Work Title: In the Company of Books: Literature and Its "Classes" in Nineteenth-Century America
Work Author(s): Sarah Wadsworth
University of Massachusetts Press
267 pages, Hardcover $80.00, Softcover $24.95, 1-55649-541-X
Reviewer: Vince Brewton
The injunction not to judge a book by its cover perhaps became a truism because the tendency to judge books by their covers---by their bindings, sizes, editions, illustrations, colors, paper, and point of sale---was indeed a habit of mind in nineteenth-century America. This volume surveys the book-publishing climate from the 1830s to the turn of the century and finds that judging books by their covers enabled an important line of communication between producers and consumers of books. An assistant professor of English at Marquette, Wadsworth's background in the book trade serves her well. Her study demonstrates how market-conscious strategies of publishers, authors, and editors targeted specific audiences, created new specialized audiences, and anticipated existing audiences' tastes and expectations.
There are complications to Wadsworth's major premise that "culture literary culture) was a product, a construction, of the book." Elsewhere she writes, "As authors and publishers became attuned to new readerships, they sometimes fashioned innovative subgenres with which to address them and respond to their needs," a formulation suggesting that cultural preconceptions constructed books. Two mutually reinforcing processes are at work, clearly, and Wadsworth's study amply illustrates this feedback loop.
By setting literary texts in their original contexts, Wadsworth helps demystify some of the canonical texts and authors it examines. After World War II, New Critical practice characterized literary texts as ahistorical icons that spoke truth for all times and...