The Author’s Corner with Cynthia Kierner

inventing disasterCynthia A. Kierner is Professor of History at George Mason University. This interview is based on her new book, Inventing Disaster: The Culture of Calamity from the Jamestown Colony to the Johnstown Flood (The University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

JF: What led you to write Inventing Disaster?

CK: Oddly, the event that inspired the book was Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the Jersey Shore (and New York City) in 2012. Because I grew up going to the shore, and still go there every summer, I found the news coverage of Sandy and the disaster relief efforts after the storm absolutely fascinating. I also noticed that the sorts of stories told about disaster victims and survivors—and the people who helped (or sometimes did not help)—were pretty much the same as after other recent disasters. This led me to wonder about the origins of this way of responding to disasters—what I call a culture of disaster.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Inventing Disaster?

CK: Inventing Disaster traces the gradual coalescence of this modern culture of disaster over nearly three centuries, in the British Atlantic world and then in the independent American republic. In the book, I argue that this new response to calamity grew out of three developments that scholars associate with the Enlightenment: the spread of information via trade, travel, and print; the belief in human agency and progress; and the growing influence of the culture of sensibility.

JF: Why do we need to read Inventing Disaster?

CK: What’s not to like about hurricanes, plagues, and exploding steamboats? Seriously, although the book includes engaging disaster stories and vivid contemporary illustrations, I believe that understanding the historical and cultural roots of our own culture of calamity is a prerequisite for assessing how we approach prevention, relief, and recovery efforts in these disaster-ridden times.

For instance, our approach to disaster today, as I said, is rooted in an Enlightenment-inspired confidence in humanity’s ability to conquer and control nature. Is that confidence sustainable now—was it ever? Should disaster prevention be a matter for government mandates, or for community voluntarism? Should disaster relief be a social priority, and, if so, which people or entities should provide aid to disaster victims and how should it be funded? Is disaster relief first and foremost an expression of sympathy, or an effort to maintain social order? How do disaster stories, in the media and elsewhere, shape our often-conflicted understandings of why disasters happen and how we should plan for them and react in times of crisis? These questions, which were first pondered during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, continue to drive the debates we have about disasters in twenty-first-century America.

For those less interested in current events, the book also offers a different perspective on topics ranging from the changing role of the state (in the British Empire and later in the American Republic) to the evolution of print and visual culture in post-revolutionary America.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CK: I decided to be a historian when I was in college. I entered university expecting to go to law school. But then I met some law students, saw what they were reading (and writing), and decided that history would be much more fun. I was torn between doing British and American history. Being an early Americanist seemed like the perfect compromise.

JF: What is your next project?

CK: I have several. First, I am coediting a collection of essays on American disasters. I also have two smaller-scale early American projects: a cultural history of the earliest U.S. censuses and an article-length study of a remarkably interesting and outspoken woman in revolutionary North Carolina. My next book-length project, however, will likely be a biography of Joan Whitney Payson, art collector, patron of the arts, horse enthusiast, and founding owner of the New York Mets.

JF: Thanks, Cynthia!

The Author’s Corner with Joseph Adelman

AdelmanJoseph Adelman is Assistant Professor of History at Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts.  This interview is based on his new book, Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763-1789 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

JF: What led you to write Revolutionary Networks?

JAThe book sits at the confluence of life and professional experiences that have shaped my thinking for several decades. I’ve long been interested in the American Revolution and in particular the politics of rebellion—how and why the “thirteen colonies” (and only those) decided to form a new nation. Second, between college and graduate school I worked for two years as the communications director for a New York state assemblyman. The work fascinated me, but because I was leaning towards becoming a historian, I often found myself stepping back from my day-to-day responsibilities to think about how various processes and structures of both politics and the media interacted and influenced what happened. So when I came to considering a research topic, I wanted to apply the questions I have about contemporary media to understand how the business of media intersected with politics during the era of the Revolution.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Revolutionary Networks?

JADuring the American Revolution, printers—artisans who worked with their hands at the press and also engaged in intellectual labor of editing and publishing—shaped political debate through the business practices of their trade. From the networks that printers developed across the colonies and around the Atlantic world to individual editorial decisions made in a single printing office, Revolutionary Networks shows how printers navigated a wide range of political and commercial environments to attempt to run successful businesses and also make an impact on the content of political debate.

JF: Why do we need to read Revolutionary Networks?

