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The Pilgrim and the Bee by Matthew P. Brown -- A Book Review

Updated on May 29, 2012

In The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early Modern England, Matthew P. Brown suggests a new focus for the study of early modern literature in the American colonies. While traditionally, scholars have approached this period with an eye to examining the origins of a truly American literary tradition, focusing special attention on authors living in territories that would later become U.S. states and attempting to establish continuity between proto-American writers and their American “descendants” (5) this method begins with an end already in mind and therefore "stacks the deck” in favor of texts that fit preconceived notions of our national history (Lemay qtd. in 5). Rather than asking what were the most important texts being written in the post-contact, pre-national United States, Brown suggests that we take a closer look at what was being read. He indicates—perhaps not surprisingly—that a “reader-based literary history” would acknowledge that the truly popular steady sellers in colonial New England were devotional works imported from London to be reprinted on colonial presses (7).

Further than simply focusing on contents of the texts that were most widely read and therefore most influential, Brown suggests that we can learn much about early modern American culture by examining how those texts were read. By focusing on the phenomenology of reading at the time—defined as “the interaction of the reading subject with the book object” (xi), Brown acquaints readers with the uses and implications of sixteenth century book technology among Puritan settlers, thereby helping to illuminate the significance that steady sellers had on their original readers and to contextualize colonial works considered canonical today within the devotional culture created through reading those steady sellers. Ultimately, his argument ends by providing context for the preservation and proliferation of now firmly canonical early American texts, explaining that their survival owes more to specific historical events than to any particular quality of timeless resonance (204-5).

The book begins with a very helpful preface providing an introduction to its argument and organization. It first introduces the phenomenology of reading in an accessible way, addressing the reader directly and drawing attention to her or his own process in reading the book, continuing on to briefly compare and contrast this process with the reading practices of early colonists, and finally to provide a definition of phenomenology itself (ix-xi). The preface then lists the book’s three goals: 1) to revise early American literary history through the provision of insight into colonial reading habits, 2) to rethink readership theory, eschewing both the more quantitative method—bogged down with numbers at the expense of qualitative information—and essentialist thinking, and 3) to demonstrate the importance of book history in constructing social and cultural history, thereby suggesting a new direction for the field (xi). The preface concludes with a brief outline of subsequent chapters (xii) and a final paragraph alerting the reader to the theoretical context of Brown’s argument, which suggests that popular critical work by Perry Miller and Sacvan Bercovitch fails to account for book history and thus draws its conclusions based on false premises (xiv). The subsequent introduction seems to be a more detailed means of covering the above points, further fleshing out the reasons for Brown’s desire to move “Toward a Reader-Based Literary History,” providing a more detailed explanation of ideas fully expressed in later chapters, explaining the argument’s theoretical context in more depth, and detailing at greater length the need to correct common misconceptions about American literature and how book studies may accomplish that goal.

With the argument in favor of book studies thoroughly introduced and outlined, Chapter One provides an explanation of book culture in Puritan New England, focused on reading habits—and therefore also on the devotional works that were more popular among readers at the time. Readers learn about the circulation of books—both as material commodities like any other object and as gifts, the role of books as icons in traditional modes of worship, and the notion of the book as both an aesthetic object and means of information storage. Here, an important concept is the “thick style,” opposed to the “plain style” often discussed by critics of early American literature. Although Puritan literature has a reputation for being plainly written and unadorned, Brown points out that it is also highly complex. Since devotional works all centered on Christian theology, they all drew from the Bible, meaning that biblical text and the devotional text derived from it was “multiply voiced,” inflected with the interpretations of many different authors, preachers, and religious dissenters. It was also inflected with paratexts and with the ritual contexts in which Biblical literature appeared (32). From here, the image of the bee named in the title arises. While texts were often read as we usually suppose them to be, in a linear manner, with readers progressing as a pilgrim in a journey from beginning to end, they were also read in the manner of bees, hovering from passage to passage, collecting and depositing—in marginal notes, commonplace books, etc.—information in a non-linear order (33). The chapter concludes by illustrating this beelike reading among contemporaries, including Thomas Paine.

