Improvising Communities of Print during the American Civil War

AHA Session 245
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Chicago Ballroom F (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Alice Fahs, University of California, Irvine
Poems in the Press: Verse, War, and the Culture of Reprinting
Becca Weir, Jesus College, University of Cambridge
Reading Communities: Civil War News Linking Home Front and Battlefield
Ronald J. Zboray, University of Pittsburgh; Mary Saracino Zboray, University of Pittsburgh
Joshua Brown, City University of New York, Graduate Center

Session Abstract

This session proposal from the AHA Affiliate, the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (SHARP), creates a forum for historians of the book across disciplines (American literature, Communication, History, and Librarianship) to address print’s role in community formation and maintenance during the American Civil War, in this first year of the war’s sesquicentennial. Together, the participants hope to add a print-culture perspective to the pending flood of discussion about the fate of communities facing disruption due to wartime dislocations, disunions, and dissociations. That perspective, as seen in three tightly focused studies, offers to lend a grounded, material basis to these discussions through the analysis of print production, circulation, and reception in community sustenance nationally and locally.

The three papers (resulting from a call on SHARP’s website), represent the best proposals focusing upon the organization’s three core areas of authorship, reading, and publishing. Authorship is addressed by Dr. Becca Weir (Cambridge University), whose 2010 dissertation dealt with Civil War literary reportage. Her paper examines war poetry in New York’s weekly Anglo-American Magazine. Sometimes reprinted and redeployed from dramatically different originals, and commonly authored by post-Emancipation African Americans, the verses forged--often as improvisations to meet unfolding exigencies--a symbolic community embracing Northern black and white abolitionists, Republican sympathizers, and Southern freedpeople. Print communities of actual readers concern Dr. Ronald and Mary Zboray (University of Pittsburgh), who are completing a book on the war’s reading cultures, in North and South, among whites and blacks. Specifically, their paper looks at local newspapers as improvised virtual community spaces linking homefront and battlefield, as seen through the lenses of nearly 800 manuscript diaries and letters kept by soldiers and civilians alike. They detect different practices in the Union and Confederacy, the latter, for example, preserving older patterns of face-to-face oral verification of news reportage. Finally, Dr. Cathleen Baker (University of Michigan), picks up the thread of Confederate difference to provide a local study based on her 2004 University of Alabama dissertation, of print community maintenance via publishers and printers in Mobile. She portrays the desperate measures there to use print for social cohesion in a community under siege, one starved by shortages of material that fed northern presses. So, like Weir and the Zborays, she examines the resulting improvisations: the Herculean production innovations to keep print flowing. By thematizing improvisation, the three papers revise a common misunderstanding of print as a slow-changing constant; instead, they portray print as highly mutable and responsive to quickly emerging community needs under the stress of war.

The session rests upon two pillars of Civil War print culture scholarship. Setting the intellectual context as chair will be Dr. Alice Fahs (UC Irvine), whose Imagined Civil War (2001) arguably launched modern print-centered investigations of the topic. Providing commentary will be Dr. Joshua Brown (CUNY), a current Guggenheim Fellow completing a book on Civil War visual culture as a companion piece to his 2002 Beyond the Lines, on the proto-photojournalism that had its own origins as a wartime improvisation.

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