JAWe often assume that the news media were important during the American Revolution, and in fact many historians who have produced great scholarship on the Revolution require that to be true in order for their arguments to work. But very few have asked how the process of news creation worked—Revolutionary Networks fills that gap. It may seem like a narrow point at first, but what the book tries to document at a really close-in level is that those details matter a great deal. It changes our understanding of the politics surrounding the American Revolution that these artisans were making choices every day about what news to publish, where to situate it in context with other stories, whether to revise or amend the text they received, and so on. What appears on the surface to be a clear articulation of a political position instead is the result of a decisions and negotiations that focused not only on the beliefs of a text’s author but also—and in fact often more so—on the political perspective and business interests of the printer/editor who published the material.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JAI’ve been fascinated by history in general and the American Revolution in particular since I was in elementary school—as memory has it, my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Deuel, gave me a book about the Revolution and it was off to the races. But I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a historian around my sophomore year in college as I immersed myself in scholarly readings. I talked about it with a few of my professors, who cautioned me that it was a difficult path in some ways but offered lots of flexibility (this was around 2000, well before the academic jobs crisis, and came from a privileged undergraduate institution). After the two years with the New York State legislature, I knew I wanted to get a Ph.D. to answer the call to write and teach about the past.

JF: What is your next project?

JAOne of the key institutions that made the printing trade function was the Post Office, and the key player in that entity was Benjamin Franklin. I’ve wanted to do a project that focuses a bit more on Franklin and I’m fascinated by the contradictions in the Post Office’s development—people saw it as a government institution but it has always functioned in many ways as a profit-seeking business. So I’m now writing a history of the post office in early America and the Atlantic world.

JF: Thanks, Joe!

Princeton Seminar: Day 5

Princeton 2018 Fri 5

Our fearless leader Nate McAlister with a Dunlap broadside of the Declaration of Independence.  Only 25 exist and Princeton’s Firestone Library has one of them.

Read all of our Princeton Seminar 2018 posts here.

It was another busy day yesterday at the Gilder-Lehrman Summer Seminar for teachers on the “colonial era.”  The teachers heard lectures on women and dissent in Puritan New England, slave culture in 18th-century South Carolina, and the Enlightenment in America. (My voice is recovering after 4-hours of lecturing!)

The highlight of the day was our annual visit to the Firestone Library Rare Books Department.  Curator Eric White pulled some classic early American texts for us to examine and even broke out one of the original July 4 Dunlap broadsides of the Declaration of Independence.  In addition, we got a look at works by William Bradford Increase Mather, Cotton Mather, John Eliot, William Penn, John Locke, Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, Addison and Steele, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Samuel Smith, Thomas Paine, and Phillis Wheatley.

I love watching the teachers get excited about encountering these documents.  Some of them were moved to tears.

One more day to go!

Princeton 2018 Fri 4

Princeton Fri. 3

Princeton 2018 Fri 3

Princeton 2018 Fri 1

Partisanship and Publishing the Declaration of Independence

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Over at Age of Revolution blog, Emily Sneff of the Declaration Resources Project writes about the partisan fights over the publication of the Declaration of Independence in the early republic.  Here is a taste of her piece:

The tradition of publishing the Declaration annually on July 4 dates much further back, however. In fact, it appears that the first printer to republish the Declaration of Independence on July 4 with the intention of marking the anniversary was also the first printer ever to publish the Declaration: John Dunlap. He and David C. Claypoole included the text on the front page of The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA) on July 4, 1786, the tenth anniversary. By 1801, republishing the Declaration of Independence in newspapers on or around July 4 was a trend on the verge of becoming a tradition and an expectation. The Telegraphe and Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, MD), for example, first included the Declaration by request on July 4, 1799, and republished the text annually through 1806. Before 1801, only a handful of newspapers printed the Declaration in any given year. In 1801, at least twelve newspapers printed the text in late June or early July; by 1806, that number more than doubled. As the individual who requested that the Telegraphe print the Declaration in 1799 wrote to the printer, “you have it in your power to gratify all without displeasing any, by giving it a place…” But, as last year’s tweets proved, even a text as intrinsic to our national identity as the Declaration can become polarizing. The 1801 uptick in July 4 newspaper printings, for example, coincided with a tense moment of political transition, and crystallized in part because of the association between the new President and the Declaration.

Read the entire post here.

A Nice Intro to the Early American Book Trade

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PVF read Francis Brooke in the south Jersey countryside

When I was writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America I spent a lot of time reading scholarship on the book trade in early America.  I was trying to trace the print infrastructure that brought ideas into the southern New Jersey hinterland at the time of the American Revolution.

Elaina Frulla‘s piece at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog reminded me of my work on the book that eventually gave birth to this blog.  Drawing on some of the best scholarship in the field, Frulla identifies “four major methods for distribution and sale of books in early America.  They are:

Bookstores

Libraries

Academic libraries

Book agents and “hawkers.”

This is a great piece for graduate students or those new to the field.  Read it all here.

