Textual Affections: Book culture, religious networks, and emotional communities in British North America, ca. 1770-1850
Texts, especially religious texts, helped to make, divide, and reconfigure transnational “emotional communities.” During the transformations of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reading, politics, and religion, British North Americans felt and expressed belonging, sympathy, difference, devotion, or anxiety through the mediation of print. My dissertation is a history of British North American religious book culture from the perspective of a community of readers in Nova Scotia, ca. 1770-1850. Although rural locales such as Cornwallis Township, Nova Scotia, have often been stereotyped as isolated colonial backwaters, my research demonstrates that they were connected to a wider social and religious world through the web of religious book culture. I explore how the region’s residents actively participated in Atlantic, American, and British communities. Book trades and religious networks converged and overlapped in places like Cornwallis Township, and by standing at this one node, it is possible to study the circulation of texts and ideas, and their change over time. As the material conditions of reading changed, and as political alignments shifted, British North Americans used their book culture to remake emotional communities and to shape religious affections.
A wealth of historical documents makes such a study of Cornwallis Township readers and networks possible. Diaries, commonplace books, early printed books and newspapers, letters, and probate inventories were created by women and men, lay people and clergy, and represent diverse denominations. I focus on several individuals as case studies, and the reading communities and book cultures in which they participated. They include a charismatic New Light itinerant, an eclectic New England Planter, an acerbic Loyalist poet, a self-educated reformer, and a colporteur-minister and his sage, diary-keeping wife.
My study begins with the material circulation of texts as the basis of emotional and religious communities. Handley Chipman (1717-1799), for example, helped to oversee a large library of “Authodox” Puritan works, and created commonplace books to meditate on those texts. Yet Chipman also transcribed and circulated the manuscript diary of firebrand preacher Henry Alline (1748-1784), whose putatively “enthusiastic” teaching pushed the boundaries of transplanted New England Congregationalism. Or take the reformer, Edward Manning (1766-1851), whose diaries record half a lifetime of reading, and who cultivated a network of authors, publishers, booksellers, shipping agents, and readers—a rare window into the physical circulation of texts and ideas. Yet Manning’s correspondence suggests that his book trades network was connected through emotional, as well as pecuniary bonds.
Readers in Nova Scotia participated in what historians have described as a “reading revolution.” In the early decades of the nineteenth century, innovations in technology and transportation enabled a radical shift in print, from scarcity to abundance. Readers gained access to books and periodicals on a scale unimaginable even a single generation earlier. While scholars have examined these changes from the viewpoint of publishers and authors, my work adds important new dimensions to our understanding by examining the lived experience of this emotionally overwhelming transformation from the perspective of readers, and by describing the religious significance that colonials ascribed to the expansion of print. I also suggest that the narrative of a revolution in reading is not so straightforward as is sometimes argued: Cornwallis Township readers appear to have adapted (rather than cast aside) traditional, intensive reading practices to new genres and to the new abundance of literary material.
One of the most distinctive contributions my study makes is its focus on British North America. Nova Scotia, by virtue of its geopolitical location, sat at an important node in transatlantic networks. This location enables me to describe how readers outside of urban centres like London or Boston acquired books, kept up to date on current events, and participated in transatlantic intellectual debates. Cornwallis Township stood at the edge of two polities under transformation—the early American republic and the British Empire. People in this region fully participated in American religious culture, but did so within a British polity and without American sectionalism. Their responses to reading also give some sense of how British subjects in provincial locales experienced imperial expansion in ways that differed from Britons closer to London. Book trades networks, religious communities, and (trans)national identities, that is, can be illuminated in fresh ways from nodes in British North America.