Writing to the World: Letters and the Origins of Modern Print Genres

Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

Writing to the World examines the shift from manuscript to print media culture in the long eighteenth century. I introduce the concept of the “bridge genre,” which enables such change by transferring existing textual conventions to emerging modes of composition and circulation. I draw on this concept to reveal how four crucial genres that emerged during this time—the newspaper, the periodical, the novel, and the biography—were united by their reliance on letters to accustom readers to these new forms of print media.

“The Scale of Genre”

New Literary History 52, no. 2 (Spring 2021): 261-84.

This article argues for the privileged position of genre at the middle scale in literary analysis, showing how genre categories locate texts within literary-historical contexts and thus reveal the processes of literary change. Examining two major recent methodological developments in literary studies—the new formalism and the digital humanities—it calls for disentangling the terms “form” and “genre” to recognize the different scales on which they operate. The essay proposes a method of generic reading that focuses on changes both among genres—the emergence of new genres, the implementation of existing ones, or the decline in previously significant ones—and within particular genres. To demonstrate this method, it considers the genre of the epistolary pamphlet and the particular uses to which it was put during the early abolitionist debate of the turn of the nineteenth century. Generic reading incorporating computational analysis shows how this genre helped to establish a news environment that was ongoing, cyclical, dialogic, and ephemeral. More broadly, this method shows how shifting genre categories drive literary change over time.

After Print: Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Cultures

Edited Collection. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020.

The eighteenth century has generally been understood as the Age of Print, when the new medium revolutionized the literary world and rendered manuscript culture obsolete. After Print, however, reveals that the story isn’t so simple. Manuscript remained a vital, effective, and even preferred forum for professional and amateur authors working across fields such as literature, science, politics, religion, and business through the Romantic period. Featuring contributions from 13 scholars, the volume demonstrates that manuscript culture did not die out but, rather, may have been revitalized by the advent of printing. It opens with my “Introduction: The Multimedia Eighteenth Century” and includes my chapter, “A ‘Female Accomplishment’? Femininity, Privacy, and the Emergence of Letter-Writing Norms.”

“Samuel Johnson and Spectral Media”

ELH 87 (2020): 65-90.

Samuel Johnson believed in ghosts—or at least, like Mulder, he wanted to believe. This article considers Johnson’s interest through the frame of media rather than intellectual history. I argue that Johnson’s attention to ghost stories, which always resulted in him discrediting the particular specter under consideration, illustrates the ongoing instability of print and need to incorporate multiple media of authentication even in the second half of the eighteenth century. To illustrate these points, I juxtapose his investigation of the Cock Lane ghost with his better-known involvement in the Ossian controversy, in which he repeatedly enjoined author/translator James Macpherson to “produce the manuscripts.” Johnson’s ongoing attempts to mediate belief, whether in the literary or supernatural realms, reflected not an eighteenth-century “rise of print” but a nebulous multimedia environment in which the authenticity of any particular form could never be taken for granted.

“The Gazette, the Tatler, and the Making of the Periodical Essay: Form and Genre in Eighteenth-Century News”

Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 114.1 (March 2020): 45-70.

This article resituates the early eighteenth-century emergence of the periodical essay by highlighting the material connections between the London Gazette and Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s periodicals the Tatler and the Spectator. Emphasizing Steele’s influential role as the editor of the Gazette at the time of his inauguration of the Tatler, I demonstrate that, in material terms, the new journals were a continuation of earlier newspapers, as they copied the newspaper format of a single folio half-sheet printed in two columns on each side, with items of news separated by datelines. By engaging with newspapers through visual appearance, shared content, and self-reflexive commentary, these periodicals enabled the broadening and deepening of the category of “the news” that was a central feature of eighteenth-century print culture.

“‘[L]et a girl read’: Periodicals and Women’s Literary Canon Formation”

Women’s Periodicals and Print Culture in Britain, 1690-1820s: The Long Eighteenth Century. The Edinburgh History of Women’s Periodical Culture in Britain, Vol. 1. Eds. Jennie Batchelor and Manushag Powell. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. 221-235.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, book reviews arose alongside the increasingly prominent genre of the novel. While condemning most novels, reviews made exceptions for a select few—initially Richardson and Fielding but growing to include female novelists such as Burney and Edgeworth—and in the process to create an early novelistic canon. Examining periodical articles and reviews by both men and women in the second half of the eighteenth century, I show how this tactic in the era’s culture wars had the paradoxical effect of introducing the novel into the canon of literature. The periodical was an important location for the discussion of women’s reading material and, ultimately, the elevation of the novel.

“All the News That’s Fit to Write: The Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Newsletter”

Travelling chronicles: Episodes in the history of news and newspapers from the early modern period to the eighteenth century. Library of the Written Word. Eds. Paul Goring, Siv Goril Brantzaeg, and Christine Watson. Leiden, Netherlands, and Boston, Mass.: Brill, 2018. 95-118. Open Access.

