English professor explores culture of reprinting through book

English professor Jessica DeSpain is set to release her book, “Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book,” September 25th through Ashgate Publishing. Photo courtesy of Howard Ash.

With no copyright law between Britain and the U.S., reprints were multiplicitous and even promiscuous during the period of 1840-1891.

At least according to English professor Jessica DeSpain in her first book, “Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Reprinting and the Embodied Book.”

A culmination of her research gathered since 2004, it will be released September 25th through Ashgate Publishing.

This era was “volatile,” according to DeSpain, in the history of literature, publishing and transatlantic relations because of “wild reprinting.”

According to DeSpain, publishers were “free to edit text, excerpt whole passages, add new illustrations, and substantially redesign a book’s appearance” until the Chace Act of 1891.

Numerous publishers were allowed to produce different versions of the same book without referring to the author, and these reprints produced a “destabilized textual body” according to DeSpain.

“This period of textual instability challenged persistent metaphors of the book as a physical manifestation of the author’s body,” DeSpain said. “With so many versions of any one text available, reprinters sought ways to make their editions stand out, calling attention to a book’s production, which sometimes displaced or even competed with the message of its content.”

According to DeSpain, her book examines how these produced books transferred human messages and ideas.

“These books affirmed—even boasted—that the author’s work, the resulting text and the book’s material form were equally influential factors in a reader’s interpretative process,” DeSpain said.

Publishers, according to DeSpain, recognized the book’s ability to “create human connections” and adapted their texts for “subsections of the marketplace.”

“They called attention to the multifarious needs and identities of their reading audiences,” DeSpain said.

The reprinting format, according to DeSpain, addressed “predominant issues” within the transatlantic culture of that period: class, gender, religion and slavery.

“When you study reprints, [you learn] what publishers thought about women’s rights and the working classes,” DeSpain said. “The practice of reprinting challenged concepts of individual identity, personal property and national identity.”

In her book, DeSpain looks at how reprinting affected the works of Charles Dickens, Susan Warner, Fanny Kemble and Walt Whitman.

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