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The Invention of the Oral

Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Just as today’s embrace of the digital has sparked interest in the history of print culture, so in eighteenth-century Britain the dramatic proliferation of print gave rise to urgent efforts to historicize different media forms and to understand their unique powers. And so it was, Paula McDowell argues, that our modern concepts of oral culture and print culture began to crystallize, and authors and intellectuals drew on older theological notion of oral tradition to forge the modern secular notion of oral tradition that we know today.
Drawing on an impressive array of sources including travel narratives, elocution manuals, theological writings, ballad collections, and legal records, McDowell re-creates a world in which everyone from fishwives to philosophers, clergymen to street hucksters, competed for space and audiences in taverns, marketplaces, and the street. She argues that the earliest positive efforts to theorize "oral tradition," and to depict popular oral culture as a culture (rather than a lack of culture), were prompted less by any protodemocratic impulse than by a profound discomfort with new cultures of reading, writing, and even speaking shaped by print.
Challenging traditional models of oral versus literate societies and key assumptions about culture’s ties to the spoken and the written word, this landmark study reorients critical conversations across eighteenth-century studies, media and communications studies, the history of the book, and beyond.

368 pages | 25 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: British and Irish History

Literature and Literary Criticism: British and Irish Literature, General Criticism and Critical Theory


TheInvention of the Oral is distinctly original, challenging long-accepted claims, further refining recent refinements, and burrowing into new, relevant, and sometimes oddly overlooked categories. McDowell is a superb archivist and a skilled interpreter of both detail and trend."

Cynthia Wall, author of The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century

“By focusing on how the idea of the oral was the product of a major media shift—not unlike the one we find ourselves in the midst of now with print and the digital—McDowell has given us a new critical framework with which to understand the eighteenth-century invention of the idea of modernity itself.”

Helen Deutsch, author of Loving Dr. Johnson

“In this rigorously researched and boldly conceived study, McDowell pursues the origins of the idea of ‘oral culture’ from canonical figures such as Swift, Defoe, and Johnson to ballad collectors, elocutionists, and Billingsgate fishwives. Everyone interested in the history of mediation in the eighteenth century will want to read this book.”

Tom Mole, author of Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy

“McDowell’s smart insistence that the voice and its gestural embodiments be placed in contrast to the long triumphant march of letters gives us pause to consider where we are now. For, as McDowell intimates, if we are to understand the move from the medium of print to the textualizations of the electronic age, we would do well to examine an earlier era in which the affordances of new technologies—both print and orality—were examined with care.”

Peter de Bolla, author of The Architecture of Concepts: The Historical Formation of Human Rights

"McDowell draws attention to the extent to which the democratization offered by print created unease. In an original fashion, she focuses on changing attitudes to oral opinion and transmission. Doing so enables her to discuss both the period as a whole and also the conceptual, methodological, and historiographical issues involved in the dialogues between oral and literate societies. This then is an important contribution to cultural studies. It is also a finely tuned one, able to discern important invigorating book." 

H-Net Reviews

“The most valuable work in The Invention of the Oral establishes how ideological retrofitting created the category of something we now call the oral tradition. . .demonstrates with multiple enlightening evidences the complex eddies between print, orality, and manuscript culture. . .persuasive and erudite.”

Times Literary Supplement

"Makes an important contribution. . .The close readings are acute, the prose is clear, and the larger case is convincing. This major work will be of interest to all readers of 18th-century literature and absolutely required reading for those interested in orality. Essential.”


“Fascinating . . . . Any scholar studying in literacy and orality in the eighteenth century will have to consult this significant new volume from one of our leading practitioners.”

Journal of Folklore Research

"This is an ambitious book which sets out to trace the development of a concept of 'oral culture' specifically as a response to the increased production of print during the eighteenth century....Ballad scholars stand to learn a lot from McDowell's book, especially if they read it in its entirety."

Folk Music Journal

"The difficulty here, of course, is that our knowledge of oral practices is necessarily mediated by written and printed sources and by visual and material clues that are themselves subject to all the vagaries of preservation as well as to generic constraints and exclusions, biases, and lacunae, which complicate and hinder our access to the past....Paula McDowell makes [this difficulty] a springboard for her scholarship....The strengths of The Invention of the Oral are that it brilliantly reproduces eighteenth-century writers’ 'both-and' thinking—their habit of seeing and productively deploying multiple sides of an issue rather than plumping for one side of an 'either-or;' that it fully demonstrates the interest and value of paying closer attention to contemporaries’ comments on orality and print; and that this leads us to question and critically reexamine our modern scholarly terms and taxonomies."

Journal of Modern History

"A highly original and important account of eighteenth-century culture and its contribution to media history, McDowell’s book will quickly become essential reading for scholars....The Invention of the Oral changes the ways we see the development, circulation, and consumption of media in the eighteenth century. Importantly, it also helps us to think critically about the ongoing cultural construction of digital culture and arguments that yoke literature and print, turning literary studies into an anachronism and forgetting the ways in which literature has always transformed and been transformed by new media."

Modern Philology

"McDowell has constructed an intricate narrative of the emergence of the concept of oral culture out of heterogeneous views expressed in diverse textual and pictorial sources of the long eighteenth century. The meticulous analysis of the debates on orality enhances our understanding of the concept and of the process of its formation, and encourages us to reconsider the prevalent evolutionary model of media shift."

Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"This book covers a variety of notable topics and contains many striking observations. The motivating questions are presented in innovative and clever ways… What is particularly remarkable is the book’s rigorous reconstruction of a growing attention to and thematization of orality in a variety of contexts, which speaks to a certain breadth of its relevance."

Zeitschrift für Historische Forschung (translated from German)

Table of Contents

List of Figures
1.         Oral Tradition in the History of Mediation
2.         Oral Tradition as A Tale of a Tub: Jonathan Swift's Oratorial Machines
3.         The Contagion of the Oral in A Journal of the Plague Year
4.         Oratory Transactions: John “Orator” Henley and His Critics
5.         How to Speak Well in Public: The Elocution Movement Begins in Earnest
6.         “Fair Rhet’ric” and the Fishwives of Billingsgate
7.         “The Art of Printing Was Fatal”: The Idea of Oral Tradition in Ballad Discourse
8.         Conjecturing Oral Societies: Global to Gaelic
Coda: When Did “Orality” Become a “Culture”?


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

North American Conference on British Studies: John Ben Snow Prize

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