My research focuses on American literature from the 1820s through the 1930s as it was mediated and transformed by the technologies and networks of transatlantic print culture. Increasingly, I am also interested in the fate of literary remains… what happens to the traces of literary creation, publication, and circulation after they have been used up, transformed, or closed down?
I’m already unhappy with this description, however. The term print culture is not exactly right. Perhaps it invokes a variety of textual reproduction technologies like cylinder presses and linotype machines. But for me, it is equally important to consider printed images–often overlooked by scholars of print culture–and the technologies of mass production that launched a long era of iconophilia, like lithography and photography. Same with the media of printing, especially paper. More egregiously, print culture completely sidelines technological “antecedents” and “successors” to print, like manuscript, typescript, code, and screen. (And even the genealogical metaphor I have used here is flawed–hence the scare quotes–since many platforms co-exist with or duplicate each other.)
So, I’d really rather say I care about medium-rare literature, because it is format and technology neutral, and because it conveys my skepticism about the traditional borders between literary periods.
That’s a huge catch basin. In practice, I tend to be attracted to particular medium-rare literary productions that are interesting to examine as mash-ups of form and format… that track the dynamics of gender, race, sexuality, and class… that absorb signals from visual culture and reading culture… that eccentrically or eloquently express their textual and technological conditions… that offer glimpses of a historical matrix that still informs our own, although we think we have surpassed it.
The industrial era of technological modernization–when it comes to print but also other expressions of nineteenth-century machine culture–was a period of democratization. A series of technological shifts gradually lowered the costs of printing, paper, and distribution, which created greater access to reading materials and images. Print technology, in short, contributed to some momentous social changes around the world, and especially in the United States: expanding literacy, the spread of libraries, the development of cheap media platforms like daily newspapers. It made it a little bit more possible for the U.S. to operate like a democracy of informed and equal citizens. It made it a little bit more possible for readers and writers to find each other in fiction and poetry, as well as libelous news articles, scurrilous adventure tales, sentimental stories, and hard-hitting reports. It produced a deluge of job-printed ephemera and a surge of fresh literary forms and genres.
All of this is true, big, and tremendously poignant. But for me, the medium-rare period is also about the individual perceptions and responses of writers and readers–more intimate cycles of creation and circulation. Sometimes these responses were prompted or carried along by the flood of medium-rare materials. Sometimes they were the products of resistance to these currents. Within the monumental social dramas of the industrial age there were millions of small, quiet revolutions, as the multiplying vehicles of text and image were integrated into daily life and internalized as markers of self-hood in new ways.
It’s not hard to imagine how this internalization of mass technology might have taken place when we compare medium-rare culture–not just magazines and books, but illustrated advertisements, scrapbooks full of printed mementos, photographic postcards–to contemporary digital culture, and the very personal ways we absorb and discharge the disruptions and possibilities of new technology now.
Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein serve for me as high-water signposts in the medium-rare floodplain. Dickinson and Stein are interesting to me as writers–but also as readers–whose experiments have had enormous consequences for American literary culture. Their work warrants special attention because of the varieties of visual and textual imagination at play in their compositions. But to be honest, their work is also interesting to me because they left behind some very intriguing paper traces. That is, their archives contain abundant evidence as well as important gaps. So, Dickinson and Stein have occasioned lots of the archival detective work I love, finding and connecting data points… but also many opportunities for speculation.
You can see some of my published work here.