While scholarship on news history has seen the newspaper as a quintessentially print product, this chapter shows how diplomats, bureaucrats, journalists, and other interested parties depended on manuscript sources as an integral component of the eighteenth-century news marketplace. Both news writers and consumers relied on multiple media sources to present and access a holistic sense of the events of the day. I explore three moments in the history of the newsletter, focusing on individual archival collections from the Restoration, turn of the eighteenth century, and 1710s. The manuscript newsletter remained a fundamental feature of the news industry throughout the take-off in printed periodicals that scholars have seen as integral to the rise of a modern print culture.

“The Pleasures of ‘the World’: Rewriting Epistolarity in Burney, Edgeworth, and Austen”

Eighteenth-Century Fiction 29.1 (Fall 2016): 67-89. 

This essay revisits the apparent decline of the epistolary novel in the late eighteenth century in order to argue that the change in popularity of the epistolary genre was not political but media-historical. Focusing on Frances Burney’s Cecilia (1782) and Camilla (1796) and Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801)—the three novels that Jane Austen highlights in the “defence of the novel” section of Northanger Abbey (1817)—I argue that Burney and Edgeworth transitioned away from epistolary narration and towards an authoritative third-person voice in order to distinguish their works from the other entertainment media with which the novel competed in the 1780s and 1790s. Seeing the epistolary genre as a fading trend, they used their works to comment on similarly ephemeral fads such as masquerades, Italian opera, and the pleasure garden.

“The Manuscript Newsletter and the Rise of the Newspaper, 1665-1715

Huntington Library Quarterly 79.3 (Autumn 2016): 411-37.

This essay examines the genre of the manuscript newsletter, a key element of the news media in Britain from the early seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. It argues that newsletters were more popular and had more in common with printed newspapers—in terms of content, clientele, and circulation—than has commonly been assumed in the recent surge of scholarly interest in newspaper history and periodical studies. Drawing on a unique set of hybrid manuscript–print news documents, the essay contends that the emergence of the news media was not primarily a print phenomenon for at least the first century of the periodical press and that postal networks provided the basis for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century newsgathering and transmission.

An Emblem of ye Athenian Society, 1692, © The Trustees of the British Museum
“‘Interloping with my Question-Project’: Debating Genre in John Dunton’s and Daniel Defoe’s Epistolary Periodicals”

Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 44 (2015): 121-42.

In his memoirs, John Dunton accused Daniel Defoe of plagiarism, or of what Dunton termed “Interloping with my Question-Project.” The “Question-Project,” also known as “Athenianism,” was Dunton’s phrase for his genre-defining periodical, The Athenian Mercury, Britain’s first question-and-answer paper. This essay explores the epistolary origins of early eighteenth-century periodicals to argue that the emphasis of Dunton and Defoe—two of the first periodical writers—on publishing letters in their journals led them to articulate particular versions of authorship, originality, and literary property.

“Letters from the Highlands: Scribal Publication and Media Shift in Victorian Scotland”

Book History 17 (2014): 298-320.

This essay argues that a little-studied text, Elizabeth Grant’s Memoirs of a Highland Lady, offers insights into conditions of authorship and publication for middle-class provincial female authors from the early nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth. While critics have often seen manuscript declining as a form of literary publication by the end of the Romantic period, I argue that Grant—who completed her memoir in 1854—chose to “publish” in manuscript even as she presented herself as historian and historiographer of the Highlands. Grant’s manuscript memoirs demonstrate that Victorians, like ourselves, often viewed history through the lens of media shift.

Book Reviews
  • Rev. of Eighteenth-Century Manners of Reading: Print Culture and Popular Instruction in the Anglophone Atlantic World, by Eve Tavor Bannet. American Literary History: The ALH Online Review Series XII: 1-3. 
  • Rev. of Work in Hand: Script, Print, and Writing, 1690-1840, by Aileen Douglas. Modern Philology 116.3 (Oct. 2018): E192-94.
  • Rev. of Cultures of Correspondence in Early Modern Britain, eds. James Daybell and Andrew Gordon. The Library 19.1 (March 2018): 84-86.
  • “Old New Media: Print, Paint, and the Early Eighteenth-Century Media Revolution.” Rev. of Mr. Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art and Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age, by Dror Wahrman. Eighteenth-Century Life 39.3 (September 2015): 109-113.
  • Rev. of Epistolary Community in Print 1580-1664, by Diana G. Barnes. Seventeenth-Century News 72.1&2 (Spring-Summer 2014): 38-41.
  • Rev. of What is Media Archeology?, by Jussi Parikka. Literacy and Linguistic Computing: The Journal for Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 28.3 (September 2013): 484-486.
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