Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 22, 2012

The Bonds of Scholarly Affection

Filed under: Academia,Ben Carp's Posts,Conferences,Historians — Benjamin Carp @ 4:49 pm

Conferences are places of love.

The 34th annual meeting (pdf) of SHEAR (the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic) was held this past weekend in Baltimore. The last time SHEAR met at Baltimore was 2001, which was the summer I attended (and presented at) my first two academic conferences.

The first was at the Institute for Historical Research in London. I remember thinking that if I was going to make mistakes, at least I’d be doing it thousands of miles away from anyone I knew. The conference (theme: “The Sea”) stuck all of the graduate student presenters onto one panel, even though none of our papers were related to one another. This struck me at the time as a pretty bad method, and I don’t think I got many questions from the audience. But what I really remember is that a senior scholar, who I’d first met earlier at the conference, made a point of staying for my paper and then discreetly slipping out. Later that day, we sat together on a stoop outside and he spent fifteen or twenty minutes giving me a full critique of my arguments. So my first introduction to an academic conference was a display of almost unbelievable generosity from a scholar I deeply respected.

My second conference was soon afterwards, when SHEAR last held its annual meeting in Baltimore. I wasn’t a great fit for SHEAR, since I was studying pre-revolutionary history, but the loose, friendly atmosphere hooked me, and it keeps drawing me back. My fondest memory from this conference was playing hooky with four youngish scholars (all more senior than me) to grab a delicious lunch and then check out the wondrous American Visionary Art Museum. Just as I was trying to learn the conventions of conference attendance, a few historians showed me that sometimes you had to break the rules to have an even more meaningful experience.

Now I can look around the room at a SHEAR conference and see former mentors and colleagues, co-bloggers, editors, friends I met at previous conferences and in the archives, graduate students I’ve encouraged, and dozens of people pursuing exciting projects of all kinds. So, as I said, conferences are places of love.

It’s true that too much love can be a bad thing: the bonds of scholarly affection can encourage logrolling, backscratching, insularity, and groupthink. Indeed, scholars are often encouraged to throw open their doors a bit more widely, to reach out to the general public and have a broader conversation. In an ideal world, these members of the public would find our shared enthusiasm for history irresistible, and go home to tell their state representatives to pour more money into higher education. On the other hand, some specialized discussion is inevitable (and essential) at a subfield conference like SHEAR, and this can quickly alienate nonprofessionals. (At the plenary session, I heard a lay audience member ask his companion, “What’s a maroon?” which instantly conjured up Bugs Bunny.)

Still, for professionals, a great conference is not just an opportunity for fantastic panels and enlightened discussion, for cutting-edge research and spirited debate–a conference is also an opportunity for sociability and socialization, for the formation of a community of scholars. It’s a cause for celebration, a working vacation from department committees, grade complaints, and hermetic writing sessions. For scholars who will never register for another class in their lives, it’s a great few days of offline learning.* Our universities should do all they can to support conference attendance, for professors as well as students.

*Meanwhile, for those who want to follow along online, here’s the archive of tweets from the conference.

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July 11, 2012

Reading and Revolutions, or, What’s the Matter with Google Books?

Michael Witmore and Robin Valenza have a fascinating post up this morning  at Wine Dark Sea asking, “What Do People Read During a Revolution?” They ran a visualization based on Google Books’ massive database (as of 2010) categorized through Library of Congress subject headings and found that there were massive spikes in the publication of histories during the 1640s/1650s and the last quarter of the eighteenth century — or, as you might otherwise know those periods, during the English Civil War and the American and French Revolutions.  Smaller spikes occur during the years around the European upheavals of 1848 and 1914. Based on that, they posit a suggestion:

What are people reading during a revolution? Poetry? Books on military technology? Theology? No. If we take the first spike, the years leading up to the English Revolution, the answer in the years leading up to the 1642 regicide seems to be “Old World History.” The second chronological peak—in the decades around the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions—shows the same pattern. In periods that historians would link to major political upheaval, the world of print shows similar disruptions: publishers are offering more history for readers who, perhaps, think of themselves as living through important historical changes.

As a scholar of publishing and (the American) Revolution, I found such a conclusion troublesome, for reasons I’ll elucidate below. Having read the post over again after my initial concerns, I want to emphasize that Witmore and Valenza were careful to add several contextualizing questions that need further exploration:

We should be precise: these data don’t indicate that more people are reading history, but that a higher proportion of books published by presses can be classed by cataloguers as history. There are many follow up questions one might ask here. Does publication tie strongly to actual reading, or are these only loosely connected? Are publishers reducing the number of books in other subject areas because of scarcity of resources or some other factor, which would again lead to the proportional spikes seen above? Are the cataloguing definitions of what counts as Old World History or history in general themselves modeled on the books published during the spike years?

