are importantly exploiting. Senchyne also cites more recent recoveries of nineteenth-century manuscripts by two African Americans -- Austin Reed and Hannah Crafts -- and the forensic operations on paper that were used to authenticate their texts. In sum, this chapter lands impressively.
Along the way, Senchyne offers numerous revealing phenomena and anecdotes drawn from popular culture. To dramatize the intimacy of paper and feminist writing in the 1850s as well as to show the links between domestic and the sensational in this decade, he cites advertisements featuring mummy paper imported from Egypt. Also, his account of how paper and print were racialized includes the disturbing example of the "The Girl Who Inked Herself" (1859):
In a short concluding chapter, Senchyne contemporizes this long history of rag paper and literature by reflecting on the recent Combat Paper Project. By tearing their uniforms into rags and squeezing them into pulp, he explains, former combat soldiers have turned their uniforms into paper that will later be inscribed with poetry. So even now, Senchyne shows, rag paper has much more to offer than a mute surface for symbols and ideas.
Altogether, Jonathan Senchyne's book brings insightful new perspectives, archives, and concepts to literary studies. In my own training in book history, I have been taught to ask a two-pronged question about communicative texts: what are the technological as well as the social changes that make this kind of thing possible or interesting? Using these same framing questions throughout his work, Senchyne enriches the fields of literary studies, book history, critical bibliography, and cultural history.
D. Berton Emerson is Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Whitworth University in Spokane, WA.