Book review – The Public Prints: The Newspaper in Anglo-American Culture, 1665-1740. By Charles E. Clark. (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994). Pp. x + 330

 

The Public Print explores the role of American newspapers in the social and cultural context of the 18th century. Clark begins with the printing world in the English metropolis London provincial centers and then turns to the other side of the Atlantic. Stressing the cultural relationships between Britain and her American colonies, Clark argues that newspaper contributed to the “Anglicization” as well as “Americanization” of American society and culture. Meanwhile, as newspapers developed within their American context, they functioned as “the representation of shared beliefs” (p. 5) and created a shared identity in American provincial culture.

The book is divided into three parts. Part one outlines the background and genealogy of the English-language newspaper. Since the London Gazette, the first English newspaper, was published in 1665, newspaper evolved as a vehicle for intelligence, propaganda, literature, and advertising. In the metropolitan centers, the Gazette and other newspapers and journals flourished and set the models for provincial papers. In provinces like Norwich and Bristol, newspapers became “the prime vehicle for spreading the print culture of the metropolis, second-hand, to the ordinary country reader” (p. 66). With commonality with these provinces, Boston transformed into a vital publishing town, linking English newspaper culture.

The Public House Fine Art Print - Christo Wolmarans

The Public House Fine Art Print – Christo Wolmarans

Part two provides a narrative evolution of early American newspaper publishing. The pioneering role was led by John Campbell, who began printing the Boston News-Letter in 1704, trying to construct a historical record of recent events by following a “thread of occurrences” (p. 97). In contrast with Campbell’s struggle in the continuity of European news, Brooker’s Boston Gazette appeared with more awareness of timeliness, starting a competition from 1719. Literary newspapers like James Franklin’s Boston Courant rose in the 1720s and broadened the genre. Influenced by British literary journal style, New-England Weekly Journal, and the Weekly Rehearsal enjoyed a brief flowering until the flagging of literary papers. Yet they contributed a significant dimension to “the gradually maturing provincial newspaper in America” (p. 164). The 1730s witnessed an explosion of American newspaper publishing, mainly in Boston, Philadelphia and New York. Their increasing shared experiences, inter-city debate and mutual copying fostered an American intercolonial consciousness. Moreover, newspapers strengthened the bonds within the local community with more concern on matters of local interest.

The last part of the book deals with specific issues out of the narrative history. Stressing a general trend of newspaper to a printer-owned business, Clark examines the features of printer’s newspaper. Interestingly, Clark points out the printer’s selection of news was largely a passive and unsystematic affair, taking what came to him, grounded on “freshness, importance, or amusement” (p. 211). This feature along with its lack of news value judgment we have nowadays suggested in a later chapter, offered us a brief picture of the primitive, unconscious stage of journalist values when the newspaper was just born. Clark then examines the readership, suggesting that reader’s ritual participation provided by newspapers maintained the “provincial” culture at the turning point toward an American consciousness, coming back to the main theme of the book. By exploring newspaper’s significance in their culture, Clark puts forward the central argument that the reader’s world was becoming more “Anglicized” and “Americanized”: on one hand, European news shaped by British eyes and ritual role of provincial press instilled a communal sense of Englishness in American readers; on the other, an intercolonial exchange of news and opinions fostered “a sense of kinship with fellow colonials elsewhere” (p. 253). By 1740, prompted by some transforming events, American provincial newspaper underwent a profound transition to a more politicized role in a more standardized news market, with enhanced community solidarity and common values.

I was most impressed by Clark’s richly detailed narrative of the history of newspapers especially in early America, presenting their life courses and related printers with well-researched political, social and geographic background, colored by his highly-organized language and a somewhat humorous tone. Supported by some juicy first-hand newspaper material, he gave his historical figures and even their newspapers vivid and distinctive characters, in light of their contributions to the evolution of American news culture.

However, his analysis of various dimensions within this specific period still seems less convincing and vague somehow. Regarding the reader’s world, Clark suggested that the American reader’s perception of the world was that of “the upper-class, cultivated, fiercely patriotic and doggedly ethnocentric Protestant English male” (p. 221). Lack of the support of demographical statistics data, he came to his conclusion largely from the content of related newspapers and journals, which could be somehow misleading due to its political stance, author ideology, economic status, etc. Besides, Clark attempts to conduct a vertical comparison on journalist issues with contemporary practice, like news value judgment, selection of news and ethical commitment. But then he stopped at briefly indicating these differences, which still remains ambiguous for me. Thus, his insights into the period he adroitly pictured seem a little bit sketchy.