State and Local History, Forever.
That was a title I was planning to use for a future post. I had some scholarly points to make about the power of state institutions, including arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries, to shape society, culture, and economy, and the continuing value of understanding people’s lives and thoughts in particular localities rather than in universal generality or world-historical significance as our academic scientism so often drives us to do. Kansas history and Missouri history were my first loves as a budding junior high historian. Missouri history I particularly loved, and not out of sheer patriotism or parochialism. Missouri’s past is a rich stew, but the elements are often distasteful: pro-slavery guerillas tore the state and its neighbor apart in one era, gangsters brutalized and corrupted it in another, and enough internal armed conflicts broke out at various times to qualify the state as a small Third World nation. Our greatest contributions to world culture include music that was developed to play in brothels and gambling dens (i.e., Kansas City jazz) and the novels of a local bard who got the hell out of Hannibal as rapidly as he could. Then there is our favoritest son, Harry Truman. Sure, everyone loves him now, but for the much of his time as president Truman was remarkably unpopular, and he presided over the beginnings of some of the worst aspects of the Cold War in his efforts to co-opt Republican criticism. Back home, his old friends in KC were burglarizing courthouses and assassinating each other while he was in the White House. In more recen
t times, we can lay claim to one of the early avatars of modern evangelical politics, John Ashcroft, and the Vatican of American Pentecostalism, Springfield, that produced him.
Probably most compelling for me is Missouri’s sheer depth of regional confusion. It was a southern slave state that could not join the Confederacy. It also formed the beginnings of the Wild West. Later it became a Rust Belt factory state, a whitebread Midwestern farm state, or Appalachia West, depending on where you looked. Then there are our two great but thoroughly messed-up cities, Kansas City and St. Louis. Both cities experienced bitter racial divisions owing to populations that included large numbers of blacks and whites who had migrated from the rural countryside, but also segregation systems that were weak and “northern” enough to permit some tremendous achievements and departures in African-American culture, especially the kind that crossed over racially and shaped American popular culture more broadly: Scott Joplin, Count Basie, and Chuck Berry are just three of the most famous examples. There is probably no individual element of all this that is absolutely unique, but any space where you can get (mentally, at least) Meriwether Lewis, Jesse James, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Langston Hughes, and the Mafia together to enjoy some Budweiser and barbecue surely holds some interest.
Evidently the higher authorities at the institution where I work do not agree. That is why, instead of further ruminations on state and local history, I am turning this post into a personal plea. The administration of the University of Missouri System (our campus and three others) announced just before Memorial Day weekend that it was going to close the University of Missouri Press. Opposition is mounting to this move, including a “Save The University Press” Facebook page started by a Chicago publisher’s rep, Bruce Joshua Miller. (Other good follow-ups and comments on the story can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education, our own local newspaper, and an online journal called Jacket 2.) Readers can find the necessary coordinates in those stories to make whatever kind of comment they might care to on this development. It would be useful right about now for the rest of academia to express its views on this loudly enough for the authorities here in Columbia to hear. I think the administration does care about our reputation, but it may not have realized just how this will be seen from elsewhere.
One of the saddest parts of this for me, and the part that reflects a fairly common attitude around academia, is the utter indifference this move shows toward state and local history. The mission of scholarly publishing in general is disseminating work that does not have mass-market appeal, and hence cannot be published commercially. A related mission of a state university press in particular is to be the publisher of first and last resort on the history and culture of its state, serving a constituency and a market that — at least in most places — only it can. University of Missouri Press may never have been the biggest or best of scholarly publishers, but it has performed its role of serving the state admirably. There would be no multi-volume state history without it, or any available modern scholarly work on dozens of important but inevitably Missouri-based topics: for instance, the biographies of forgotten but once-powerful national figures like Senators Thomas Eagleton and Stuart Symington. Thanks to University of Missouri Press, you can actually buy a new copy of James Neal Primm’s Lion of the Valley, a 640-page history of St. Louis from the French and Indians up to 1980 that is an absolute model of a scholarly city history. For any city below the level of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, the local scholarly publisher is usually going to be the only feasible outlet for a work like that, and now Missouri is not going to have one. It is obvious that the makers of this decision do not grasp what this will mean for the state. A member of our Board of Curators was quoted to the effect that, “If books are good enough, they’ll be printed elsewhere.” Probably not, actually. The place for local history is in its locality. Scholarly histories of here are best researched here, and they need to published here, especially if — as will be true in most cases — they do not have much national commercial potential. The decision exacerbates the concentration and homogenization of culture that has already produced a situation where people know more, and find it easier to learn about, New York or London or Paris or LA than the places they actually live. I can personally attest to the truth of this observation from talking to my Missouri History students.
It all makes me want to paraphrase Daniel Webster, from his famous defense of what was then a weak little academic institution called Dartmouth College: ”Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak, it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land!” It is, sirs, as I have said, a small university press. And yet there are those who love it! And need it.