English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in New England Quarterly 80:2 (June 2007). Copyright (c) 2007 MIT Press. Used by permission.


Using letters written and diaries kept by 931 New Englanders living during the antebellum era, Ronald and Mary Zboray beneficially unsettle a number of grand narratives about readers and reading in the nineteenth-century United States. Since the influential work of theorist Rolf Engelsing, the turn from the late eighteenth to the early nineteenth century has been understood as the transition point from intensive reading and rereading of a select group of texts (such as the Bible) to extensive reading of many texts without rereading. Literary historians under the sway of Michel Foucault who have sought to chart the “rise of the novel” have described novel reading as an absorbed, solitary activity through which readers internalize social codes and become modern, middle-class subjects (for an influential formulation in the American context, see Richard Brodhead’s “Sparing the Rod: Discipline and Fiction in Antebellum America,” in his Cultures of Letters [1993]). The Zborays complicate both of these accounts and also offer fresh perspectives on History of the Book scholarship, which has often focused on the rise of “professional” authorship, the nationalization and industrialization of print, and on libraries. Using manuscript sources produced by everyday readers, the Zborays document circulation of print outside of market and institutional structures.