Even allowing for those additional questions, however, I have two sets of concerns with the correlations that the graphs imply, and thus want to argue that the graphs are not nearly as illustrative or helpful as they at first seem.

First, I’ll simply repeat the hesitation that others have discussed more eloquently (most notably Ben Schmidt at Sapping Attention) about the limitations of the Google Books database as a representative set of literature. In this particular case, the most pressing limitation is that I’m not sure of the national origins of the set used in the graph, which is labeled as “all books published.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but does it include publications in English as well as other languages? If only English, both British and American? How about Ireland? Without knowing even the language of the corpus, it’s difficult to project, for example, the significance of the spike around the French Revolution, the 1848 European revolutions, or the outbreak of World War I (and subsequent Russian Revolution).

Second, I’m concerned at the use of book publication by itself as the unit of measurement. For one thing, giving each publication equal weight elides the importance of popularity. It’s all well and good if there were ten unique titles published in runs of 200 each that discussed the natural history of the South Seas, for example, but it’s less significant if in the same year (say in the 1760s) one publisher put out an edition of several thousand copies of Pamela. While this is a hypothetical (I don’t have British numbers handy), the example is certainly plausible given the appeal of history and fiction as genres for sale, and the ways in which they were frequently published in terms of size and quality of editions. Furthermore, as William St. Clair has argued [PDF], readers didn’t read in order of publication. So even as new histories were published in the 1770s and 1780s, more distantly published works remained popular. (One presumes that this last would be accounted for by unique entries for each edition, but I’m not sure whether each is entered separately.)

Third, one more comment about the books themselves. The graph appears very suggestive of the correlation between history publishing and revolution, but there’s another possible interpretation. That’s because the historical periods that the graphs identify (the mid-seventeenth century and the late eighteenth century in particular) also coincide with periods when the publication of travel and exploration narratives flourished. So did the publication of books about history spike in the 1770s because of the American Revolution, or because Captain Cook was in the midst of his voyages to the Pacific? The granular approach offered in the graphs doesn’t allow for that kind of analysis.

Fourth (and here I’m finally getting to my real area of expertise), using books as the unit of measurement seriously underestimates the importance of all other kinds of publishing and reading from these periods. For each of the historical upheavals that see a spike, it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred. As it happens, it appears that at least a few editions of, for example, Common Sense and Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania appear in the Google Books database, but again, there’s no allowance for popularity. Furthermore, because of the way in which GB assigns a publication date, both of those publications appear as frequently as twentieth and twenty-first century editions as they do during the period they initially appeared. More importantly, there’s no way to account for newspaper publication of the Farmer’s Letters or excerpts of Common Sense, or of the hundreds of other essays working out political questions during the American Revolution. Both during and after the Revolution, magazines were also important sites for the publication of politics, science, and yes, history, but they aren’t catalogued that way by the Library of Congress. Other scholars have done great work examining the impact of such publications in England during the Civil War (see here and here) and France (see here and here) during its Revolution, just to start.

Last, it’s important to remember that the American colonies during the era of the American Revolution were not saturated with books, by a long stretch. It’s a bit of a simplification, but few books were published in North America because of the expense, and not that many were imported, again because of the expense. So even histories published in Britain that circulated to North America did not do so in great numbers—except, perhaps, in excerpted form in British magazines or American newspapers.

These are some initial thoughts, but I make them to suggest that I find the graphs, attractive as they are, far more problematic than suggestive in what they can show us about reading, publishing, and revolutions.

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July 6, 2012

Fox News: An American Tradition

Filed under: Jeff Pasley's Writings,Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:33 pm

Not necessarily in a good way!

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion here about where the new partisan media of recent times (Fox News and the blogosphere, especially) fit into the history of American journalism. I had forgotten until the following popped on YouTube that I had addressed this very issue in an interview with C-SPAN at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Milwaukee last April.  A typically slick and polished presentation by yours truly (ahem), but it has been suggested that I post it here, so here you go, Joe. Apologies to the gods of television, plus all of the Facebook people and John Fea readers who have already seen this. Send in your video rebuttals!

 

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July 2, 2012

Picking America’s Most Influential Books

Last week, the Library of Congress posted a list of eighty-eight “Books That Shaped America” as part of an exhibition of the same name at the Library. The list includes a disclaimer from Librarian of Congress James H. Billington:

“This list is a starting point,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “It is not a register of the ‘best’ American books – although many of them fit that description. Rather, the list is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not.”