What Black Readers Read in 1943

Beecher Terrace

Over at History News Network, book historian Jonathan Rose discusses a 1943 study of African American reading habits in Louisville.  Here is a taste:

In 1943 a study of reading habits was conducted in Beecher Terrace, a black Louisville public housing community. At this point “the projects” were new, clean, and well maintained, a vast improvement over the hovels they replaced, and not yet ridden by crime and drugs. The residents were nearly all domestic, service, and industrial workers, but only 11 percent of households were headed by single mothers, and the unemployment rate was just 4.4 percent. As for schooling, 44.2 percent had some elementary education, 44.8 percent had attended high school, and nearly 10 percent had some exposure to higher education. Beecher Terrace offered a range of social and recreational services and was located near a black business district and a segregated branch public library. It was a stable and hopeful community, and although life wasn’t easy, it was improving.

The investigator, Juanita Offutt, visited all 616 homes and interviewed the residents about the books they owned, read, and borrowed from the library. And when she asked about their leisure activities, the most popular answer, volunteered by nearly a third of all residents, was reading. A 1938 study of Cincinnati had found that 34 percent of black homes were bookless, but the figure for Beecher Terrace was just 7.3 percent, though four times as many had only a Bible, and another 13.1 percent only a Bible and dictionary. Nearly half of the Beecher Terrace homes had more substantial libraries, averaging 3.7 novels, 2.3 religious books, and 1.5 works of non-fiction.

Offutt compiled a complete inventory of all the books she found in residents’ homes, a total of roughly 1,800 volumes. Mostly they were standard romantic and detective fiction, Tarzan, westerns, children’s books, religious tomes, Sherlock Holmes, Rudyard Kipling, Louisa May Alcott, and seven copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But there were also some classics: The Arabian Nights, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights (four copies), Pilgrim’s Progress (four copies), James Fenimore Cooper (eight individual volumes plus his collected works), eleven volumes of Charles Dickens (including three of Oliver Twist), Lewis Carroll, Silas Marner (three copies), Madame Bovary, John Dryden’s Marriage à la Mode, The Vicar of Wakefield, Far from the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native, Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Moby Dick, Ivanhoe (three copies), Tristram Shandy, Gulliver’s Travels, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Brave New World, Das Kapital, Thus Spake Zarathustra, and twelve individual Shakespeare plays plus two volumes of his collected works.

There were four volumes of essays by Emerson, a popular author among black autodidacts (Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after him). Eighty-three households stocked some poetry, mainly Robert Browning, Burns, Byron, Chaucer, Coleridge, Virgil, Kipling, Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Masefield, Milton, Thomas Moore, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Whittier, Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and nothing really modern. There was some contemporary middlebrow fiction: Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth (three copies), A. J. Cronin, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (four copies), John Galsworthy, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Main Street and Arrowsmith, Somerset Maugham, O. Henry, All Quiet on the Western Front, Treasure Island (8 copies), The Grapes of Wrath, Booth Tarkington, H. G. Wells, and even P. G. Wodehouse.

And Offutt found seventeen sex manuals, including Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, but mostly common-sense guides for married couples, such as Harland W. Long’s Sane Sex Life and Sane Sex Living. As Offutt conceded: “Frequently the tenants admitted that the books were given to them and that many of them had not been read by any one in the family.” But the sex guides clearly had been bought and thumbed through.

Very few households regularly subscribed to magazines, but some were bought and read at least occasionally: the most popular were Life (23.3 percent of homes), True Stories (21.9 percent), Good Housekeeping (13. 1 percent), and the Ladies Home Journal (8.2 percent), compared to just 3.1 percent for Time and 1 percent for the Crisis, the NAACP organ.

Four out of five households read the Louisville Defender, the local black weekly, a comparable proportion read the white-owned Louisville dailies, and only 5.5 percent of households never took in a newspaper. (In 1943 total circulation for African-American newspapers was 1,613,255, more than triple the figure for 1910, and rising rapidly.)

Read the entire post here.

Why Did *Books and Culture* Die?

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During Q & A following the first plenary session of the State of the Evangelical Mind conference last week, I asked the audience: “What does it say about the state of the ‘evangelical mind’ if evangelicals cannot come up with enough money to support Books & Culture?”

Books & Culture was a Christian review of books edited by John Wilson and published by Christianity Today.  As I noted in an earlier post, Mark Noll’s plenary address at the conference identified Books  & Culture as one of the several signs of a thriving evangelical mind.  Back in January, I wondered how evangelical intellectual life would continue to move forward after Books & Culture.  My blog post called attention to Missouri State sociologist John Schmalzbauer’s piece at Comment magazine titled “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine.”  Noll referenced both Schmalzbauer’s piece and my blog post in his address in Indianapolis.

