Suarez on materiality & “the coalescence of human intention”

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Suarez commenting on the 1785 promissory note from the French

As part of their Critical Connections series, the Special Collections at Syracuse sponsored a pretty amazing lecture last Thursday by book scholar and Rare Book School director Michael Suarez called “‘Industry Need Not Wish’: Benjamin Franklin’s ‘The Way to Wealth’ As a Publishing Phenomenon.” This was followed up with a 2-hour discussion on Friday with Prof Suarez that allowed about 12 of us talk with him more intimately about the lecture and get a close look at some other important texts associated with Franklin in the late 18th century that the SCRC has in its collection.

I wasn’t familiar with Suarez and since I didn’t have time to read his most renown work — the 1,400+-page tome, the Oxford Companion to the Book — I opted instead to read the 30+-page  “Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book,” which is a surprisingly accessible article for outsiders (like me) who are not familiar with the field of bibliography. And when you read this, everything about Suarez’s approach makes sense. As he puts it, book history doesn’t really belong to any one discipline, but “as a multidisciplinary practice that is necessarily collaborative” (170). Not only did he touch upon this throughout his lecture and workshop but he showed it, walking us through the transnational life of Franklin’s most popular book, The Way to Wealth (TWTW) with grace, style, and joy. Dare I say it was one of the best lectures I’ve attended at Syracuse. Maybe ever. No wonder dude is also a preacher.

The extent of my knowledge about books from this period is limited to a phenomenal social history of Christmas I read last December so I can’t really put much of the lecture in a larger context. But put simply The Way to Wealth was a wildly popular anthology of aphorisms collected from Franklin’s 25 years of Poor Richard’s almanacs. Between 1758-1800 it went through 144 editions — that we know of. Of course it was popular because of the textual accretion from a quarter century of publishing Poor Richard’s, but also, according to Suarez, because it was cheap print. At the time, books like TWTW were printed through a jobbing press, which was quick and easy for the printer to make. (What surprised me is that in the 18th century colonies, most books were imported from England. Publishers in the states would take about 12-18 months to print a book because it took longer to make a profit from them; jobbing printing took priority.)

By contrast, in France, where Franklin became a celebrity, his works were printed on vellum, treated as an Enlightenment text (incidentally, I had many flashbacks to the HBO miniseries John Adams during this lecture).

What they had in common, however, was that Franklin’s book was a fashionable commodity. Back in the states, it became bundled with other important texts and sold to former agrarian workers who were urbanizing, becoming literate, and seeking (or rather, were told they should be seeking) civilizing texts. Sometimes these books had advertisements right in them (Suarez gave an example of a list of patented medicines to be sold at the end of one edition of TWTW). The most fascinating aspect of the lecture for me was the tension between what these books said and what they actually did. That is, it seemed to me from the lecture that the materiality of book in commodified form contradicted Franklin’s aphorisms about thrift, meritocracy, and savings:

  • Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
  • If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing
  • Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears; while the used key is always bright

Suarez closed the lecture with what he later described as a “pivot,” showing  a series of statistics on illiteracy in the US, making the case that we should fight, among other things, to fulfill the promise of making literate the 32 million adults who can’t read. As a member of the LOC’s Literacy Advisory Board he said the issue was near and dear to his heart.

But having started the lecture with the overwhelming figures for student debt and having walked us through the ways literacy was literally fashioned in both America and France, it indeed felt like a pivot.  Literacy, of course, is more desirable than illiteracy (as Suarez pointed out in the discussion), but I found myself wanting to reach for Elspeth Stuckey’s 1991 book The Violence of Literacy once I heard this. Essentially, Stuckey does not see literacy as necessarily liberatory since  ideologies and contexts cannot be separated from words, including when literate people use them: “the society that fixes the worth of speakers fixes the worth of their words also” (92). Thus, the violence of literacy is found in the processes that seek to mark and dehumanize subjects, through such discursive practices as academic research and the systematic collection of data used for surveillance. Both are targets for Stuckey because both “regulate relationships” through literacy.  For me, this is exactly what TWTW did for the newly urbanized working class of the 18th century. The increased privatization of the University is perhaps the 21st century manifestation of this tension. Rather than provide money to the colleges to support programs like we did in the 60s with open-admissions, the neoliberal reality is that students take out loans to support their own literacy, taking on a sizable debt that never leaves them.

During the 2-hour discussion we considered Franklin’s own wealth, especially in contrast to Jefferson, who was born privileged but died in poverty (the opposite of Franklin). Although it seems there were several complicated reasons for Jefferson’s poverty the discussion implied he spent too much money on books and wine. You could do worse than squander a fortune on those two goods, but it was a helpful analogue to larger class tensions that have existed since the rise of capitalism. And as we looked at some amazing pieces from the SCRC having to do with Franklin — a 1775 sermon from the same press as the Declaration of Independence and a 1785 promissory note from the French that bankrolled the war — I wondered that without this larger historical context we were unintentionally perpetuating the myth of exceptional individual.

That said, I was felt privileged myself with the opportunity to take an evening and morning to learn more about Franklin, 18th century print culture, and the materiality of ephemera, which Suarez described as the “coalescence of human intention.” In terms of my own interests, Suarez reminded me that such coalescence — when it comes to literacy at least — might be best understood to take place through the commodified form of books, zines, laptops or ipads.