McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Antebellum, Autobiography, Newspapers, Nineteenth Century, Reading, Working-Class
"Scenes of Reading: Forgotten Antebellum Readers, Self-Representation, and the Transatlantic Reprint Industry" argues that African-American and white working-class people participated in transatlantic antebellum literary culture in a far more central and sophisticated manner than has been assumed. Employing "scenes" of reading--self-representations of what, where, how, and why African Americans and the white working classes read--as primary texts, this dissertation asserts that these groups, in differing degrees and under distinct circumstances, were able to learn to read, to appropriate reading materials from mainstream literary culture, and, most importantly, to transform their acts of reading into acts of politicized self-representation. Their literary practice was possible because of the transatlantic reprint industry that flourished during the antebellum era resulting from the lack of a copyright agreement between Britain and America. This meant that in both nations, texts from across the Atlantic could be reprinted and sold more cheaply than domestic texts, making novels, poetry, and non-fiction available to wider readerships. Reprinted texts in multiple inexpensive formats were ubiquitous, allowing even marginalized readers to encounter them in the context of everyday life. More importantly, reprinted texts legally belonged to no one, meaning that they could be appropriated by anyone, including black and working-class groups whose political values threatened to undermine accepted social hierarchies. With no permission or payment required for reprinting, reprints were easily grafted into new ideological contexts, meaning that black and working-class newspapers had access to free literary content that they could employ toward counter-hegemonical self-representations. The practices and implications of reprinting enabled free blacks, slaves, and white workers to participate in mainstream literary culture subversively through "underground literacy": set of literary practices that were counter-cultural yet also dependent upon the apparatus of mainstream print culture in order to carry out subversive aims. Reading reprinted texts and assimilating them into the context of their everyday lives, African Americans and the white working classes in America and Britain formed similar strategies for practicing literacy beneath the surface of a transatlantic print culture. This dissertation examines scenes of reading that exemplify these underground reading strategies and represent the literacy of these groups.
Holohan, M. (2013). Scenes of Reading: Forgotten Antebellum Readers, Self-Representation, and the Transatlantic Reprint Industry (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/660