The Reading of Books and the Reading of Literature

Imagining the Author in Print > Print Authorship

Literary canons are consolidated around author figures and their influential books. As the story goes, the great authors of classical antiquity paved the way for the giants of both the medieval period and the Renaissance. In the medieval and early modern periods, literary authors who were viewed as extremely influential were often packaged as such. And so, the material book signaled their importance through format, commentary, prefatory apparatus, and the presence of illustrations in the text.


As the early printed editions of Petrarch, Chaucer, and Jonson show, imagining the author in print was a complex process. On the one hand, “biographical data” culled from the poetry itself becomes an informing principle, guiding early editor's interpretations of the poetry. On the other, editions of literary works construct an author figure based on the poetry they contain. In this sense, the man and the material instantiations of his text(s) are mutually constitutive. The author is both an immaterial principle of interpretation and a material construction.


These print authors were often imagined in vivid detail, visually and/or fictionally. English readers imagined what Chaucer looked like – as in this watercolor inserted in a 1542 Chaucer folio at a later date  – or how he might interact with his contemporaries and successors, something that we might think of as an early form of fan fiction.

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