John Wilson was honored during the conference for his work on Books & Culture. Indiana Wesleyan University, one of the conference sponsors, gave Wilson library bound copies of every issue of the periodical.  It was a very meaningful gift, but someone is going to have to lug those books home! 🙂

Rachel Maxson, a librarian and instructor in the honors college at John Brown University, put the demise of Books & Culture in context.  She began her talk by describing the conference as a “funeral”–a time to “grieve together” over the end of this important periodical.  Maxson pointed to 2007 as the beginning of the end for print periodicals such as Books & Culture.  In that year, Apple released the first iPhone, Amazon introduced the Kindle, the bottom of the housing market dropped out, and Harold Myra retired as the CEO of Christianity Today after thirty-two years at the organization.  Traditional print publication took a serious hit from the iPhone and the Kindle.  The tough economy made it difficult for periodicals such as Books & Culture to raise funds. And following Myra’s retirement, Christianity Today changed in a way that was not entirely clear from Maxson’s presentation.

After diagnosing what happened to Books & Culture, Maxson offered some general observations:

  1. It is too soon to say that “print is dead.”  Maxson pointed to a survey that found that 92% of college students would rather have a print textbook.
  2. Evangelicals interested in promoting Christian thinking need to be more creative in their funding models.
  3. Evangelical public scholars and public intellectuals must be rewarded for their work when they “go up” for tenure and promotion.
  4. Evangelicals need to do a better job of creating “clearing houses” so that Christians know how to find good stuff on the Internet.

These are all excellent points that resonate with the work we do here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  While we are a very small operation, we are slowly advancing our grassroots crowd-sourcing efforts to keep this little corner of Christian intellectual culture up and running.  (Now might be a good time to think about investing in what we do here).  In terms of tenure and promotion, I think Christian colleges have always been places where writing for the public has been rewarded.  I also hope that The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog has been a clearing house to help you navigate the Web in a more thoughtful and responsible manner.

Stay tuned for most posts on the “State of the Evangelical Mind” conference.

Printers, Information, and the American Revolution

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Early in my career I was very interested in the communication of information in early America.  One of the first pieces I ever published was an essay on the way letters were used to spread the First Great Awakening in New England.  One of my favorite reads in graduate school was Richard D. Brown’s Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America.  I remember how thrilled I was when Brown agreed to chair a panel I put together for one of the early Omohundro Institute conferences in Worcester. I continued to explore the spread of information into the New Jersey countryside in my Stony Brook doctoral dissertation and some of this research found its way into my first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

So needless to say, I have been taking a walk down memory lane reading the recent series at Age of Revolutions blog on information networks.

The latest installment is Joe Adelman’s piece on printers.  Here is a taste of ” ‘Meer Mechanics’ No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”:

The men and women who physically produced the texts lauded as key to the American Revolution rarely get their due. Their absence from the story of print and the American Revolution is not by accident, nor is it because scholars have a nefarious agenda to ignore the role of printers. On the contrary, it’s exactly how most, if not all, American colonial printers portrayed themselves and their careers. In so doing, they drew on a long tradition exemplified by Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Franklin declared that he and the Gazette were merely conveyances for the opinions of others, and that his only editorial judgment was to stay within the legal bounds of libel, opened a space for him to publish political essays and news items without claiming responsibility for them. In Franklin’s case, that decision was intentional. That characterization, it turns out, obscures the work printers were doing in their shops and along postal routes. 

Prior to the past ten years, most scholars dismissed printers as manual laborers — men and women who set type and pulled the press, but did not intervene to shape the content of the texts they brought to life. The scholarship of Robert Darnton, however, invites us to think carefully about the full range of people who contributed to printed works: authors and readers, to be sure, but also the intermediaries who brought printed materials to light, including printers, publishers, wholesalers, post riders, and others.  Though his archival research focused on the ancien régime and revolutionary France, Darnton’s methodological interventions have encouraged scholars working on other regions (including British colonial North America, for example) to consider how the processes of production, circulation, and consumption have shaped not only texts but also historical events. Scholars in the past decade have paid more attention to printers and their activities, most notably with the publication of work by Robert Parkinson, Russ Castronovo, and others.  But more broadly it remains a truism that printers were not active participants in the intellectual production of news and arguments about the Revolution.

Read the rest here.

“Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions”

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This is the title of a Fall series of posts at the Age of Revolutions blog. In an introductory post, Bryan Banks tells us what we can expect and sets the series in context. Here is a taste:

Robert Darnton, Emeritus Harvard University librarian and renowned historian of the French Enlightenment, delivered a lecture on the history of communication before a large crowd at the American Historical Association. Only a handful of days after fears of a global collapse (Y2K) subsided, Darnton historicized our own information age and argued that “communication systems” have always shaped events. Darnton described the growing print industry of the eighteenth century, as well as the oral news networks at work in the city of lights, mobilizing le peuple, along with would-be French revolutionary politicians, to revolution.[1] Other historians picked up where Darnton left off, examining the ways that French radical and conservative news outlets shaped the revolutionary experience itself. In short, information networks formed and imagined Revolution.[2] The series we’ve put together here at AoR, seeks to explore the information age of the Age of Revolutions, examining the ways that information traveled and made revolution thinkable.

In many ways, this series covers fairly well-trodden ground, but addresses a very real contemporary issue. Seventeen years later, Darnton’s words continue to ring true — the future and the present are constantly battled over in the media. Our contemporary political world also begs scholars to continue to think about information networks and media politics. For example, eighteenth-century readers shared information in different ways, and any news that challenged one’s political position was called into question. “Fake news” is hardly a new opprobrium.

Read the entire introduction here.

Here is the lineup of posts:

September 6, 2017:

Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt, “Information, Empire, and Roads to Revolution

September 11, 2017:

Joseph M. Adelman, “Meer Mechanics” No More: How Printers Shaped Information in the Revolutionary Age”

September 13, 2017:

Rob Taber, “Rumor and Report in Affiches Améciaines: Saint-Domingue’s American Revolution”

September 18, 2017:

Jordan Taylor, “Information and Ideology in Henri-Antoine Mézière’s Canadian Age of Revolutions”

September 20, 2017:

James Alexander Dun, “Le Cap to Carlisle: News of the Early Haitian Revolution in the United States”

September 25, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part I”

September 27, 2017:

Melanie Conroy, “Visualizing Social Networks: Palladio and the Encyclopédistes, Part II”

September 29, 2017:

Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions Bibliography

What the Founding Fathers Read

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I just learned about Greg Specter‘s Duquesne University course titled What the Founders Read at the Pedagogy & American Literature Studies blog.  It looks great.  Here is a taste of his post on the course:

This semester I’m teaching What the Founders Read. The class is a 200-level literature course and it is cross-listed with Political Science. I had one goal when I began designing the course: make sure that the Founders would run. I made several tactical choices about the focus of the class and the works that I included. I made sure to include Hamilton; I made sure to play that up in the course description. I included works like The Federalist Papers in order to meet the needs of the course’s cross-listed audience. Many of these choices altered my initial vision for the course. As I began planning the day-to-day trajectory of the course, I felt the class leaning towards what the Founders (and Lin-Manuel Miranda) wrote—not what they Founders read. I began to see nothing but problems the foundation of my class. Honestly, I started to rue even thinking about planning and teaching the class. I still find it a challenge to write and think about this course…

In light of the narrow topic of the course’s primary readings, I sought to assign additional resources that introduced a variety of perspectives. Given the topic of the course, the content is largely white and male—a direct result of the topic proposed. I sought to mitigate this limited focus by including a unit on the correspondence of Abigail and John Adams, plus a unit on the poetry of Phillis Wheatley. Still, the women included in the course can be seen as defined in relation to their connection to the Founders. I wanted to include additional voices and perspectives in this class. This is a 200-level course with a lot to cover. I did not want to add a wealth of secondary materials, but it would be irresponsible in a course like this not to include current critical conversations related to the Founders. I tried to reach a middle ground on this issue in two ways. First, I wanted the course to have a component that focused on public scholarship: pieces that were easy to read, models of writing for a general audience, but still rigorous. I selected works from popular media, blogs, podcasts, and other sources.

I tried the best that I could to include a diversity of voices and perspectives in the class, especially regarding scholarship by women, but I need to do better. In selecting readings and podcasts I added as many voices as I could. In day-to-day course meetings I try to be aware of which voices I emphasize from our readings. I try to point out these disparities in class discussion. Though the course doesn’t emphasize assigned secondary readings directly from journals or books, I want students to come away from the class aware of the ongoing critical conversations– like those that inspired the Women Also Know History initiative. In selecting the assigned pieces I made sure to select works that could act as conduits to additional secondary sources. I also created a Twitter list that could be a student resource.

Read the entire post here.

“A suit of tar and turkey-buzzard feathers”

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Samuel Seabury

The Monmouth County, New Jersey Committee of Observation and Inspection REALLY didn’t like the pamphlet Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress.  The author of the pamphlet was listed as “A.W. Farmer,” a pen name for Westchester, New York Anglican minister Samuel Seabury.  Some of you recognize Seabury from the musical “Hamilton.”

