From the work of medieval spiritualist Margery Kempe and John Foxes’ Book of Martyrs to nineteenth century American scrapbooks, Mexican ex-votos, and Italian-American cookbooks, the essays in Popular Literacy examine acts of reading, writing, and speaking that take place at the margins of official, institutionalized literacy.
The contributors explore these noncanonical, unschooled, and unauthorized acts in order to explore how people make literacy popular by using whatever means of communication is at hand, to their own ends. The essays treat a range of topics, agents, and historical settings, and the contributors use a variety of theoretical frameworks and methods from a number of fields: ethnography, American studies, history, literary criticism, science studies, rhetoric, and writing studies.
The chapters examine particularly revealing historical moments and cultural conjunctures where instances of popular literacy take place in uneasy relation to the dominant institutions—the church, the state, the schools, the market. The contributors show that while the practices of popular literacy are never free from these influences, neither are they altogether encapsulated by them.
Taken as a whole, the essays are loosely aligned in a common project to study the ways ordinary (and extraordinary) readers, speakers, and writers use literacy to articulate identities and social aspirations, to produce alternative forms of cultural knowledge, and to cope with the asymmetries of power that regulate cultural life.