Early American engraver

> Donald C. O’Brien has written a valuable monograph on an early engraver working in the United States during its first half-century of independence. Amos Doolittle (1754–1832) was one of a handful of craftsmen (not artists, but artisans) who created the first illustrative views of the topography (both historical and actual) of the new nation. These images had an impact on the culture, and so their creators deserve our attention.

Amos Doolittle was born in Cheshire, Connecticut, about fifteen miles from New Haven. After serving as an apprentice to a silversmith and moving to New Haven in 1775, he promptly joined a militia company in the belief that a revolution was immanent. Serving under Captain Benedict Arnold (the future traitorous general) in the best-equipped unit in the Continental Army, Doolittle managed to visit the battlefields of Lexington and Concord just ten days after the action. He interviewed soldiers and witnesses, surveyed the area, had the painter Ralph Earl (1751–1801) make drawings, and (once he returned home) engraved four now famous views of the battles. These were his first engravings, although it would be several years before he could set up shop as an engraver, publisher, and bookseller.

O’Brien devotes a chapter to each type or class of engraving Doolittle created—e.g., maps, music, bank notes, broadsides, illustrations for Bibles and secular works, etc. Obrien’s two main institutional resources were the American Antiquarian Society (where he spent a month looking at several hundred Doolittle engravings, both in books and separately issued), and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which contains correspondence between Doolittle and the Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey (1760–1839).

The book offers a fascinating, on-the-ground view of a citizen craftsman at work in the milieu of the New Republic. Doolittle engraved many items of the “job printing” variety such as diplomas for Yale graduates, illustrations for local almanacs, bookplates, writing forms, certificates, and even regalia (on Freemason aprons, for example). These artifacts communicate the socio-economic history of the time in different (but no less powerful or informative) ways than do letters and published works of the period. Similarly, Doolittle’s political cartoons and engravings of battle scenes (on both land and sea) offer a different type of contemporary interpretation than the textual accounts of the period.

O’Brien is clearly not a historian, but a knowledgeable enthusiast and collector who has made a clear contribution to our understanding of Doolittle’s work in terms of its production and distribution. The illustrations (about forty in all, quite luxurious in a book of only 132 pages) enrich the value of the work as a reference tool, as does its thorough index, and its two appendices. The first appendix is a catalog of books containing Doolittle engravings, and the second is a bibliography of references to Doolittle. Both are extensive and essential for further reading and study. O’Brien lays the necessary foundation for the kind of interpretive work that scholars of history, art, and literature do on these “texts,” and therefore provides a valuable addition to any collection relating to early American history.

This review will appear in College & Research Libraries (November 2008 issue).
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