Here is a taste of the Committee’s minutes from March 1775:

At an early meeting of said Committee, a pamphlet entitled Free Thoughts on the Resolves of the Congress by A.W. Farmer, was handed in to them and their opinion of it asked by a number of their constituents then present.  Said pamphlet was then read, and upon mature deliberation unanimously declared to be a performance of the most pernicious and malignant tendency; replete with the most specious sophistry but void of any solid or rational argument; calculated to deceive and mislead the unwary, the ignorant, and the credulous; and designed no doubt by the detestable author to damp that noble spirit of union, which he sees prevailing all over the Continent, and if possible to sap the foundations of American freedom.  The pamphlet was afterwards handed back to the people, who immediately bestowed upon it a suit of tar and turkey-buzzard’s feathers; one of the persons concerned in the operation justly observing that although the feathers were plucked from the most stinking fowl in the creation he though they felt far short of being a proper emblem of the author’s odiousness to every advocate for true freedom.  The same person wished, however, he had the pleasure of fitting him with a suit of the same materials.  The pamphlet was then in its gorgeous attire, nailed up firmly to the pillory post, there to remain as a monument of the indignation of a free and loyal people against the author and vendor of a publication so evidently tending both to subvert the liberties of America and the Constitution of the British Empire.

Apparently violence was not only directed toward other human beings during the American Revolution.  It was also directed to pamphlets!

Prayer Books and the American Revolution

Book_of_common_prayer_1662Over at the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Sara Georgini of the Massachusetts Historical Society examines the impact of the American Revolution on Boston Anglicans through a close reading of their prayer books.  Georgini describes the “humble prayer book” as “a key intellectual artifact of the revolution.”  In the process she also provides us with a nice little slice of revolutionary-era lived religion.

Here is a taste of her post:

Church records tell us half the tale of how people “lived” religion while turning their hearts and minds to full-scale war. But modern revolutions run on reading material, and all books have biographies. To get at early America’s shifting worship politics, let’s “track changes” in the Books of Common Prayer amended by Anglican and Episcopal laity in the 1770s and 1780s (shown here). As they changed ways of daily worship, Americans imprinted a new language of selfhood and statehood. They road-tested national rhetoric, long before they had any clear, constitutional vision of what that nation might look like. (For more, check out John Fea’s #ChristianAmerica? post, too). Parishioners moved around sacraments to suit new needs. The laity’s handwritten edits in prayer book margins—scraping off “King of Kings” and pasting over rote prayers for the royal family—operated as cultural cues for political change. At critical moments in the war, as colonists endured sieges and made sacrifices, they edited their prayer books to endorse turns in popular thought at the local level. During a holiday week when we think about declarations of independence big and small—and in a year marking the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary—the humble prayer book still serves as a key intellectual artifact of revolution.

At the same time, these volumes were signs of consensus and communion in the Atlantic World. Books of Common Prayer first reached America’s shores alongside the earliest settlers. Often, the 1662 edition printed by London’s John Baskerville was formally issued to new American churches by the Royal Wardrobe. At Old North Church in Boston, vestrymen of 1733 opened a green-baize lined trunk mailed “from the Jewell Office.” Next to sterling silver communion plate, velvet pulpit cushions, and a Bible emblazoned with the royal arms, lay a second cache. Old North vestry received two prayer books, “bound in Turkey leather strung with blue garter ribbon and trimmed with gold fringe” and a dozen more for the community to share, all “bound in Calf Gilt & filleted & strung with blue Ribbon.” Prayer books were more than highly prized signals of royal favor. These worship aids consolidated five liturgical texts: daily offices, Litany, Holy Communion, pastoral offices, and the ordinal. As Rowan Williams suggests, the Book of Common Prayer outlines theological positions, but it is “less the expression of a fixed doctrinal consensus… more the creation of a doctrinal and devotional climate.” Across the Atlantic World, Anglo-American clergy used them to convey a community’s civilization, and learning. In fractured parishes, buying prayer books was often the sole purchase that everyone agreed on.

Read the entire post here.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin J. Hayes

GW BooksKevin J. Hayes, Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Central Oklahoma, now lives and writes in Toledo, Ohio. This interview is based on his new book, George Washington, A Life in Books (Oxford University Press, 2017).

JF: What led you to write George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: After finishing The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson, I began searching for a similar project, that is, another intellectual life of a major figure in early American history. Once I started researching Washington’s life of the mind, other historians tried to discourage me, asserting that Washington had little intellectual life. My preliminary research told me different. The more I researched the more I realized I could tell a story of Washington’s life unlike any previous biography.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: My book presents a biography of Washington that concentrates on how the books he owned and read shaped the man he became. Organized chronologically and thematically, George Washington, A Life in Books examines many different subject areas Washington studied — devotional literature, histories, travel writing, political pamphlets, agricultural manuals — and situates them within the context of his public and private life.

