Tearing up Trump’s State of the Union address and throwing it in the trash, Nancy Pelosi managed to convey many things. But one of them was an object lesson in what scholars like to call the “affordances” of paper. We may have taken it for granted, but paper can be put to any number of uses and misuses: it’s a medium but also a prop; it can hold your groceries or wipe your behind. You can cut it, tear it, crumple it, or, indeed, rip it in half with barely controlled fury. Try doing that with an iPad.
It is not a fresh insight that the text is a material artifact, of course, nor that the physical book has shaped the way we read and write. But we’re starting to see how much else paper has shaped—perceiving not just the multifarious things we have done with it but that it has done with us. Paper, we realize, was never simply a writing surface but a complicated substance that folded itself into the fabric of culture and consciousness. And against the backlit glow of the screen, it is emerging in all its strangeness as a compelling object of study.
Paper—both how it came to be and what it meant to readers in past eras—is the focus of—so far—not one but two monographs in 2020: Jonathan Senchyne’s The Intimacy of Paper in Early and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Joshua Calhoun’s The Nature of the Page: Poetry, Papermaking, and the Ecology of Texts in Renaissance England.
Paper is definitely a thing right now. But, as these intersecting accounts show vividly, it always has been. Both books demonstrate how an awareness of paper’s “thingliness” once permeated literary culture and the popular imagination.
Senchyne’s and Calhoun’s books contribute to what is a growing field: Lisa Gitelman’s Paper Knowledge, Ben Kafka’s The Demon of Writing: The Powers and Failures of Paperwork, and Bonnie Mak’s How the Page Matters have begun to explore how paper has been used, thought, and experienced. But Senchyne and Calhoun signal a new phase of investigation. Together, their books focus on the granular, even molecular, dimensions of paper. In fact, these are not books about paper per se but about its specific historical form—rag paper.
Only in the 1870s was wood pulp introduced as a raw material. In the centuries before this, paper was a different artifact, made of cotton and linen rags. And in these texts, rag paper is subjected to almost forensic scrutiny: its textures are pored over, its fibers picked apart, and—in Calhoun’s case—its chemical makeup investigated. Such interdisciplinary bibliographical methods are usually harnessed to empirical investigation. Today, for example, there is a whole field dedicated to scrutinizing the book as organic matter; biocodicologists now roam the archives, subjecting the written surface to multispectral analysis to reveal hidden markings and even DNA.
Yet, neither Calhoun nor Senchyne is in the business of hard science. Instead, their analysis of paper’s composition and decomposition brings to light its place in a wider cultural economy of material objects and tactile, affective interactions. These literary histories cast neither literature nor its physical form as stable entities, but, instead, as merely contingent states in an ever-shifting flux of matter.
Both are interventions into book history, too, a discipline that has conventionally had little interest in paper. One of the discipline’s touchstones—Robert Darnton’s famous “communications circuit”—maps out the key factors in the production and dissemination of the book but assumes the supply of paper as simply a given. Yet, historically, as Calhoun and Senchyne show, it was anything but.
Modern readers may take paper’s existence for granted, but our forebears certainly did not. Holding a book, they were acutely conscious of its place in a material cycle. They knew it was made from linen fibers that had once been cloth and, before that, flax seed. They were aware that, like any natural product, paper was subject to the vagaries of climate but also that their own worn-out garments and bed linens were part of its precarious supply chain. Senchyne argues that readers, therefore, encountered the page “both as something to read and as the product of an industry that they likely had some part in it, however small.”
To foreground paper’s place in book production, Senchyne shows, is to reimagine it as a circuit that encompasses rags and linen, the hands they passed through and the indiscriminate mass of heterogeneous bodies that wore them. The book also, therefore, reintroduces those who were conventionally denied access to print culture, as the New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet recognized.
“The Author to Her Book,” which Bradstreet wrote in 1740 to defend the publication of her own work, follows paper’s promiscuous rag economy—how cloth rags become printed pages—to rhetorically collapse the public and private spheres, creating a space of legitimacy for female literature. Describing her book swaddled in “raggs,” she makes explicit a link between motherhood and authorship that was already a material fact, since rags could both clothe an infant and become a writing surface. Paper, in other words, was “a route linking domestic work and literary production.” And if paper could make the transition from the domestic sphere to the public realm of print, Bradstreet seems to ask, then why could the poetry of women not follow the same route?
