The History of a Bible is a tract with an odd provenance. Like most American Tract Society publications, it appeared anonymously. However, the ATS itself appeared to be under the impression that it was written by J. W. Cunningham, well-known in England for another religious it-narrative, The Velvet Cushion.(Incidentally, somebody ought to do a joint edition of that and the response to it.) While the tract is sometimes cataloged with Cunningham as author, there doesn't seem to be any actual proof for this ascription; given that the tract appears to have been pretty successful, it appears decidedly odd that nobody on the other side of the pond mentions it as part of Cunningham's oeuvre. So, hmm. To make matters more complicated, the tract also exists in multiple versions. In this 1820 printing, for example, the narrative ends after the Bible's dissolute second owner, George, departs this earth in a state of proper repentance; my own copy, part of an omnibus reprinting that dates from approximately 1848, sees the Bible continuing to live out its life in the kind of domesticity it lacked with its first two bachelor owners.
Unlike the Bible it-narratives I've discussed here before, the Bible narrates The History of a Bible. The Bible thus speaks as an organic "I," a unified "self" guaranteed by the authority of divine inspiration; there are no Biblical books here, just a Book. And this Book appropriates a number of roles to itself: "close prisoner" in the bookshop and, later, William's library (3), would-be "companion" (3), and, most importantly, evangelist. It is the ultimate text in the library, preceded in William's textual pilgrim's progress by Oriental tales, Don Quixote, The Man of Feeling, and historians--the latter of whom speak not as their titles, but as their authors (Hume, Robertson, Rollins). The implied progress of William's reading suggests the possibility that fiction might be a gateway drug to more serious texts, but that once the reader finally encounters the Bible, no other text is worthy of attention. In a way, the Bible is the object of William's and, later, George's romantic yearnings, desired yet regarded with shame, famous yet treated as a dangerous secret. The two men repeatedly hide and ignore the poor thing, only to always return. But although Leah Price argues that "it-narratives anthropomorphize the book at its moments of greatest vulnerability," this Bible undergoes little in the way of figurative mutilation or torment, aside from its occasional imprisonments.1 Instead, it becomes most powerfully "human" at the moment of reading--so powerful, in fact, that it swamps the human subject altogether. "My first salutation struck William" (5), the Bible informs us, swapping its own verbal address for William's act of reading (and implying near-physical shock into the bargain). Their encounter is a "conversation" (5), and yet it is one in which the balance of power is being constantly negotiated. The Bible may repeatedly "speak," erasing William's own role as the reader, but it is William who can quite literally "clos[e] my mouth" (5-6) or "allo[w] me to talk" (6). The figurative violence of the Bible's "salutation" returns upon itself in the reader's domineering response, finally climaxing in a fight of sorts over the Law: William rejects it, the Bible warns him of damnation, and the result is a "sick and feverish" fit (7). This is a classic moment in conversion narratives, the moment of terror in which the not-yet-believer finds himself convicted of sin, but yet without hope of salvation. But it is also represented in terms of a conversation in which William actively participates, talking back to the Bible instead of merely being lectured. In Price's turn of phrase, "the virtuous" recognize the Book's "subjectivity" (125), yet such recognition occurs in the context of rejection as well as assent. George, too, will have a similar moment on his deathbed, when he finally opens himself up to the Bible's charges. Debates over free will thus emerge in these moments of decision-making: do I read or not? Do I listen or not? Do I resist or not?
One of the odder things about this tract, though, is the way in which it erases its own circulation. "I was sent for" (12), the Bible says, when it moves from the deceased William to George; "I became the inmate of a respectable family" (16-17), it goes on, as it makes its transit from George to the unnamed married couple. Scenes of sale and gifting are usually played up, not down, in Bible it-narratives. Here, the Bible simply moves, or is moved. The sole exception is when George "made a present of me to some poor native" (15), resulting in a problematic missionary moment: the native (a slave?) cannot read the language. In this mockery of evangelization, the Word goes forth to someone who cannot hear it. Other slaves are luckier in their grasp of English, and enjoy the kind of conversational relationship with the Book that William and, eventually, George will have. But in effect, these encounters suggest that human evangelical efforts are less relevant than the direct encounter with the Bible's own "good news" (16). Like the conversational relationship between the bachelor sinner and his Bible, this account of good works amongst slaves suggests that although language may be difficult, its content, paradoxically enough, is not--the self-interpreting Bible once again made manifest. Nobody needs to analyze this Book; one merely listens and responds to its edifying conversation, and Christianity is sure to follow. (One can hear nineteenth-century High Churchmen grumbling somewhere, far off in the distance.)
The Bible's "reward," as it were, is its final migration to the unnamed nuclear family, where it finds itself installed in a position of new domestic authority. In the family, the Bible simultaneously remains dependent (it is "permitted to speak," "brought out" ) and authoritative ("I addressed, "commanded," "told," "bade" [17-18]). The family subjects itself, in a sense, to its most potent object. Unlike the bachelor associations of William and George, where religion appears to spread rather hesitantly through random male companions and oppressed "natives," the family provides the Bible with an opportunity to develop a sort of program. Moreover, the family turns out to be a miniaturized version of the colony as a whole, Christianizing the colony through force of example. Within the family, the Bible turns out to have yet another role--that of surrogate parent. Companion, evangelist, parent, yet potentially always a prisoner once again, the Bible turns out to be both spiritual magician, converting those who cross its path, and weak, passive object, awaiting the reader who will release its force.
1 Leah Price, How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2012), 128.