Alexander Ames is Collections Engagement Manager at The Rosenbach, a historic house museum and special collections library affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book, The Word in the Wilderness: Popular Piety and the Manuscript Arts in Early Pennsylvania (Penn State University Press, 2020). Learn more about The Word in the Wilderness, and listen to Cloister Talk: The Pennsylvania German Material Texts Podcast, at https://www.wordinwilderness.com/.
JF: What led you to write The Word in the Wilderness?
AA: The Word in the Wilderness began with the first substantial research paper I wrote after matriculating in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and Winterthur Museum in 2012. Shortly after arriving at Winterthur, I became fascinated by the various German-language illuminated devotional manuscripts with Pennsylvania provenance that dotted the walls and lined the hallways of the museum. While I soon learned that the documents, commonly called “Fraktur” in Pennsylvania, were well-loved and much-studied as a form of early-American folk art, I never felt quite satisfied with common explanations as to why early German-speakers in Pennsylvania engaged in the manuscript arts. Why deploy Frakturschrift calligraphy as a spiritual enterprise? What texts did scribes write on the artworks, and why? How were the documents actually used by readers? These questions gnawed at me. So, quite naturally, the project grew from a term paper into a master’s thesis, and then into a doctoral dissertation, carrying me from the archives of rural Pennsylvania to Switzerland, Germany, New England, and many other stops along the way.
The project soon focused on two closely-aligned tasks: situating Pennsylvania German devotional manuscripts within broader eighteenth-century German Pietist religious culture, and contextualizing the documents within the general manuscript-making practices of the period. Since beginning my career in special collections libraries, I have made good use of the opportunity to mine Philadelphia-area collections for even more books and documents that shed light on the manuscripts’ meaning. I have reveled in the opportunity to employ the interdisciplinary fields of book history and material culture studies as theoretical foundations for this work—and highlight intriguing artifacts of early American religious history along the way.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Word in the Wilderness?
AA: From approximately 1750 to 1850, the German-speaking residents of southeastern Pennsylvania wielded calligraphy and manuscript illumination as central tools for their Protestant faith practice. The fascinating, if at times seemingly inscrutable, visual and textual artifacts these people left behind allow us to trace the flowering of a rich Christian devotional world in early Pennsylvania, one in which individual believers exercised considerable agency over their spiritual and intellectual lives by means of reading and writing ritually ornamented holy texts.
JF: Why do we need to read The Word in the Wilderness?
AA: The Word in the Wilderness challenges all historians to consider that primary-source documents are not so much clear windows into past worlds as they are richly-textured canvases, on which historical actors inscribed the meaning they found in the world around them. This is an apt metaphor when studying Pennsylvania German illuminated devotional manuscripts, seeing as the documents were intentionally designed as visual artworks. But viewing all books, manuscripts, and other documents simultaneously as texts and material artifacts helps us rethink how the stories of the past come down to us in material form. I hope that my book will be of great interest to anyone who studies the religious, intellectual, and cultural history of early America, but it should also appeal to scholars who wish to explore the potency of material culture and book history as methods of historical analysis.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
AA: I vividly remember the moment that I first visited a special collections library as a researcher. By the time I was pursuing my undergraduate degree, I had already decided on a career in libraries, but when visiting a local historical society to do some research for a speech I had been asked to give, I realized that I could pursue a career that simultaneously affirmed my passion for libraries and allowed me to immerse myself in my lifelong love of history. The “stuff” of history and the collecting work of cultural heritage institutions have always fascinated me, so I pursued graduate study in public history, material culture, museum studies, and American civilization.
Looking back at my childhood, it seems I was destined for a career in history, though it was far from a given at the time. I had a poster of Winston Churchill hanging above my bed at my family home, and it’s still there today, looming over piles of history books that haven’t accompanied my on my various moves and are probably in need of a good dusting. However, I feel very lucky to have landed on a way to forge a career in museums and libraries that allows me to indulge my passion for historical research.
JF: What is your next project?
AA: While writing The Word in the Wilderness, I did a fair amount of comparative research, unearthing religious and other manuscripts made in communities across the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Atlantic World. Some examples of these documents appear in the book, but I have become convinced that a much more expansive story remains to be told about penmanship, calligraphy, and manuscript culture in the early modern period and beyond. In my next project, I hope to use The Word in the Wilderness as a starting point for a broader comparative study of manuscript culture in the Atlantic World.
JF: Thanks, Alexander!