As an early Americanist, the first thing I did was to sort the list by date published, just to see how many early American books made the cut. The verdict: nine from before 1800 (none earlier than 1751) and sixteen from 1850 and earlier (which cuts off the list just before the publication of Moby-Dick and Uncle Tom’s Cabin). On a certain level, that’s fair enough: considerably more books have been published since 1850 than before. In addition, the Library has insisted that the list is a starting point, not the definitive list, and has invited comments and suggestions from the public. (The press release also notes that some books were cut because of limits on the exhibition space.)

I was also curious about the inclusion of Common Sense, for two reasons. First of all, it’s rarely classified as a “book,” but rather a pamphlet. Now, I consider my work to have implications on the field of the “history of the book,” and most of my material comes from newspapers, so I’m certainly open to a broad definition of the book. As I’ll discuss below, opening up the field that way leaves room for some other possible inclusions. Second, Billington notes in the comment above that these were books “written by Americans.” That makes it somewhat odd for Thomas Paine to be on the list. He arrived in Philadelphia from his native England barely eighteen months before the first publication of Common Sense. While the text was written and published first in North America, making it a decidedly American creation, it seems a rather loose definition to call Paine an “American.” The same goes, it was pointed out, for Jacob Riis, native of Denmark. That complication—what to do with immigrants?—bears particular resonance for asking the question of what early American books should be included on the list.

Via Library of Congress Exhibit on American Treasures

Which brings me to the question: what else should be included in the list from the early period? My answer comes from two places. One is simply my research and reading in the field. The other is that I’m thinking about what texts to assign as I put together a U.S. survey syllabus for the fall (though please note that not everything I discuss below would necessarily make sense in toto for an introductory course). To start with, there are a number of ways to judge whether a book “shaped” America. Is it based on readership? Long-term popularity? Sales? Editions? We can discuss those, but since this is a blog post, I’m going with the Potter Stewart approach and justifying choices however necessary.

[NB: I also want to refer everyone to the special issue of Common-place on "Who Reads an Early American Book?"]

First off, if we eliminate the restriction on books written by Americans, by far and away the most important book in early American was the Bible. It was the most widely owned and most widely read book in British North America; it was certainly (and remains to this day, in many respects) a “Book That Shaped America.” Actually, I’m sort of curious what the Library would do with that suggestion, and how to visually display it: the first American Bible in English wasn’t printed until the 1790s, so examples would have to be of European extraction.

Religion is one area that the Library’s list seems to underemphasize. Based simply on reading the list, one would never know about the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s. I’m less of an expert in religious history, but I would suggest as at least representative of that era the collected sermons of George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards. For the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, it would make sense to include Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), on the divine history of the Puritans in New England.

We also ought to consider works that discuss the massive influence of the cultural encounters between Europeans and natives. Perhaps we could include John Eliot’s Bible translated into Algonquian (and already profiled as an American Treasure by the Library of Congress). Or Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, The Soveraignty and Goodness of God, which was first published in 1682 and went through dozens of editions right up to the Revolution. (It also, of course, is a deeply religious text.)

See Lisa M. Gordis, “None Need Think Their Sympathy Wasted,” Common-place, v. 9, no. 3

I would be remiss if I didn’t add at least one title in the political realm. Common Sense was by far the most important publication of the revolutionary period (on which I refer you to Pauline Maier’s fantastic book, American Scripture). Other authors (and publishers) did significant work elsewhere, such as in the Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania. The letters, penned by John Dickinson, were first circulated in newspapers in 1767 and 1768 during the protests over the Townshend Acts and later repackaged as pamphlets in eleven editions from 1768 to 1774. Benjamin Franklin found Dickinson’s arguments against British taxation so well distilled that he arranged for a London edition (to which he could not resist adding his own preface).

Last, it seems important to more closely reflect the urgent importance of the novel in early Republic reading culture. For example, consider Charlotte Temple, written and first published in Britain by Susannah Rowson (another immigrant: she later moved to the United States). The book was the most popular novel of the 1790s, so much so, in fact, that people visited the “grave” of Charlotte Temple in the Trinity Church yard in lower Manhattan. To a lesser extent, the same is true for The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster, which was also popular at the time and has become a popular text in English and history courses.

These are just some first thoughts, of course, and I would never claim that my suggestions are the only ones possible or even that they are the last word. We welcome your thoughts and suggestions in the comments, and by all means please do respond to the Library’s call if you feel so inclined.

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