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American Biography, the History of Books, and the Market for Nationalism, 1800-1855


This dissertation combines literary study, cultural history, and critical bibliography to examine the development of a specific literary genre in the early United States, from the Federalist era to just prior to the onset of the Civil War. I argue that the social and cultural impact of biography occurs not solely through literary narrative but also through the materiality of the printed book. Ideology, in other words, is transmitted through literary artifacts via what we traditionally define as the "text," but textual meanings are mediated through paratexts, book bindings, paper, typography, presswork, page design, and illustration. Using archives, documents, financial records, and correspondence related to the early U.S. book trade, I recover the social thought of printers and booksellers as they understood the role of the printed book in fostering cultural nationalism. Combining the methods of book history and bibliography with conceptual frameworks developed by Benedict Anderson and Pierre Bourdieu--on the imagined political community and the field of cultural production, respectively--the dissertation focuses throughout on the specificities of primary source materials to make a methodological contribution to literary and cultural history.

From 1800 onwards the printed book was a media technology that could unify Americans through the collective reading of national biography, even as the specificities of book formats and the range of printed materials subtly reinforced class divisions within American society. With the rise of urban environments and the penny press in the 1840s, I further demonstrate that biographical pamphlets tied to P.T. Barnum's American Museum helped foster a critical discourse within U.S. print culture about the rise of a culture industry. Furthermore, by 1848 many biographical texts combined narrative with illustration to shape public perception regarding the U.S.-Mexican War. Using publisher's records along with evidence of the subscription book trade, I argue that texts about the Mexican War linked the sites of combat and military life in Mexico with American cities, small towns, and the private domain of the bourgeois home. I conclude with two investigations of how biography helped structure modalities of literary authorship in the mid-nineteenth-century. In Israel Potter (1855), Herman Melville wrote a literary biography that was both a meditation on the challenges and failures faced by authors in a depersonalized publishing environment as well as a coded reflection on how his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne used the genre of biography to secure political and financial success through writing the Life of Franklin Pierce. My second investigation of authorship involves the publication history of Evert A. and George Duyckinck's Cyclopedia of American Literature (1855), a literary anthology that offered authoritative capsule biographies of writers in the American tradition.

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