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APRIL 6, 2009
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Common-place examines early American literature; who read it, who wrote it and why it's still relevant

Worcester, MA—Common-place, the online history journal, announces a special issue on early American literature that examines the books, readers and reading habits of our country's founders, finding much that relates to the present day.

Joanna Brooks and Bryan Waterman edited a variety of essays on the topic. Additionally, nine historians recommend books they teach or study.

"Who reads an (early) American book?" is the question that prompted this special issue of Common-place. The collected essays make the case that "knowing more about the books, readers, and reading habits of early Americans is both pleasurable and intellectually enriching," according to Brooks. Waterman notes, "…early American books still have much to teach ordinary Americans."

The spring 2009 issue also introduces Catherine E. Kelly, associate professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, as the new editor of Common-place. Kelly is author of the 1999 book, In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century, and co-editor of the recent essay collection Reading Women: Literacy, Authorship, and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1500-1800. She is currently completing a book on visual culture in the early American republic

Edward Cahill's article, The Other Panic of 1819," explores how the financial panic of 1819 was mirrored by a literary panic about the overproduction of American books.

Cahill writes that although Washington Irving's collection of fiction and descriptive essays, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, marked the economic development of American literary culture, it was also haunted by widespread economic unrest. American authors of "purely literary" texts found it increasingly difficult after 1819 to distinguish their literary art from mere print commodities, Cahill notes. (More)

Max Cavitch pursues the question, "Who Publishes an Early American Book?" as he reflects on the Library of America series and the digital future of early American literature.

"Many of us are also devoted to online archives that combine the ambitious scope of Google Books with the not-for-profit ethos of the more academically oriented projects," Cavitch writes. "Which of these various models and initiatives will continue to thrive and adapt to changing reading behaviors and how reading behaviors will be changed by them is hard to predict."

Michael Drexler's article, "The Displacement of the American Novel," examines how a forgotten early American novel offers insight into the American response to the Haitian Revolution, with a surprising connection to Aaron Burr.

A study of Leonora Sansay's 19th century novel, "Secret History," Drexler writes, "…makes manifest the young republic's dominant but repressed problem: a republic founded on liberty that held a vast population in bondage."

"The Other Charlie Brown," by Hilary Emmett, takes a cross-cultural perspective on early American novelist Charles Brockden Brown. Emmett considers her Australian students' reaction to Brown's violent depiction of settler-Indian relations and to American culture at large. "Despite Brown's bleak projection of the future of the early republic, his novels offer rich opportunities for cross-cultural encounter and self-knowledge," she writes.

A seminar promising law students an opportunity to "read the novels that the founders read with an eye toward better understanding the literary backdrop against which they crafted their legal and political analysis," is the backdrop for Alison LaCroix's article," The Founders' Fiction."

"Reading the founders' fiction allowed our group of 21st -century lawyers and proto-lawyers to encounter the essential strangeness of the 18th century," LaCroix writes. She concludes that, "Perhaps the principal lesson to draw from reading novels that the founders read is that many of the founders were humanists who valued literature, not only scientists who delighted in building models of government."

Michael Winship's article, "Two Early American Bestsellers," investigates the role that copyright played in making American books like Charlotte Temple and Uncle Tom's Cabin "bestsellers." Charlotte Temple's "great success in America depended on the fact that, as a work in the public domain, it was freely available for reprinting by any and all American printers and publishers who cared to offer an edition—and many did throughout the nineteenth century," Winship writes. In contrast, Uncle Tom's Cabin, heavily promoted by its publisher, achieved a remarkable sale immediately upon publication.

"Perhaps the very fact that the work was controlled under copyright encouraged (the publisher) J. P. Jewett to make such promotional efforts when the book was first published to ensure its exceptional success," Winship notes. (More)

"Reading and Writing Indians," by Hilary E. Wyss, explores the world of books in early American Indian communities and offers an intriguing look into the home library of the famous 18th -century indigenous author and Native political leader, Samson Occom.

"In addition to 'godly books,' we know from diaries and other sources that Natives were eager consumers of the kinds of print ephemera that circulated throughout New England," Wyss writes. "…one way or another, regardless of whether any particular individual could read or write, Native communities in New England were alive with texts."

Eric Slauter's "Literature as Evidence" introduces nine historians who recommend American books they teach or study. "Each of them goes beyond the questions of who wrote or who read American books," Slauter writes, "of whether the book meets our contemporary and narrow definition of literature, to suggest what effects the books had in their own time and why such books should be read—and reread—today."

The following nine historians who contribute short statements on American books to this special issue treat literature as evidence, but they do not see the books they recommend as repositories of neutral "facts," according to Slauter.

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 Sweet sees political challenges in a rare eyewitness account of the Atlantic slave trade produced in Connecticut by a native of Africa. Fran&ccidil;ois 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. "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.

"Ask the Author" interviews Common-place's founding editors, Jill Lepore and Jane Kamensky on their collaboratively written novel set in Revolutionary-era Boston—Blindspot, a Novel, by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise (2008)—and about relationships between history and fiction in general.

The "Publick Occurrences" blog offers a recent posting by Jeffrey Pasley, "What Higher Education Should Not Learn from the Newspaper Business."

Book reviews in the current issue of Common-place include the following: Thomas Augst's review of Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums & Nineteenth-Century American Culture by Benjamin Reiss; David Greven's review of The Work of the Heart: Young Women and Emotion, 1780-1830 by Martha Tomhave Blauvelt; Robb K. Haberman's review of Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship by Catherine O'Donnell Kaplan and Martha Elena Rojas' review of The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives by Hester Blum.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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