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Boston’s “Devout and Useful Books”

THE MAJOR English libraries, those of the universities for example, had been accumulating for generations; in country houses volumes of recent publication were only a thin veneer on the ancestral treasure. Among books purchased for importation to the colonies, however, recent titles had a more prominent place. Of the approximately four hundred books John Harvard left in 1638 to the College that was to bear his name, more than a fourth were printed after 1630. There were, of course, a few instances of men bringing old family collections with them, but the proportion of recently published titles (accentuated by frequent colonial fires, like that which destroyed the Harvard Library in 1764) tended to grow as the 18th century wore on. This increased the importance of such patterns of selective importation as characterized, for example, Boston.

In early Boston, books were a surprisingly numerous and profitable commodity. In 1686, when the city was only a half-century old and with fewer than seven thousand people, it possessed a flourishing book-trade and over a half-dozen booksellers, at least one of whom made a substantial fortune in the business. Compare this with the book-trade in our own day in towns of about the same size to see the importance of books in the life of 17th-century Boston.

John Dunton, a London bookseller who visited Boston on business in 1686, left an account which, despite obvious exaggeration, reveals a prosperous and highly competitive booktrade. “I’m as welcome to ’em as Sowr Ale in Summer; they Look upon my Gain to be their Loss, and do make good the Truth of that old Proverb, That Interest will not lie.” Dunton claimed that in less than five months he had collected five hundred pounds of old accounts due him for books, had sold the large stock he had brought with him, and had taken orders for many more which he would send back from England. Commerce in books continued to flourish; in 1719, Daniel Neal noted that the Exchange—on the site of the present State House—was “surrounded with booksellers shops” doing a thriving business.

The central commercial position of Boston gave it power over the literary taste and reading matter of its neighboring colonies. “The other governments of New-England,” Governor Thomas Hutchinson remarked of the late 17th century, “… imported no English goods, or next to none, directly from England, they were supplied by the Massachusets trader.” But the book-market of New England, while a great deal freer than the printing press, was also confined by its governing spirits.

“There is an old Hawker,” Cotton Mather wrote in 1683, “who will fill this Countrey with devout and useful Books, if I will direct him; I will therefore direct Him, and assist him, as far as I can, in doing so.” The energetic Mather and his fellow rulers of Boston exerted themselves to stimulate the flow of books and to be sure that those books were wholesome. When in 1713 the Massachusetts Assembly passed an act against “Hawkers, Pedlars, and Petty Chapman,” whom the established merchants outside of Boston suspected of retailing stolen goods (as well as of interfering with their trade), Mather joined with the Boston booksellers “in addressing the Assembly, that their late Act against Pedlers, may not hinder their Hawkers from carrying Books of Piety about the Countrey.”

When Mather wrote of “devout and useful Books” he accurately characterized the printed matter that the rulers of opinion and the book-buyers of Boston were importing for the city and its hinterland. So far as we can tell, the Boston market was dominated by books religious or didactic. There is interesting evidence of this in the invoices of John Usher, the Boston bookseller. In 1682 Usher received from London about 800 books, apparently selected for him by an English supplier. About half were religious, about one-fifth were romance and belles-lettres, about one-fifth were schoolbooks; the only other notable categories were navigation (60 volumes), history and travel (45 volumes), and medicine (12 volumes). This must have represented a London bookseller’s estimate of New England tastes, but, judging from invoices three years later (when Usher made his own selection), Boston’s didactic and unliterary flavor was even stronger than the London bookseller had guessed. Of the 800 books Usher himself ordered in that year, the volumes were almost equally divided between religious books and school-books, with few of any other character—fifty on navigation, three dozen on law, and not over a half-dozen of romance or belles-lettres.

Other clues suggest that the religious emphasis of John Usher’s stock of books was fairly typical of late 17th-century Boston, and would remain so for several decades. When Michael Perry, a Boston bookseller, died in 1700, the inventory of his estate showed that of approximately two hundred titles on hand two-thirds were religious.

The most important private libraries were, of course, owned by prominent divines. The largest and most impressive by far was that of Cotton Mather. “I do think,” the enthusiastic John Dunton exclaimed in 1686, “he has one of the best (for a Private Library) that I ever saw: Nay, I may go farther, and affirm, That as the Famous Bodleian Library at Oxford is the Glory of that University, if not of all Europe, (for it exceeds the Vatican,) so I may say, That Mr. Mather’s Library is the Glory of New-England, if not of all America. I am sure it was the best sight that I had in Boston.” This library, of which we unfortunately possess no catalogue, Cotton’s son Samuel described as “by far the most valuable Part of the family Property,” running to “7000 or 8000 Volumes of the most curious and chosen Authors.” There can be little doubt that the collection was heavily weighted on the religious side.

