- · vol. 9 · no. 3 · April 2009

Who Reads an Early American Book?

Eric Slauter
Literature as Evidence
Historians recommend American books

Carolyn Eastman | Vincent Brown | Caroline Winterer | Joyce Chaplin | Sarah Knott
John Wood Sweet | François Furstenberg | James Sidbury | Matthew Mason

Few general readers now pick up the American book that prompted Sydney Smith to ask "Who reads an American book?" In truth, few general readers ever did. Adam Seybert's Statistical Annals—an eight-hundred-page, six-pound volume, printed in the dimensions of a modern metropolitan phone directory, with 175 numeric tables describing population, commerce, and debt—aimed at nothing less than a full representation of the United States in book form, but the massive book was not for the masses. Without governmental intervention it may have had no readers at all. Seybert's colleagues in Congress believed the book would be "necessary and acceptable to every functionary of the Government of the United States" but that it could never be "popular," and in April 1818 they passed an act to subscribe for five hundred copies. The public had bought a work of American literature.

Hoping to find a market for Seybert's book beyond the politicians and institutions of higher learning to which Congress distributed Statistical Annals, Philadelphia printers Thomas Dobson and Sons ran off at least a thousand more copies at their own risk. Brave booksellers in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia advertised the book in late 1818, and favorable reviews in U.S. newspapers appeared the next year; nonetheless, supply radically surpassed demand. Would the government step in again? In 1821 the printers begged the Senate to purchase eight hundred additional unsold copies "at a reduced price." They met with defeat but may have sold some of these toxic assets to the author himself. Thirteen years later, Seybert's sister Elizabeth Rapp petitioned the House to purchase three hundred copies that remained in the family at the time of her brother's death in France in 1825, but she had no more luck unloading Seybert's American book than the printers had.

A child of the Enlightenment, Seybert presented his few readers with "facts and data," not "mere opinions" or theoretical "speculations," information that would form the basis of future policy debates (as it did) but was not itself subject to debate. His book serves as a prime example of what historian Patricia Cline Cohen has called the "quantitative mentality" of the early United States; it also represents one stage in the evolution of what literary scholar Mary Poovey has described as "the modern fact," those pieces of numeric evidence whose status before or beyond interpretation made them useful building blocks in economics and the social sciences. The demographic and commercial "facts" presented by Seybert that captured the most attention from his U.S. contemporaries—his ratios of free to unfree persons charting the growth of slavery from 1790 to 1810 and his tables showing the imbalance of trade with other nations—were the same ones that led Sydney Smith to focus the concluding remarks of his January 1820 review on the failure of the United States to export important cultural products and on the questionable claim of white Americans to be "the greatest, the most refined, the most enlightened, and the most moral people on earth." After all, Smith asked, "Who reads an American book?" And how moral could the white population really be in a country that could count—thanks to Seybert’s American book—"every sixth man a Slave, whom his fellow-creatures may buy and sell and torture?"

The nine historians featured here treat literature as evidence, but they do not see the books they recommend as repositories of neutral "facts." Carolyn Eastman considers the readers of a frequently reprinted "true account" of Caribbean pirates. Vincent Brown discovers a new perspective on contemporary immigration debates in a policy pamphlet about Jamaican slavery. Caroline Winterer sees an intellectual path not taken in a scientific essay on the origins of racial difference. Joyce Chaplin returns to a natural history of the American South and to a pre-Darwinian moment in the relation of science with religion. Sarah Knott finds, in the pages of a forgotten novel, a generational change in the history of the emotions. John Wood Sweet sees challenges to early national politics and to our own understanding of the meanings of freedom in a rare eyewitness account of the Atlantic slave trade produced in Connecticut by a native of Africa. François Furstenberg describes a famous biography as a national glue between readers in distant regions. James Sidbury recovers a bound manuscript pamphlet written by a resident of Sierra Leone, a man who had returned to the region of his birth after slavery in South Carolina and service with the British during the American Revolution. And Matthew Mason recommends a first-person account of one man's life under slavery in the antebellum United States, a crucial document for historians who hope to write the history of the domestic slave trade.

The works selected are wide-ranging examples of the rich literature of early America, but because what counts as literature has changed so fundamentally since the time of Seybert and Smith, some of the selections may strike readers as decidedly nonliterary. Presses in Colonial British America and the early United States issued nearly one hundred thousand non-periodical imprints before 1820. In this vast sea of books, pamphlets, and broadsides, the small islands of writing most modern general readers call literature are statistical outliers. Novels, poems, and plays, for instance, represent only about 3.5 percent of the total items printed between 1640 and 1819; and since American presses issued works by European authors, the percentage of texts most modern readers would describe as "American" is significantly smaller. Asked to write short "blurbs" about American books they teach and study, the historians here go beyond the questions of who wrote or who read American books, of whether certain books meet our contemporary and narrow definition of literature, to suggest what effects these books had in the past and why such books should be read—and reread—today.

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