Martin, Henri-Jean. The History and Power of Writing-. Trans. Lydia G.
Cochrane. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1994. xv + 591 pp. 10
illustrations. ISBN 0-226-50835-8. $39.95.
**Reviewed by Elaine E. Whitaker -- University of Alabama (Birmingham)
A sweeping history that nevertheless contains a wealth of telling details, The History and Power of Writing updates and slightly emends the author's 1988 Histoire et pouvoirs de l'ecrit, published by the Librairie Academique. The verso of the title page states that Martin has examined Cochrane's translation prior to its publication. The press, the translator, and the beleaguered NEH, which funded the publication, merit our gratitude for enabling the fuller reception of Martin's summative work.
The English translation lays out the implications of all tangible systems for communicating the activities of the human mind. It accomplishes this in ten chapters: Writing Systems, The Written and the Spoken Word, Speech and Letters, The Death and Resurrection of Written Culture, The Arrival of Print, The Reign of the Book, The Forms and Functions of Writing: Fifteenth-Eighteenth Centuries, The Book and Society, The Industrial Era, and Beyond Writing. A short concluding essay, copious notes, and a reasonably complete index follow. The ten illustrations, all from The Newberry Library, have been tipped in using good quality glossy paper. Paper used in the cloth History and Power of Writing meets minimum standards for permanence and, in the short run, nicely withstood an errant splash of my coffee. Pierre Chaunu, who (according to Martin) encouraged him to compile this summa, has provided a foreword, which Chaunu has used principally to position Martin's thought with respect to his own. Chaunu values Martin as a leader in contemporary revisionist history and values Martin's History and Power of Writing as the outline of a paradigm. I value Martin's work as a judicious compilation of details, an aggregate worth more than the sweeping, sometimes politicized conclusions drawn from the particulars.
Martin's reconstruction of the interface of oral and written culture captured my attention first. Following some general discourse on sign theory, Martin begins with the eighth millennium "Neolithic revolution" that established time and space as dominant bases for human activity. He profiles pre-alphabetic systems in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, and Precolumbian America. This organization recurs throughout The History and Power of Writing, as Martin repeatedly samples significant places at significant times. In laying out the fundamental differences of assumptions between oral and literate practices, Martin caused me to re-examine the possibility that I had pushed my own definitions of reading back into centuries or places where they were inappropriate.
Second, Martin's generalizations sharpen our paradigm. For example, in chapter one, Martin declares, "A writing system centered on consonants permitted religions of the Book to flourish, and in turn they favored teaching and the diffusion of reading" (33). In chapter four, he writes, "The rise of the autograph signature was an extremely important addition to the dynamic changes that took place in fifteenth-century writing" (143). In chapter six, he contends that, prior to Gutenberg, "the church had censured ideas more than texts (symbolic exceptions aside) because it considered the book primarily as a working tool for the exclusive use of scholars" (266). In chapter seven, he considers the publicity functions of title pages (e.g., 302). And, in chapter nine, he writes, "The enormous change that the nineteenth century brought was to couple the teaching of reading and the teaching of writing" (400). These are only samples of the scope and impact of this book.
Third, Martin grounds these generalities in particulars. The following passage concerning elite reading habits demonstrates my point: "Before the invention of printing the most literate form of scholarly reading consisted in establishing one's own carefully revised copy. Petrarch devoutly kissed his copy of Virgil before opening it; Erasmus did the same for his Cicero, and in the evening, when he had finished his day's work, Machiavelli put on his best clothes to read his favorite authors." (363) In the areas of greatest interest for BMMR, Martin's details read like the best of review articles, bringing interesting historical details to bear on his general theme. In areas less central to his own scholarly experience, however, Martin is less authoritative, as when he apparently omits the possibility that CD technology will lend a measure of permanence to what he very interestingly considers as the age of electricity.
Finally, Martin interprets the particulars with mind-stretching comparisons. For example, Martin notes that technically impressive developments in printing in China and Korea in the fifteenth century "remained in the hands of the state or wealthy patrons" (225) without any creation of a market. Martin contrasts these limited, not-for-sale editions with the capitalist book distribution practices originating in Mainz at the same time. Martin concludes his comparison with an opinion-laden passage that is representative of the codas to many sections of this book, in which short sermons or musings often round off the historical details: "We have to grant that for once there were virtues in capitalism, preferable, in the last analysis, to a society paralyzed by a rigid hierarchy that is often the twin of the process of statehood." (226)
The final voice of significance in this book is that of the translator, Lydia G. Cochrane, who has received multiple commissions to translate important, recent scholarly books (e.g., Roger Chartier's The Order of Books and Cultural History, Robert Muchembled's Popular Culture and Elite Culture in France 1400-1750, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber's Women, Family, and Ritual in Renaissance Italy) and articles (e.g., for Ottavia Niccoli and Carlo Ginzburg). With one exception, the books remain silent concerning Lydia Cochrane. It is Klapisch-Zuber who bothers to mention her translator and, in the process, foregrounds the importance of the translator's role: "In the English-language dress tailored for them [the author's essays] by Lydia Cochrane they may also offer the American public an insight into one stage of the dialogue that has taken place in France recently between historians and anthropologists." (Women, Family, and Ritual xiv). This statement is true of Cochrane's work in general.