'Power of the Page' writing seminar explores print and American literature

To gain a deeper understanding of the printed medium in early America, a group of Cornell students had a recent hands-on lesson in printing technology as part of the freshman writing seminar "American Literature and Culture: The Power of the Page," taught by doctoral English student Jonathan Senchyne.

The course explores the cultural impact of early American printing, spanning 200 years of books, pamphlets and broadsides (such as Thomas Paine's "Common Sense") and culminating in writings by Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Senchyne took his class of 12 to the print shop in Risley Hall Sept. 5, where students composed metal type into a familiar phrase about a fox and a dog, and ran impressions of it off a press.

"This print shop resembles more or less what you would have seen in the 19th or late 18th century," he said. "The technology has remained static for centuries."

The Caslon type in the Risley shop was once used by The New York Times, he said. Several cases of type fill the shop, along with an automated proof press and hand-operated platen presses.

A student asked, "Did you learn about this for this class?"

"No, my grandfather was a printer, and I learned from him," Senchyne said.

Senchyne had found an appropriate Dickinson quote ("There is no frigate like a book ... ") typeset by a previous shop user, to which he added an engraving of a sailing ship as a visual element.

Composing type and composing an essay are not that different, he said: "The idea of 'composition' is a very interesting lens to think about our own writing and how to produce it. Even though we don't have to lay out each letter piece by piece, the work involved in making a high-quality, readable essay requires just as much forethought."

The class is reading books on writing style and American cultural studies, and texts such as Mary Rowlandson's story of her captivity by Indians in 1675 and "The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin" -- who was "very famously a printer," Senchyne said. "We look at how print allows one to represent a version of oneself."

Gender and social issues, like slavery and depictions of Native Americans, figure heavily in the course. In Puritan society, women like Rowlandson were not viewed as public figures. "The narrative bears the traces of her delicate negotiation of gendered expectations," Senchyne said. "In a way, she explores the boundaries of possibility for a woman's voice in public."

His students have used Cornell Library's online archives, particularly the Evans collection in Early American Imprints. Their readings include 17th-century poet Anne Bradstreet, the first woman writer published in colonial America.

"I told them to go to the online archive and find the poems in their original form," he said.

Bradstreet was not named on the cover or title page of her first book of poems, he said. Instead, she was "A Gentlewoman in those parts" and "The Tenth Muse." In one poem, Bradstreet "claims to be incapable of discussing topics believed to be under the purview of men: namely, issues of state," Senchyne said -- although the title page belies that statement.

"A lot of that is lost in reading a reprinted version in a Norton anthology," Senchyne said. "Those are all important things you get from looking at forgotten elements of print such as a title page -- which scholars have been doing for years, but I'm trying to reintroduce it to the undergraduate classroom by using this approach."

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