JF: Why do we need to read George Washington, A Life in Books?

KJH: Though there are numerous Washington biographies available, mine presents a fresh look at Washington, portraying him as both a reader and a writer. It provides a unique view of Washington’s life and adds a completely new dimension to the story of a man we thought we knew.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

KJH: I chose to attend graduate school at the University of Delaware because it was one of the best places in the country to study American literature during the eighties. Professor J. A. Leo Lemay, a leading scholar of early American literature, informed me about the numerous opportunities in his field. In addition to the critical study of literature, the field of early American literature would let me pursue parallel interests in American intellectual history and the history of the book. Researching the literary history of early America, I could be both literary scholar and historian.

JF: What is your next project?

KJH: I write biographies. This summer, Reaktion, a London publisher, will release my next book, Herman Melville, as part of its series Critical Lives. Over the past few years I have unearthed a considerable amount of new information about Benjamin Franklin, which I am now incorporating in an book-length study of Franklin’s life and writings.

JF: Thanks, Kevin!

Jack Chick, Fundamentalist Writer of Tracts, is Dead

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Jack Chick, the author of hundreds of tracks instructing fundamentalists how to avoid the hell (and Catholics), has passed away.  Lest one think that Chick’s influence only extended to the evangelical subculture, it is worth noting that the New Republic has published a piece on his death.

Here is a taste of Sarah Jones’s obituary:

Chick, who produced hundreds of fundamentalist Christian tracts over 50 years, passed yesterday at the age of 92. He was initially known for tracts like “This Was Your Life,” which used compelling and sometimes frightening visuals to depict fundamentalist beliefs about hell and salvation. His contribution to the Satanic Panic rightfully earned him public infamy, as did his fear-mongering about feminism, LGBT rights, New Age spirituality, and even Catholicism.

Chick was a true cultural separatist whose doctrinal views were heavily influenced by works like The Fundamentals and Charles Finney’s Power From On High. Only the King James Version of the Bible sufficed; Satan is directly responsible for all other translations. Catholics? They’ve eaten the infamous Death Cookie and are doomed to hell. Infant baptism? Dangerous heresy! Dungeons and Dragons? If you have to ask, you’ve probably got one foot in the lake of fire already.

A few of Chick’s views, specifically on abortion, evolution, and LGBT people, possess a pernicious longevity. He celebrated AIDS as just deserts for anyone who didn’t adhere to his stringent sexual standards—a sentiment 14 percent of Americans still believe:

But in other respects, his obsessive cultural puritanism has fallen out of vogue. There are still some proponents, found mostly in Independent Fundamentalist Baptist churches and institutions like Bob Jones University and Pensacola Christian College, but they’re a minority, doomed partially by their own separatism. Evangelicalism dominates.

With that domination came the cultural acquiescence Chick so feared. Conservative Catholics and Protestants are now allies in the culture wars, and the targets of that war have shifted a bit. Nobody cares about Dungeons and Dragons these days, and it’s been a long time since anyone publicly burned a Harry Potter book. Young evangelicals (no survey separates evangelicals from fundamentalists) are softer than older generations on issues like evolution and LGBT rights. That’s a strong indication that Chick’s version of Christianity is set to become increasingly obscure.

This Chick tract was a classic.  I read it around the time of my conversion to evangelicalism as a high school student.

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The Author’s Corner with Jonathan Yeager

Edwards and PrintJonathan Yeager is UC Foundation Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. This interview is based on his recent book Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016).

JF: What led you to write Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I enjoyed researching and writing the last two chapters of my first book on the Scottish Presbyterian minister John Erskine (1721-1803). In these chapters, I discussed how Erskine helped disseminate and publish the works of several evangelical authors, including many of Jonathan Edwards’s posthumous books. While conducting research for these chapters, I benefited greatly from reading Richard Sher’s seminal monograph,
The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and Their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 2007). Because Sher’s book was devoted exclusively to secular and theologically liberal Scottish Enlightenment authors, I thought that I might be able to make a scholarly contribution on eighteenth-century evangelicals and publishing. I discovered that no one has ever written on the history of Jonathan Edwards’s publications, and so I started to write an article on how his major works were published in the eighteenth century. I amassed so much material on Edwards’s publications–especially on the various people behind the scenes who helped publish his works–that I decided to write a full-length monograph on this topic.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: I make two major arguments that can be summarized as the following: First, even though Jonathan Edwards can rightly be described as a theological genius and the foremost American revivalist of the eighteenth century, much of his success was dependent on a host of booksellers, printers, and editors who helped publish his works before and after his death. Second, evangelicals like Edwards cared how their books appeared in print, even thought they worked harder at disseminating their works for evangelistic purposes than making profits from their publications.

