The Pilgrim and the Bee: Reading Rituals and Book Culture in Early New England
We conventionally understand the book as a vessel for words, a place where the reader goes to have a private experience with written language. But readers' relationships with books are much more complex. In The Pilgrim and the Bee, Matthew P. Brown examines book culture and the rituals of reading in early New England, ranging across almanacs, commonplace books, wonder tales, funeral elegies, sermon notes, conversion relations, and missionary tracts. What emerges is a new understanding of the book at once as a material good, existing within the economies of buying, selling, giving, and receiving; as an object of reverence and a medium for the performance of reading; and as an organizational system for word, sound, and image.
The product of extensive archival research, The Pilgrim and the Bee brings together the disciplines of book studies and performance theory to reconsider the literary history of early America. Brown focuses on the reader's body, carefully studying reading practices during the first three generations of English settlement, with particular emphasis on the way such practices operated in the social rituals of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Understanding Puritanism as a style of piety predicated on access to texts, he describes a canon of texts (devotional "steady sellers") that, with the Bible, served as conduct literature for pious readers. These devotional manuals were reprinted and read frequently and helped to shape the social identities of gender, race, class, faith, and age. To Brown, seventeenth-century devotional readers are both pilgrims, treating texts as continuous narratives of redemptive journeying, and bees, treating texts as flowers or hives, as spatial objects where information is extracted and deposited discontinuously.