Adam Gordon. Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites: Antebellum Print Culture and the Rise of the Critic.

Cover depicts a cartoon of two men wearing 19th-style clothes beating up anthropomorphized books with feathers.

Adam Gordon. Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites: Antebellum Print Culture and the Rise of the Critic. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2020. 280 pages. ISBN: 9781625344533. US $26.95 (paperback).

How does one write about literature? Furthermore, how do authors of literary criticism and the medium in which it is produced affect the purpose and reception of criticism? These are the central questions of Adam Gordon’s Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites: Antebellum Print Culture and the Rise of the Critic

Each chapter of Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites centers on a particular nineteenth-century American critic: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rufus Griswold, Edgar Allan Poe, Margaret Fuller, and Frederick Douglass. The book’s introduction contextualizes the critics’ historical moment as one in which growing nationalism, advances in printing technologies, and a productive economy enabled the emergence of the literary critic as a fully-fledged profession. These changes also encouraged the proliferation of literary criticism in a variety of print forms. 

Gordon understands literary criticism as defined by a combination of “genre and materiality” (p. 7). In Gordon’s words, he is concerned with “returning literary criticism to its multiple sites of production, dissemination, and reception” (p. 10). By undertaking this task, he upsets the hierarchy of critical forms, including by reading newspaper book reviews (often considered the least authoritative) alongside literary anthologies. Ultimately, Gordon “foreground[s] simultaneous competing narratives given material shape through the various print forms that served as both catalyst and focal point for debates over criticism” (p. 32).

The first chapter, “Cutting Corners with Emerson: Quarterly Reviews and Intellectual Culture,” offers a reading of quarterly reviews as representative of an expanding transatlantic literary criticism tradition. According to Gordon, quarterly reviews—book reviews printed in American periodicals—introduced Americans to European works, distilled “their central arguments and overall significance to contemporary intellectual culture” (p. 40), and “offered a broad public platform for scholars to assert views upon specific topics” (p. 44). One of these scholars was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose reviews sought to address the proliferation of transatlantic literature by “creat[ing] a critical theory” intended to help Americans organize and prioritize their reading selections (p. 69). 

In contrast to Emerson, Rufus Griswold constructed literary anthologies that “assembled the gleanings of centuries into a usable past, promoting new creative activity in the process” (p. 71). As Gordon describes in his second chapter, “Anthology Wars: Rufus Griswold and the Compilation as Literary History,” a succession of printing innovations that resulted in cheaper texts and an expanded readership supported the rise of the anthology as a genre that met new demand for accessible literature. The literary anthology made visible critical anxieties about what constituted quality cultural production, and more specifically, the worth of American literature in contrast to British literature. Like other critics, Griswold struggled to contend with these anxieties in a way that met the tastes and expectations of readers and other anthology editors. Nonetheless, Gordon argues, Griswold’s anthologies helped develop a national literature by collecting texts he deemed important to American literary history.

Gordon extends his study of critical tensions with a third chapter on Edgar Allan Poe, “Reviewers Reviewed: Poe, Monthly Magazines, and the Critical Vocation.” This chapter examines how Poe’s literary and critical work acknowledges the important role of the critic in creating literary culture, while also displaying a sense of unease about “a corrupt literary-critical establishment that failed to recognize and encourage writers of talent” (p. 130). Gordon locates this anxiety in the form of the monthly magazine, where Poe wrote evaluations not only of literary texts and their authors, but also of critical practice itself. Ultimately, Gordon argues, Poe recognized the need to advance literary criticism that would help develop a robust national literature as well as the need to “craft an effective critical persona” and establish the cultural role of the critic (p. 146). 

Chapter four, “Black, White, and Read All Over: Margaret Fuller and the Newspaper Book Review,” proposes that “Fuller’s career as newspaper critic offers a compelling case study for how critical forms shape critical history in acknowledged and unacknowledged ways” (p. 164). Fuller’s imperative in her reviews, most notably as an editor of The New York Tribune, was to teach her readers “how to engage with literature” (p. 166). However, this was no easy task given newspapers’ ephemerality and diverse audience. Yet according to Gordon, it is these very traits that make nineteenth-century newspapers and the journalists who wrote for them worthy of study—though often overlooked in literary history. Because of their reach and timeliness, newspapers were how readers “ma[de] sense of a social world that was rapidly transforming” (p. 171). 

In his concluding chapter, “Slavery Reviewed: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Critical Reprinting,” Gordon argues that “the critical response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals in dramatic fashion the role that print forms play in the mobilization of literary criticism as an agent of political change” (p. 213). He refers to these print forms, derived from pamphlets and reviews and made popular by Frederick Douglass in his abolitionist papers, as “hybrid texts” because of their ambiguous authorship, ephemeral materiality, and genre-mixing nature. Contrasting pamphlet reviews by pro-slavery southerners and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s response to reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with criticism in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Gordon deftly shows how critics of Stowe’s novel used the reviews of others to structure their own critiques.

Gordon, an English professor at Whitman College, specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature, print culture, and the history of American literary criticism. Taking cues from other scholars of print culture—most notably Meredith McGill—his text reveals an investment in recovering forms of print that have long been disregarded in accepted narratives of American literary production and circulation. In each chapter, he draws from a wealth of primary sources—and at times uses them to argue directly for the continued need to preserve and work with the original formats rather than solely relying on digital scans. For example, Gordon notes ways in which newspapers are not amenable to digital reading and how digitization itself removes the newspaper from its intended material context; elsewhere, he discusses how Fuller’s Tribune contributions, now available in edited volumes and periodical databases, were until recently inaccessible online and difficult to examine in bulk. 

Gordon has written a book that is accessible for readers outside his subfield, although Prophets, Publicists, and Parasites promises to be most useful for scholars of book history and reception studies. He ends the book with a coda, “From the Steam Press to Critical Forms for the Twenty-First Century,” that looks beyond the nineteenth century and directs reader attention to the ways that criticism helps us organize our world even today. Criticism allows us to “observe the ways our culture interacts with the world of ideas” (p. 277), but it also, Gordon writes, enables us to engage in this observation as a community.

Emma Hetrick, Lafayette College