Professor Paula McDowell Publishes The Invention of the Oral

by Gina Elbert

Have you heard? In June of this year, Associate Professor Paula McDowell published her book, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain (University of Chicago Press). In eight enticing chapters, plus an introduction and a coda, Professor McDowell explores eighteenth-century oral culture in light of everything from the Billingsgate Fish Market to Samuel Johnson’s travel writing to Jonathan Swift’s classic Tale of a Tub. Each chapter tackles its own topic, contrasting various abstract ideas about orality with the social and historical practices of the time period.

Oral culture and print culture have long been considered as part of a binary – the latter supersedes the former once it takes hold in society. However, Professor McDowell argues, that’s not true, just as digital culture has yet to completely replace print culture today. She explores the binary as a heuristic, or a tool for learning and discovering that has its own history of development. “Oral culture” as a term did not exist in eighteenth-century Britain and neither did “print culture,” because they were labels that were invented in the mid-twentieth century by historians and academics looking back on the period. Back in the (Georgian) day, “culture” itself only referred to agricultural cultivation. People were not aware of the print-centered future that was to come, but there were distinctions made between oral and print at the time that revealed much about their value systems. The Invention of the Oral, whose title refers to emergence of an umbrella concept that yoked together wildly diverse practices and traditions, situates itself at the intersection of eighteenth-century orality and the beginnings of a complex print society.

The book, Professor McDowell told me, grew out of her first project, The Women of Grub Street: Press, Politics, and Gender in the London Literary Marketplace, 1678-1730 (Clarendon Press, 1998). There she explored the role of middle and lower-class women’s political activism in the print industry, where they served as authors, publishers, booksellers, hawkers, ballad-singers, and more. The latter two, hawkers and ballad-singers, were contributors to the very oral culture that she studies in her present book.

Professor McDowell is very proud of all the research and digging she did in order to make the book the best that it could be. And she should be, especially as in many ways her life and career have been leading up to this book release from the beginning. The first in her family to go to college, Professor McDowell is from Vancouver, Canada, where she was an honors English student at the University of British Columbia. “Like every other woman who ever wrote an undergrad thesis on the eighteenth century,” she said, “I wrote mine on Jane Austen.” After applying to law school and an English Ph.D. program at Stanford, she attended the latter and was told she needed to choose a concentration. Her choice was the eighteenth century, largely thanks to her previous interests in Austen, though she could just as easily have chosen Canadian Indigenous Art. Since then, she has published The Women of Grub Street and Elinor James: Printed Writings and, of course, The Invention of the Oral.

What’s next for our illustrious professor? Another scholarly book and a novel about the Great Plague, she says. She is excited to turn to these projects. Each book is different and each one teaches her something new about what she studies as she researches it. As she said, “I’ve been in college more than thirty years and I’m still learning.” The Blotter congratulates Professor McDowell on her groundbreaking new book!