Chapter Two continues along this vein, detailing the reading habits of New Englanders specifically as they approached devotional steady sellers. According to Brown, readers did not simply read, but rather “ruminated” over religious texts, with one example overtly imploring readers to take notes in the margins and to underline passages they wished to return to. Like bees, readers engaged in “discontinuous literacy,” poring over, digesting, and recording from the same texts over and over again (68). Books also had significance beyond enabling the absorption of information. Rumination over devotional texts constituted a “performance” of piety (76), a spiritual and affective act of communing directly with the holy spirit (76-8). Beyond this expectation of prayerful, spiritual reading—of internalization, text was imagined as superior to and holier than the spoken word; while the word of God was printed and had permanence and physical heft (It was externalized.), the spoken word was fleeting, a product of secular man (88). From here, Brown concludes the chapter by explaining how these physical characteristics of texts shaped readers’ spiritual experience, by detailing the concepts of “hand piety” and “eye piety.” While Puritan spirituality is most commonly thought of as “heart piety,” an internal emotional experience, Brown explains that the size, shape, and texture of books contributed to an experience of “hand piety”— A reader might, for example feel the heft and gravity of a large religious tome or the constant presence of a more portable psalter (95)—and that illustrations and layout created an experience of “eye piety,” reflection through the examination of images and perusal of layouts that encouraged discontinuous, ruminative reading (106).

Chapters Three and Four discuss the effects that specific texts had on socializing colonial readers, with the third chapter focusing on fast day sermons and the fourth chapter on elegies. In sum, the chapter on fast days discusses jeremiad sermons and examines the responses of the congregation, using the notes of Mary Rock as an example. It concludes by exploring the relationship between societal constraint and reader freedom in the interpretation of such texts. Although the act of vesting alternate or multiple meanings in a text or applying it outside of its originally intended use is generally considered “appropriation,” Brown suggests that a more appropriately historicized interpretation of the activities of Puritan readers who found or imposed multiple meanings on religious texts is “affective appropriation.” Rather than performing a subversive act in multiply voicing religious text, readers struggled with and related to the text in a way that actually reinforced societal constraint, for example reading condemnation of the sins of their own specific generation into a biblical passage (137-8). Chapter four similarly examines the interactions of readers with text of a specific genre—this time, elegies. Like sermons, elegies were performative texts, meant both to call readers to imitate the qualities of the saintly departed and, more importantly, to bring them to reflect on their own mortality (145). As recollections of a person’s life and deeds, elegies represented the “gifts” of the deceased to the world. Like other texts, they sometimes circulated as gifts. Therefore, at the end of this chapter, Brown examines the gifting of a copied hand-copied elegy, using it to draw attention to the transmission history of physical texts (178).

Finally, Chapter Five discusses the establishment of an Indian library by John Eliot in Massachusetts. Seeking to bring the Amerindians to God, Eliot translated a previously oral Massachusetts dialect into written language and subsequently spent years translating the Bible and a large collection of devotional literature into the Indian’s own language. Here is where Brown most strongly refutes the work by Perry Miller mentioned in the introductory material. Miller argued that the origins of American literature can be found in the transformation of European languages through contact with the New World, Americanizing them, and that the literature which has survived to be incorporated into the canon did so because it has enduring qualities that caused readers to identify with it across long periods of time. According to his essay “Errand into the Wilderness,” the jeremiad texts of the Puritans, lamenting the state of second generation settlers, who had not established an ideal “city on a hill,” a shining example of godliness to the rest of the world, have become integrated into the canon because the failure to live up to the ideals of previous generations is an enduring anxiety, something that we encounter living in the shadow of “The Greatest Generation” today (xiii, 205). However, Brown concludes his book by arguing that this popular notion is complicated by extenuating circumstances producing the material conditions allowing texts to be passed down through the generations in the first place. In this case, the jeremiad texts condemning second generation settlers and lamenting the failure to form a godly settlement exist in such large quantities in part because these texts were well suited to Eliot’s massive Indian conversion project (205-6). As Brown argues from the beginning of the book, a book studies perspective helps to illuminate the conditions that have shaped both colonial literature and the perspective on it that has been passed down to present day readers.

Works Cited

Brown, Matthew P. The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.


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