Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Third Book

During the winter break, I have been devoting most of my attention on writing my third book, a publishing history of the works of Jonathan Edwards. This will be a narrative about how and why Edwards's publications came to print, including the people behind the scenes who often worked together to produce Edwards's writings during his lifetime and after his death. It will be a microhistory that uses this focused narrative as a window to analyze the culture of the book trade in eighteenth-century America and Britain.

You wouldn't believe the amount of manuscript material that I have assembled for this project. At first, I intended to write a solid journal article on how and why Edwards's writings were published during his lifetime and in the latter half of the eighteenth century, but the material for this project kept growing, so that I now have enough written to produce a monograph of some five chapters, tentatively entitled as "Jonathan Edwards's Printers and Publishers in Colonial America," "A Publishing History of Jonathan Edwards," "The Crisis of Edwards's Death," "Publishing Edwards's Posthumous Works," and "The Reception of Edwards's Publications." I am on schedule to finish a draft of the first two and a half chapters by the end of the winter break.

Perhaps it may be surprising to Edwards affectionados that many of his works were not well received at the time that they were published. A good example is Edwards's A History of the Work of Redemption. Containing, the Outlines of a Body of Divinity, in a Method Entirely New, posthumously published at Edinburgh in 1774. In the years following Edwards's death, and the death of several key people in America, the Edinburgh minister John Erskine convinced Jonathan Edwards Jr. to transcribe some of his father's manuscripts and send them to Scotland to be published there. The duo's first endeavor became A History of the Work of Redemption. After the book was published in Edinburgh, a review of the work appeared in the London-based Monthly Review, or, Literary Journal in 1775. The reviewer wrote the following remarks:

In a method entirely new!... Here, in the book-making phrase, we are promised a body of divinity in a method entirely new.  It is a natural question to ask, why the old method, hitherto received, might not last a little longer?  The answer is easy; but the Author is dead, and it will not come from his Editors: we will therefore reply - that a visionary divine might not lose an opportunity of distinguishing himself by new vamping it... With respect to these outlines of a new body of divinity, as something will doubtless be expected from us concerning the work, we must declare it - a long, laboured, dull, confused rhapsody; and so far from being in a method entirely new, it is merely an attempt to revive the old mystical divinity that distracted the last age with pious conundrums: and which, having, long ago, emigrated to America, we have no reason to wish should ever be imported back again

Modern scholars can take solace in knowing that even two hundred years ago, literary critics could be just as ruthless as today!

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