Thursday, February 28, 2008

Return of the Chapmen

In 1987 I completed a descriptive bibliography of all the Unicorn Press broadsides, folios, postcards and other ephemeral publications, 1966-1987. The checklist can be found in the Special Collections department of the Hays Library at Brown University, which owns the complete Unicorn Press archives. Below is a passage from my introduction to the checklist.
"One of the ironies of contemporary literary publishing in America is that forms of publication that were originally introduced in Europe to promote and disseminate the most popular kinds of literature—ballads, satiric or bawdy verses, and simple narratives which were too banal or ephemeral to attract readers of high-priced books—have been reintroduced as an inexpensive and even artistically superior medium with which to promote and sometimes introduce serious literature to contemporary audiences now accustomed to paying high prices for poorly made, mass-produced hardcover and trade paperback editions of books of the most topical, popular, and transitory nature. The "street literature" of sixteenth through nineteenth century Europe and America was published mainly on inexpensive broadsides, handbills printed on a single sheet of paper and often sold by traveling hawkers called chapmen, or by the singers and poets who had authored the works for sale. The broadsides were usually produced with little care and by printers licensed only for the printing of single sheets. Yet a single sheet printed on both sides and folded one or more times easily became a pamphlet or chapbook (literally, "cheap book"), which made collections of bawdy ballads and popular stories, poems, and anecdotes available to large numbers of poor and poorly educated people. Unlike the books of the time, the ballad broadsides and chapbooks were ephemeral, most often read and discarded. Today the situation has been reversed: much of the best American poetry appears in chapbooks produced by small presses working within their limited means, while the commercial houses turn out thousands of expensive books with little intrinsic or enduring value. . ."

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