In this version of book history, the protagonist is not Gutenberg but cellulose, the fibers that mat together to form paper.
A century earlier, and on the other side of the Atlantic, the metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan also mused on the book and its composite parts. But rather than thinking on rags and women, Vaughan wondered whether, on the day of judgment—when all things are returned to their original state—books and paper would revert back to the living plants and animals from which they came.
As with Bradstreet, this is no mere metaphorical flight of fancy. Joshua Calhoun reads it as an instance of the “ecopoetics” he finds woven through English Renaissance literature: a keen awareness and exploration of a paper’s place in a wider ecology of objects, “ship sails, hemp, flax, ink blots, animal glue, human hair and fungi.” Where Senchyne inflects book history with feminist and critical race theory, Calhoun puts it in dialogue with the emerging field of environmental humanities, pushing paper’s production back a stage further to include the natural world. Nonhuman actors are as pivotal to his story as human ones: in this version of book history, the protagonist is not Gutenberg but cellulose, the fibers that mat together to form paper.
For readers of rag paper, then, there was no such thing as a blank page. Even before it was inked, paper was crisscrossed with meaning. In nineteenth-century America, Senchyne claims, paper’s manufacture from disparate rags meant that it could be mobilized as a set of “material metaphors” through which to figure the young nation. Papermakers often emblazoned their packaging with the motto e pluribus unum (out of many, one), emphasizing that paper, like the body politic, created unity out of diversity.
Yet, this same quality gave it a strange and subversive intimacy, since, in turning a page, “one touched cast-off underclothes, bed linens and cleaning rags.” Herman Melville, in his erotically charged letters to Hawthorne, seems to draw on this frisson, deploying the image of blank paper to imagine the kind of “ineffable socialities,” which eluded writing. Here, Senchyne suggests paper manifested illicit connections, functioning as an allegory for queer desire.
Calhoun, meanwhile, reads the “rhetorics of paper” in other ways, speculating about how we might interpret the fragments of matter embedded with it: “shives” (the husky bark of flax), feathers, hairs, and pieces of rag. Can such accidental features form part of a reading? The example of the scientist Robert Hooke—reading bookworm holes as a commentary on their host text—suggests they can. Through traces of ingestion and excretion, the worms seem to leave their own “scatological” response to the words on the page.
What’s most fascinating in both studies is an attempt to recover the materially attuned literacy of earlier centuries, which translates into nothing less than a reinvention of reading. If literary hermeneutics have conventionally involved paper’s “disappearing act,” then Senchyne and Calhoun—in different ways—develop a mode of close reading that attends to both text and page.
For example, Senchyne argues that the themes of race in William Wells Brown’s 1853 novel Clotel (about the fictional mixed-race daughters of Thomas Jefferson) are played out as much on the printed page as in its plot. In the nineteenth century, racial discourse emerged alongside an increasing fetishization of the pure white page as the background against which blackness signified as its absolute opposite. Calhoun, meanwhile, considers ways to read an ink blot that appears in Shakespeare’s first folio, as part of a scene from Henry IV, Part 2. Could it function as a paralepsis, or else a comment on its blemished characters? Rather than filter out the surface noise of the page, he allows paper, all its imperfections and flaws, to have its say.
The blot, of course, is an accident, but one made possible by paper’s porous, sometimes unreliable surface. Where mistakes on parchment were scraped away, paper brought a new technological quirk. And as Calhoun shows, with this new method of paper production comes a new vocabulary of sin, redemption, and human character, in which flaws are reimagined as “blots on the soul.”
The affordances of paper—far-reaching as they are—rest on such vicissitudes: the interactions of ink, plant fibers, and the animal-based “sizing” used to limit absorbency. Paper’s story is conventionally one of human ingenuity and progress toward efficiency. But here, in these studies, Senchyne and Calhoun replace ingenuity and efficiency with glitches, failed experiments, and recalcitrant matter: the unpredictable relations between embodied subjects and the physical world. Seen close-up like this, paper’s story is as uneven and bumpy as the surface of rag paper itself.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.