Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 14, 2010
Trish Loughran The Republic in Print: Print Culture in the Age of U.S. Nation Building, 1770–1870 New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 568 pp.; 26 b/w ills. Paper $24.50 (9780231139090)

“Both at the moment of the Revolution and long after its official end,” writes Trish Loughran in The Republic in Print, “the challenge posed by national dispersion would be the most recurrent problem in American political economy” (62). The “United States” had to be constructed as a self-evident, self-identical entity during precisely the period that its populations were dispersing most rapidly over a vast geographical space. How did anything like unity—rhetorical or actual—emerge from conditions characterized primarily by difference, distance, delay, and displacement? Standard accounts of print culture in the early national period stress the role of print as a telecommunication device; print networks connected people in time and space, forged communities out of disparate groups of disconnected citizens, and permitted something like a coordinated nation-state to develop and persist. Loughran’s brilliant and counterintuitive argument overturns this assumption. She argues instead that the illusion of national unification (the “virtual nation,” as she puts it) could take hold in reality only because the actual capacities of print dissemination networks were severely limited.

Federalism—and, later, nationalism proper—was built on inflated rhetorics of coordination, inalienability, actuality, and simultaneity. But this rhetoric—the imagination of unity across a precipitously expanding territory—vastly outstripped the development of the material infrastructures that might make it possible in reality. Loughran argues that it was actually the material nonintegration of the early republic that, through a kind of “generative dislocation” (26), permitted political integration to succeed. Political unity, in other words, depended on its material opposite—a flawed, slow, and inefficient network of communications that ensured the relative isolation of localities and the containment of dissent. When, with the advent of railroads and telegraphy, the technologies of communication improved to the degree that the actual contact between localities began to catch up to the fantastical rhetoric of diffusion, what followed was not some final integrative ecstasy but rather the Civil War. Loughran’s argument proceeds through a series of materialist readings of major federalist and nationalist texts, including Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, The Federalist Papers, Royall Tyler’s play The Contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and various abolitionist tracts, among others. In each case, Loughran sets the syncretizing ambitions of the texts against the actual material conditions of their dispersion; the results are stunning new readings of these canonical American productions. The bookends to Loughran’s narrative are Common Sense and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Common Sense unified a disconnected community of potential patriots and had a galvanizing effect on revolutionary sentiment. But this was not (as has long been assumed) because the pamphlet was America’s first “bestseller,” with miraculously rapid and broad dissemination and near-instantaneous diffusion throughout the colonies. Loughran dismantles this “mystified narrative of a spontaneously self-disseminating” (37) text, illuminating the multiple failures and frustrations of its actual material biography: the pamphlet was in fact reprinted in only thirteen towns in 1776 and had an uneven, fragmented, and staggered reception.

At the other end of the spectrum, published during the late antebellum period when networks of print distribution had developed to a point of high sophistication and efficiency, was Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As Loughran explains, “The irony of this ‘national’ scene of reception is that having reached this massive, geographically dispersed audience, Stowe’s novel did not unite it. Uncle Tom is at every turn what Paine’s pamphlet was not: a bestseller that speaks to a large, nationally dispersed reading constituency from a centralized location but one that manages, in reaching that constituency, to divide rather than to unite it politically” (365). The discomfiting bidirectionality of efficient dissemination networks had begun to reveal itself. As Loughran writes of The American Association for the Abolition of Slavery, among the first of the centralized information organizations (based in New York) to suffer this reversal: “in eroding a sense of remoteness between political center and periphery, it was giving its auxiliaries the tools to resist New York as a cultural center as well” (344).

What can art historians take from Loughran’s study? While the book devotes considerable attention to visual culture (more on which in a moment), its most profound potential as an art-historical contribution lies in its broad realignment of traditional ways of thinking about media and materiality. First: Loughran persistently redirects the definition of “print media” from their typical scope—ink, paper, etc.—to the broader geographical field through which print artifacts had to move. She emphasizes this in order to overturn persistent models of telecommunicative print culture that tend to ignore the actual heft of printed texts, imagining that they disseminate themselves weightlessly and simultaneously through space. Hence, for Loughran, “print media” must be understood to include not only newspapers, books, broadsides, and pamphlets but also things like leaky flatboats, rutted roads, and weather-beaten postal carriers. In this sense, the book provides an outstanding model for a similar (and long-overdue) reconsideration of the parameters of art media. I have recently been urging my students to consider the medium of (for example) a given oil painting as not just “oil on canvas” but rather “oil on canvas on horseback” or “oil on canvas on merchant ship on Atlantic Ocean.” Loughran’s book provides powerful ammunition for all such claims and demonstrates their broad interdisciplinary applicability.

