‘In a Bibleistic Way’: Teaching Nineteenth-Century American Poetry Through Book and Periodical Studies

Document Type

Book Contribution

Publication Date



Pickering & Chatto


Bringing students into the conversation about the value of material book history opens up exciting critical possibilities for literary questioning. From the mechanical (using the history of the book as manufactured object to capture the attention of engineering and technical majors) to the more abstract (invoking the ways book history forces a nuanced analysis of the politics of canonization, or the ways it highlights the differences between reader–response criticism and formalist analysis), a book history context spurs questions I define as distinctly literary, questions addressing ideas about representations, language, and sign systems of meaning.

In particular, book history has a special relationship to poetry: it is a history that calls into question the very concept of representations and images – best exemplified by the compressed nature of poetry. As we analyze the history, transmission, crafting, and social role of the material text, we necessarily foreground the question of representations. How does the physical ink transform itself into a shape that takes on such immense meaning or how does the physical heft of a literature anthology signify the role of cultural capital for the average undergraduate? How does a page allow (or force) us to make meaning? What do those black squiggly marks we call letters represent to us that inform our understanding of the textual world? Because the issue of representations is always present when analyzing books, using book history – with care – to push students to analyze the role of representation in poetry works beautifully.