Book Review

Ezell, Margaret J.M. Social Authorship and the Advent of Print. Baltimore, MA: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Reviewed by William Warner | July 12, 2000

Margaret J.M. Ezell has diagnosed a blind spot in our study of early modern practices of reading and writing: we imagine that in order to “count” as a reader one must read print, to “count” as an author one must publish. Ezell points to the wide and extensive practice of writing and reading of manuscripts, practices that are systematically filtered out by a literary history that itself evolves out of the print media culture of the early modern period. Literary history has ignored manuscript media culture ever since, by placing it on the tendentious side of a series of oppositions, where the enlightened future belongs to the first term: democratic/aristocratic; public/coterie; central marginal; writing for money/dilettante. To begin the process of recovery her analysis makes urgent, Ezell documents the manuscript production and consumption among a group of Catholic families. Why circulate one’s work in manuscript? Ezell argues that this practice appealed to men and women who wanted to circulate their writing to others, but who had a host of reasons to avoid the public glare of print publication: modesty, the personal nature of a private topic (a birth, a wedding), the hazards and difficulty of the London book trade. Even for a poet with public ambitions like Alexander Pope, Ezell demonstrates that we need, especially for the early career, an understanding of manuscript circulation as a complement to the oft-told story of his prowess in working the market in printed books. For those who favored manuscript circulation of their poems, there was always the danger that one’s manuscript would be appropriated by enemies or well-intentioned relatives (e.g. the poems of Anne Bradstreet) and published without one’s having any shaping control of the process of publication. Ezell’s collection of essays offers an important “contrarian” perspective upon authorship and publication; she makes a convincing case for the persistence of writing and reading in manuscript. Although these essays are sometimes labored and repetitious, they offer a powerful corrective to the modernist “Whig” progressive histories of the rise of print, the author and the public sphere. This book also demonstrates why different media forms are sustained by different cultural practices. The circulation of a fair copy of a manuscript to friends precedes and survives the “rise” of print publication. Why? Because of the valuable differences from print text it sustains to our own day, for example, by offering itself to readers as a unique original.

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