In those early years, Harvard College was still serving the purpose for which it had been founded, namely to provide a learned ministry for New England. Nearly three-quarters of the volumes John Harvard left to the college were theological; gifts made later in the century accentuated this theological flavor. Despite occasional complaints (beginning with President Henry Dunster in 1647) about the narrowness of the library, Boston did not have a respectable collection of non-theological books until the late 18th century.

Even in 1723, Joshua Gee’s catalogue showed that two-thirds of the Harvard College collection consisted of theological and religious works. The most conspicuous weakness was in modern literature and belles-lettres. The library did have Shakespeare, Milton, and some lesser poets, but it left readers on their own to find Pope, The Tatler, or The Spectator. In many ways the Harvard College library was not much different from that of a small college library in the British Isles, but such biases and limitations were more influential in New England, where the College long dominated intellectual life. These limitations also expressed the sovereign literary tastes of the community, for it was primarily the ministers of New England who, in sermons and on a thousand other occasions, spread the knowledge of books.

While literary opportunities were surely more limited in New England than in London, they were hardly more limited than in remote places in the north or west of England. The literature of New England must not be compared with the whole of English literature in the 17th century, but only with that little segment which was the literature of the Puritans of the English provinces. Even so, it was narrow. In 17th-century Boston there was none of the residue of the earlier, more relaxed and adventuring ages of English culture. Books were brought to New England, with few exceptions, for a purpose. The cheap bookshops of London Bridge dared display items which would have brought a fine or the whipping post to a Boston bookseller. The miscellaneous frivolous, irreverent, obscene, and unorthodox books which seeped into the London market to titillate—and sometimes to stimulate and enlarge—the mind seldom found their way into Boston. Booksellers’ invoices are depressingly barren even of the great imaginative works of the age.

Nothing was more “practical” in Puritan New England than religion. Their preoccupation with applied religion gave a point to religious books, but it also confined their vision. The circumstances which removed religious literature—if not all literature—from the realm of the ornamental, the aristocratic, and the speculative gave a crabbed, practical quality to their tastes. Paradoxically, that very interest in public education which was to make Massachusetts Bay one of the most literate and bookish communities of its age also helped confine the taste and concerns of the community during its earliest years. For literacy was considered primarily an aid to orthodoxy; only secondarily was it to be a means for acquiring other kinds of useful knowledge. “Devout and useful Books” were supposed to be the full stock of the literate mind. Works of “delight and amusement”—so much of the best of English literature—had no place in this scheme.

To be responsible for his own salvation, to see the Word of God through his own and not through a priest’s eyes, a man had to be able to read. The General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony (November 11, 1647) had explained:

It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded by false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers, that learning may not be buried in the grave of our fathers in the church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavours.

It is therefore ordered, that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty householders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read….

The chief text of compulsory public education in Massachusetts was the New England Primer, which before the end of the 17th century had become the best-selling New England schoolbook. Within the next century and a half it was to sell upwards of three million copies. For New England, and even for other parts of the colonies, it was to be the instrument of literacy which Noah Webster’s blue-backed Speller was later to be for the young nation. But while Webster’s texts were designed to produce a universally literate people, speaking and spelling the same language, the New England Primer had a more dogmatic purpose. From the day he learned his alphabet and read the first syllable in his primer, the New England child was pressed to absorb the truths by which his community lived.

Some of the flavor changed after the Revolution, with the increasingly secular temper. In the 18th century the rhymed alphabet, instead of going from “Adam” to “Zaccheus,” sometimes went from “Apple” to “Zany.” In place of the earlier exhortation to learn to read in order to know the Bible and enter the Kingdom of Heaven, by the end of the 18th century some children were being warned:

He who ne’er learns his A.B.C.

Forever will a blockhead be.

But he who learns his letters fair

Shall have a coach to take the air.

Still these were minor changes; the hard core of religious matter—the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and some form of the Catechism—remained well into the 19th century, when the Primer was finally engulfed by Noah Webster’s spellers and readers.

As the decades of the 18th century passed, this strong practical and didactic flavor became diluted, even in New England. There, as elsewhere in the colonies, time produced an assimilation of tastes, for in most of the colonies the bookish culture was dominated by the wealthy men of the cities. These native aristocracies were commercial in origin, and, since commerce thrives on interchange, the culture of all American seaboard cities became more alike during the 18th century. By the second half of the century, the institutions for disseminating books—the booksellers, the private libraries, and the college library—were being supplemented: by “social libraries” (a kind of book club developed by Franklin in Philadelphia, whose members paid dues for the right to borrow books) and by commercial and public circulating libraries. These libraries were much less theological; they offered readers a selection of history, literature, travel, law, science, and fiction broad enough to satisfy city-dwellers anywhere in North America.

But the earlier characteristic of bookish Boston—the narrow practical spirit—long remained. If its literary culture had been more bland, less pungent of provincial puritanism, Boston might have begun a career as a cultural capital, which could conceivably have given a different turn to all American intellectual life.

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