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REVIEW Reading All About It: Eighteenth-Century News Culture


DOI: 10.1093/hwj/dbu004

Gardner, V. “Reading All About It: Eighteenth-Century News Culture.” History Workshop Journal (2014). Web.

p.1: As newspapers face the consequences of the seventh government-commissioned inquiry in seventy years, they have reminded readers repeatedly that press freedom has been an unalienable British right since the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695. But why did Britain become a nation of news-lovers and what did they gain from the newspaper press? For historians of the infant press, which spread rapidly across Britain and America over the eighteenth century, reaching behind the pages of the papers has proved challenging. What readers wanted from the press, what they took from it, and how the press shaped their understanding of the world, have proved almost impossible to determine. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.1: This is in part a problem with sources: whereas those involved in book production have left at least some documentary evidence of their activities, readers have left few notes on what they thought or how a text shaped their understanding of the world. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.1: However, even when readers have left traces of their thinking, questions arise as to historical contingency, the universality of reading experience across genres of print, and the individual’s experience as representative. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: Dependence on the newspapers as sources has encouraged and reinforced a focus on the impact of the fledgling Fourth Estate on politics. Inspired by Habermas’s theory of the bourgeois public sphere, historians in the 1990s sought to recover the press’s role in the formation of ‘public opinion’, an amorphous term used by the newspapers themselves, which enabled historians to discuss readers as a collective force. 5 -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: historians of the nineteenth and twentieth-century press have reassessed newspapers as cultural agents, proposing that the meanings societies attributed to the press tell us much about the way in which power was operated within those societies. 6 The eighteenth-century press has appeared stagnant in comparison. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: Uriel Heyd’s Reading Newspapers stakes the eighteenthcentury press’s position in the new cultural history of the press. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.2: examined through pre-publication proposals and comments made in their first issues (described as ‘manifestos’). According to Heyd, newspapers aimed to contribute to political debate, to be ‘useful and entertaining’ and to support local trade. They were commercial operations too, establishing the product and branding themselves. They established journalistic practices and carved out the press’s role as political watchdog. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.3: the indexes of Boston shopkeeper Harbottle Dorr, a voracious consumer and indexer of news, are particularly illuminating. Between 1765 and 1776, Dorr collected and annotated either the Boston Evening Post or the Boston Gazette (and frequently both) and occasionally the Boston Post-Boy and Advertiser. He wrote marginalia and cross-references, both as the news came in and months and sometimes years later, resulting in thousands of pages of annotated and cross-referenced newspapers and indexes. Heyd brings Dorr’s travails into new light, demonstrating that the elastic and evolving meaning of news was contingent upon the reader and the period in which he or she was reading. 7 -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.3: Benedict Anderson has argued that the regular and time-limited publication of newspapers and the experiences of collective readers created an ‘imagined community’ of nation. 8 Heyd points out that beyond their timely habitual appearance, newspapers have other unique attributes: frequent interaction with other factors of the world and juxtaposed content that ‘levelled’ news. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.6: In Britain and America, cabinets of curiosities were to be found in newly opening libraries, and newspapers frequently advertised travelling shows and exhibits from around the world. These material objects and visual and physical experiences confronted contemporaries with another kind of proximity, another sense of time and place. If newspapers were part of the collective conscious, so too were stories of far-flung places from books, periodicals, pamphlets, published travel journals, and the reality of other material objects, animals and humans collected from far-off lands and deposited for audiences to view. Of course, the newspaper press played an important part in this, for newspaper columns and advertisements alerted readers to these events and exhibitions. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.6: Halfway through the nineteenth century, in 1852, a Times leader declared that [The press] is daily and for ever appealing to the enlightened force of public opinion – anticipating if possible the march of events – standing upon the breach between the present and the future, and extending its survey to the horizon of the world. 19 -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

p.6: Yet the Fourth Estate was a myth peddled by newspapers and Heyd’s study thus alerts us to the essential role of the eighteenthcentury press in the creation of that myth. Almost from its inception, the British press had a profound sense of its own importance, brought about by precocious commercialism, especially within the confines of the island nation. From the institution of the first Stamp Act in 1712 to the reduction of duties in 1836, newspapers were only profitable thanks to advertisements; as Harrop’s Manchester Mercury put it, ‘from advertisements, the sole profit of a Newspaper arises’. 20 Reader numbers were critical, however, for they attracted advertisers. Masters of their own advertising, eighteenth-century newspaper owners sought to carve a place for themselves by providing persuasive rhetoric to justify the purchase of what was an extraordinarily expensive publication for the overwhelming majority of the nation. -- Highlighted mar 13, 2014

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Uriel Heyd, Reading Newspapers: Press and Public in Eighteenth-Century Britain and America, Voltaire Foundation, 2012, 302 pp., ISBN 978-0729410427.