Vaughn Scribner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Central Arkansas. This interview is based on his new book, Inn Civility: Urban Taverns and Early American Civil Society (NYU Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Inn Civility?
VS: OK, nerd alert here. In graduate school I was reading a lot on colonial America’s place in the “Atlantic world,” and was really enjoying it. I was also reading a lot of Tolkien. At one point in The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien describes an inn in Bree:
Down the Road, where it swept to the right to go round the foot of the hill, there was a large inn…Bree stood at an old meeting of ways; another ancient road crossed the East Road just outside the dike at the western end of the village, and in former days Men and other folk of various sorts had traveled much on it. Strange as News from Bree was still a saying in the Eastfarthing, descending from those days, when news from North, South, and East could be heard in the inn, and when the Shire-hobbits used to go more often to hear it. (Tolkien, 162)
As I read this passage, something really clicked—taverns in colonial America were no different than the inn in Bree. They were vital meeting places where peoples from diverse backgrounds with different mindsets could interact, and where “news from North, South, and East could be heard.” This started my deep dive into colonial American taverns, and ultimately culminated in Inn Civility.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inn Civility?
VS: Inn Civility uses the urban tavern—the most numerous, popular, and accessible of all British American public spaces—to investigate North Americans’ struggles to cultivate a civil society from the early eighteenth century to the end of the American Revolution. Such an analysis, this book argues, demonstrates the messy, often contradictory nature of British American society building and how colonists’ efforts to emulate their British homeland ultimately impelled the creation of an American republic.
JF: Why do we need to read Inn Civility?
VS: I think Inn Civility is coming out at an especially poignant time—a time when powerful members of society have these ideals of how society should operate, but are constantly struggling with the messy realities; a time when many of these same powerful members of society make these rules of order, but don’t necessarily have to follow them; and a time when “civility” seems like a distant dream. This book demonstrates that this is nothing new, as eighteenth-century colonists were meeting in taverns and trying to hash out how they thought their “civil society” in British North America should work, but were growing increasingly dismayed at how it actually did work. It also shows that these mechanisms of power and inequality ultimately helped to feed into the American Revolution. Finally, who doesn’t like reading about drinking, gaming, fighting, and rioting in taverns?
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
VS: My students actually asked me this exact question a few days ago, and I was aghast to realize that I didn’t have a specific answer, or some clear “ah ha” moment to tell them about. That said, I give much of the credit to my parents, as well as Professor Louise Breen at my undergraduate institution, Kansas State University. My parents always instilled in me a deep interest in the past, especially through family vacations and our home library. When I arrived at KSU, Dr. Breen ignited in me a passion for colonial America and the American Revolution. Her guidance proved critical in my decision to attend graduate school.
JF: What is your next project?
VS: I have two projects going at the time. I am just wrapping up my second book on a rather odd topic: merpeople. A few years ago, I stumbled across odd references to merpeople in the writings of leading eighteenth-century thinkers, which led me to write a scholarly article on the topic, as well as pieces for blogs and History Today magazine. Now, I am just wrapping up a book on the topic—Merpeople: A Human History (under contract with Reaktion Books, UK)—which demonstrates that humanity’s obsession with merpeople is hardly new: no matter where or when humans have lived, they always seem to find mermaids and mermen. It is in this universal pattern which Merpeople finds its core, as it uses merpeople to gain a deeper understanding of one of the most mysterious, capricious, and dangerous creatures on Earth: humans.
Before Reaktion Books reached out to me to write the merpeople book, I was researching for another project which will be one of the first books to approach the American Revolutionary War from an environmental/climatological perspective. Tentatively titled Under Alien Skies: Environmental Perceptions and the Defeat of the British Army in America, the monograph investigates how British and Hessian soldiers’ perceptions of the New World environment and climate had serious effects on their military effectiveness. Whether stationed in New York City or slogging through the Carolina low country, British soldiers increasingly deemed their strange environs as working against them, while American colonists considered the American landscape a bountiful land of “milk and honey”which would only aid their “glorious”cause. Ultimately, the manuscript argues that scholars cannot truly understand how and why the British Empire lost America without taking perceptions of local environmental and climatological factors into serious consideration.
JF: Thanks, Vaughn!