Orbits of Reading: The Presence of the Text in Early New England

Brown, Matthew Pentland , Department of English, University of Virginia
Vander Meulen, David, Department of English, University of Virginia

Through an analysis of communicative media, I examine the reading practices prompted by textual genres of the first one-hundred years of settlement. By surveying commonplace-books, devotional manuals, sermon performances, funeral elegies and "Indian" writings, the dissertation describes the function of "embodied" texts in colonial New England, texts that stress the embodiment of language in its oral, visual and gestural expressiveness. The introduction contextualizes the research in terms of current literacy studies, Puritan discourse theory, and the reading practices of Massachusetts Bay Colony diarist Joseph Tompson. Tompson's journal weaves traditions from commonplace-book writing and spiritual autobiography, exemplifying the ritual consultation of texts that helps define popular piety. The second chapter studies prefaces to the core reading of elite and lay settlers, the seventeenth-century "steady sellers" and sermon literature produced locally and imported from England. The prefaces construct and direct an implied reader, and I argue that the Word, as it is printed, written and spoken, is given both material and immaterial meanings. With textuality both "icon" and "spirit," the prefaces document the experience of awe and reverence with which readers and writers ritually encountered the text. Next, I explore the performance of fast-day sermons, as they move from pulpit presentation to representation in the notes of auditors or in the imprints of the press; the compensatory function of the sermon on these days of austerity explains both spiritual consolation and anxiety. Similarly, the elegiac verse-structured by the moment of death, often printed as broadsides and used ritually in funeral processions---insistently inscribes its audience. The verse admonishes readers for their sinfulness while also imagining ways toward salvation, using the visual and aural dimensions of language to achieve this effect. Finally, I place the examination of readership and iconicity in a cross-cultural context by analyzing representations of conversion, literacy and the book in the missionary reports of John Eliot, inventor of an orthographic version of the Massachusett dialect. Developed through an anthropological bibliography and an epistemology of the archive, the argument presents a materialist reception theory based on colonial New Englanders' spiritual and corporeal experience.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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