In their article, “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,” Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass call to question the axiomatic stability of the terms “work,” “word,” “character,” “author,” and “paper” in the context of paying attention to the material construction and editorial intervention involved in the printed reproductions of William Shakespeare’s plays. The authors argue that by attending to the “materiality of the text” and by emphasizing the glaring distinctions between the various printed editions of the Bard’s plays shows us how his oldest folios and quartos call to attention their own idiosyncrasies and differences that would baffle today’s reader, who has received emendated and modernized versions of the plays. The corresponding effects of these mediations to Shakespeare over the past four hundred years shows us how “it is not present standards that pass judgment on past forms, but rather past forms that return to try present standards” (257). The authors argue that studying the older printed versions of Shakespeare renders modern interpretations problematic because their glaring differences and peculiarities make us confront the instability of our own interpretative assumptions regarding the version of the text that we, as present-day scholars, are engaging with.
As I reflect on how de Grazia and Stallybrass problematize Shakespearean scholarship by using the material signs in the older texts as their evidence, I find myself considering how these methodologies might be applied to my study of the various editions of Daniel Defoe’s Colonel Jack housed in the BPL’s special collections. In this post, I begin to explore some of the differences in the title pages between the first edition of Colonel Jack (1722) and its fourth edition (1738). Extrapolating from these differences leads to a number of interpretations and speculations regarding the history of Colonel Jack as a printed text and to the larger English market for fiction in the time spanning these editions.
A cursory glance at these two title pages, included below, shows us that the use of color and imagery constitutes a major visual difference in these editions. The first edition doesn’t use any color (except black) in its typography and neither does it contain a frontispiece. In stark contrast, the title page of the fourth edition features color (red), and is preceded by a full-page frontispiece that depicts a scene from the narrative. Furthermore the list of publishers and sellers changes quite dramatically between the editions: the first edition is “printed and sold” by eight organizations, whereas the fourth is produced and sold by only one enterprise. Lastly, the price of this book has dropped between the years; the first edition was on sale for six shillings, whereas the fourth was available for three shillings and six dimes.
This use of color and imagery points to advances in print technology between the editions that have could have made it cheaper and easier to include these elements in the text. While in the early 1720’s color and images might not be considered a necessity in the material construction of a novel, this seems to have changed by the late 1730s when the fourth edition has released. One might imagine that all the extra labor, capital, and materials required to add color and a frontispiece, would drive up the price of this book, however the contrary seems to have happened. This price reduction of Colonel Jack might also be an effect of improvements in print technology, which could have reduced the cost of production. Another explanation for Colonel Jack’s reduced price is that it is a function of the economies of scale enjoyed by its sole publisher and seller, who may be producing many copies of this book for sale in London, York, as well Scarborough. By producing more copies of the same text, the printer can reuse the setup of the press to produce many copies, reducing the per-capita cost of production of each book, thus contributing to its lower sales price.
As we continue our comparison of the editions, we notice that the first edition does not mention the name of the author, which is referenced in the fourth edition. In addition, we notice that the plot-synopsis that the first edition provides is more curtailed than what we read in the fourth edition. The fourth edition’s reference to Defoe, coded in the allusion to Robinson Crusoe (Defoe’s most commercially successful book) and its expanded plot-synopsis, in conjunction with the use of color and imagery discussed earlier, all function as enhanced packaging designed to attract prospective readers who might be browsing a number of similar titles at the booksellers’. This packaging distinguishes Colonel Jack from the bevy of other travel narratives, criminal biographies, true histories, etc., which share generic similarities with Colonel Jack and which are all competing to be sold. In the years spanning these two editions, consumer expectations might have shifted to demand an identifiable author and some visual imagery, as markers of books worth purchasing, which has prompted their inclusion in Colonel Jack‘s fourth edition.
Attempting to follow de Grazia and Stallybrass’s methodologies to study the differences among these two editions of Colonel Jack raises questions surrounding the changes in print technology, invites us to imagine what eighteenth century readers might find materially attractive in a book, speculate on the business strategies of booksellers and publishers who were competing to peddle the similar texts, and consider the appropriation of authorial identity as a tactic in branding. As I continue to study Colonel Jack as a material object that has been reproduced and remediated since its first publication, I want to begin thinking about how its book history has shaped the literary criticism that has come out of this text. While this cursory exploration of the differences in the title pages of these two editions has given me much historical context to consider, I still wonder how these tracking these changes in the book’s materiality might prompt me to reconsider its status as a fictional realist novel, its representation of colonial America, as well as other elements of its plot, character, and formal aesthetics.