The latest issue of Common-place is called “Who Reads an Early American Book?” and it’s full of good stuff. Bryan Waterman discusses “a Revolutionary-era poet named Elizabeth Whitman, the prototype for the heroine of one of the new nation’s bestselling novels, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette (1797)”; Edward Cahill links Washington Irving’s career to the Panic of 1819 and the travails of the early American bookselling business, uncannily reminiscent of more recent, and more widespread, troubles:

Although booksellers discovered various forms of cooperation to manage such risk in the short term, some of these had the long-term effect of merely disguising it. For example, they exchanged books with one another in order to diversify their offering and achieve better distribution. But because exchanges gave the false impression of actual sales, this practice quickly led to over-production and, despite rising sales, the inevitable devaluation of too many unsold books. Moreover, in order to raise capital and extend their credit over the long, unpredictable term of a book’s market life, they often endorsed or guaranteed each other’s promissory notes, in this way creating elaborate networks of mutual dependence. As a result, when one firm became insolvent, it often took several others down with it. But to make things even worse, many booksellers estimated their net worth based on unsold (and devalued) inventory rather than on a more realistic accounting of their assets. This meant that, at any given time, it was difficult for a bookseller to know either his own true financial position or that of the firms whose notes he’d endorsed. Thus, by 1819, with many thousands of worthless books circulating as inflated currency, the bankruptcy of a bookseller was a frequent occurrence.

Max Cavitch writes about publishers; Michael Drexler investigates a remarkable-sounding “recently rediscovered novel of Caribbean intrigue, Secret History; or The Horrors of St. Domingo (1808),” which involves Toussaint L’Ouverture, Aaron Burr, the feud between Democratic-Republicans and Federalists, and “those repressed desires and practices that we pretend not to know about although they underlie or even undermine the values Americans consciously held dear”; Alison L. LaCroix speculates about “The Founders’ Fiction: Reading eighteenth-century novels in company with the American revolutionaries”; and Hilary E. Wyss describes Native American literacy in colonial New England, among other essays. Highly recommended. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. Oh, for to have a timemachine.
    I’d by up stock and stash it in a vault somewhere.

  2. Bill Walderman says

    Change “books” to “securities” and you have a good description of early 21st century banking.

  3. My thought exactly.

  4. marie-lucie says

    I have now read the interesting article by Michael Drexler about the largely autobiographical novel by Leonora Sansay, an American woman married to a French planter, who spent some time in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) at the time of the revolution which led to Haitian independence. Drexler discusses this work in relation to the context of political unrest and partisanship, including the racial subtext, in the US at the time. But he seems not to know that the Haitian revolution was not against the French revolution, which had freed the slaves (admittedly under duress, after a major revolt against the planters), but against an army sent by Napoleon a few years later in order not just to quell the continuing troubles but to reinstate slavery, as he had done in other islands under the influence of his wife, the planter’s daughter Josephine.

  5. Bah. Common-Place is now Commonplace, “and has now been reimagined with a cleaner, more accessible interface. Our articles appear on a rolling basis and are arranged by category instead of being organized by issue and volume.” Which appears to mean they are no longer going to tell you when an article was published (I can think of no justification for that), and most of their previously published articles are languishing in the netherworld “until the extensive back catalog of Common-Place appears on the new site” (promises, promises). Fortunately, thanks to the magic of the Wayback Machine I have been able to provide working links in my post, and I have sent them a stern message. Bah, I say again.

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