Second: Loughran elegantly probes the relationship between the virtual spaces evoked by printed texts and the real spaces that they occupied and through which they were hauled and handled. She demonstrates that much of the historical power of these texts as both representations and performances emerged precisely in the cleavage between their “two bodies”: “On one hand, they served as symbols of unity; on the other, they were actual objects with limited circulations” (22). This doubleness between the virtual and the material also inhabits all visual representation and indeed all art objects (despite repeated attempts to collapse the gap into either pure presentness or pure ideation in the twentieth century), and needs further exploration within the art-historical discipline. As a transformative model of print culture, then, Loughran’s book should be broadly influential among art historians, especially those interested in the mechanics of geographical dissemination.

The Republic in Print’s overtly art-historical analyses, however, are somewhat less effective. The book focuses on the printed word but also includes extensive discussion of visual culture artifacts ranging across several media. These include everything from John Trumbull’s iconic 1817 painting The Declaration of Independence, to Christopher Colles’s 1789 Survey of the Roads of the United States of America, the engraved frontispiece of William Hill Brown’s 1789 The Power of Sympathy, the disarticulated statue of King George that once stood at Bowling Green in colonial New York City, and Richard Caton Woodville’s 1848 painting War News from Mexico as reproduced (in tellingly altered form) on the cover of the New American Library edition of The Federalist Papers in 1961.

The strongest art history in the book, in my view, emerges in Loughran’s discussion of the challenges Trumbull faced as he traveled around the Atlantic world attempting to collect life portraits for his Declaration of Independence. Her discussion of the ignominious fate of the lead statue of George III at Bowling Green is also magnificent. But while these are among the most perspicuous and revelatory readings to emerge from recent studies of visual culture in the Early Republic, they are not about prints at all but rather about unique objects (paintings and statues), and thus do not address the core problems of replicability and dissemination that animate the rest of the book. Even when Loughran does dwell on printed images, she frequently treats them in an illustrational way, so that they demonstrate abstract relationships that the book develops elsewhere rather than embody the book’s argument in the way printed texts do. The version of Woodville’s War News from Mexico that appears on the cover of The Federalist Papers, for example, is smartly discussed as a twice-fictionalized image of national unity, but its own material and geographical status as a twice-disseminated print (first after the painting in the nineteenth century, later on the book cover in the twentieth) does not enter into the analysis. With the exception of her outstanding analysis of Colles’s maps and surveys, which directly addresses the deployment of these prints in real space under conditions of portability and reproduction, the material lives of visual prints are not as consistently or rigorously integrated into the discussion of their cultural work as are the material lives of printed texts. One might argue that the materialist force of Loughran’s textual analysis can be taken to apply automatically to the visual culture interleaved throughout the book, but this would fail to account for the real differences between printed images and texts in this period. These differences—different methods of production, reproduction, and dissemination, a different attitude toward questions of originality and replicability—are not addressed in Loughran’s treatment, and thus await a more thorough analysis in scholarly work on the materiality of print culture in early America.

The book is long and occasionally long-winded, particularly in the detailed passages devoted to reviewing and refuting the existing literature on print culture in early America. While Loughran’s careful critical discussion of her canonical precedents (texts such as Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities [rev. ed., London: Verso, 2006]) admirably and responsibly position her own work in the field, the overall effect can sometimes seem belabored, and much of this material might have been displaced to the footnotes. I felt a sensation of familiarity when Loughran quoted a piece of period commentary on The Federalist: “although written in a correct, smooth stile it is from its prolixity, tiresome” (259). That said, the sheer bulk of the book also serves to seal Loughran’s overall argument about the urgency of understanding American texts and their movements in material terms. The 568-page volume never lets the reader forget its own materiality as a discrete object in local space. While studying the book in the process of developing this review, I found myself frequently engaging in calculations about weight vs. portability—was it worth carrying along on this or that errand in the hopes of reading a few pages in this or that waiting room or train car? In the end, the bruised corners, coffee stains, and smudged sunscreen that now ornament my much-traveled copy are serviceably eloquent endorsements of Loughran’s claims about the role of textual embodiment in the field of American space.

Jennifer L. Roberts
Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University