JF: Why do we need to read Jonathan Edwards and Transatlantic Print Culture?

JY: There has been
a lot written about Jonathan Edwards. But nearly all the scholarship has focused on his life and thought. In order to have the fullest understanding of Edwards and other eighteenth-century authors, we need to examine the publishing history of their books. I want readers to see that Edwards’s ideas were packaged in a particular format, with various options in sizes, bindings, paper and font quality, and pricing that made a difference in the reception of his works. More importantly, a number of people, acting as booksellers, printers, and editors, made most of the decisions on how Edwards’s books should appear in print and how they should be marketed to the public. Edwards had a definite idea on how he wanted his books to look, but he did not know the best way to have them published so that they would be appealing to the public (without giving too much away, I show this in a few case studies within my book). Knowing all this to be true, I argue that we need to take a closer look at how individuals such as these contributed to his success as an internationally-recognized author.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

JY: In 1998, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in business administration and then went on to work as a financial consultant for five years with two different brokerage firms in Florida. About halfway through my time as a broker, I became disillusioned with the business and began reading a lot of books on church history and theology. With my wife’s blessing, I resigned from my job in 2004, sold our house, and moved my family to Vancouver, Canada to study theology at Regent College. At the time that we moved, I simply wanted to gain more knowledge about Christianity. I was having so much fun in Vancouver learning about my faith, snow skiing, and hanging out with friends from multiple denominations all over the world, that after finishing a MA in Christian Studies, I stayed for an additional ThM degree in theology. In my last year in Vancouver, I began corresponding with David Bebbington, who helped me with a thesis that I was working on at Regent College under J. I. Packer. Later that same year, I was able to meet Bebbington in person, and he and I talked about studying history with him in Scotland. After much thought and prayer, my family and I decided to move to Scotland in late 2006 to begin my PhD. My time in Vancouver and Scotland highlight my twin interests of theology and history. I feel very fortunate to have a job that allows me to do research and teach in both fields. 

JF: What is your next project?

JY: My immediate plan is to write an article on the publication of Samuel Hopkins’s System of Doctrines (1793). This mammoth two-volume book by Edwards’s disciple became the first systematic theology of the so-called New Divinity movement, and helped shape the next generation of Edwardseans. After this project, who knows.

JF: Thanks, Jonathan!

The AAS Printers’ File Is Being Digitized

Printers fileThe American Antiquarian Society‘s Printers’ File contains information on 6000 people who were involved in the early American book trade. Emily Wells, a staff member at the AAS and an incoming College of William and Mary graduate student, will be working on the project this summer.

Here is a taste of her report at the AAS blog, Past in Present:

At present, this resource is only available to researchers who are able to visit the reading room and peruse the cards in person. To make the Printers’ File more easily accessible, AAS is working to digitize and transfer the information recorded on these cards to a linked open data resource. Not only will this resource make the Printers’ File available to anyone with a computer and internet access, but it will also allow researchers to answer complex research queries and draw connections between the people and places recorded within the scope of the project.

As the person hired to enter data, I am working to interpret and transfer the information written on the original typewritten cards to a digital environment while also helping to formulate guidelines that will standardize the data entry process. Through my work with the Printers’ File, I have discovered that there is a fundamental difficulty that arises when attempting to fit biographical information into a standardized format. To create a working dataset, one must determine the best way to field a person’s life experience, something that is inherently messy and complex, within the limits of a data entry form.

Read the entire post here.

Historians are very excited about this development, perhaps none more than Joseph Adelman of Framingham State University in Massachusetts.  Here is a taste of a post he wrote at his blog:

A few weeks ago I was grouchy about the prospects of closed digitization projects in early American history. This morning I’m ecstatic. At the Past is Present blog of the American Antiquarian Society, Emily Wells writes today about her experience working to digitize the AAS Printers’ File, a massive compendium of information about participants in the American printing trades from 1639 to 1820.

I’m particularly excited about this project because the research for my dissertation/first book so heavily relied on the twenty or so drawers of salmon-colored cards in the AAS reading room. In fact, the first summer after I moved to Massachusetts I spent several weeks doing nothing but go through the card catalog, drawer by drawer, to build my own database of printers from the 1750s to the 1790s for the purposes of my research.

If you read Wells’s post, you’ll see just how sophisticated she and her AAS colleagues have had to get in order to capture the complexity of biographical information on the cards (for which we all owe an enormous debt to Avis Clarke). To give you a comparison, let me show you the slide I used in a few job talks to discuss my database:

Read the rest of Joseph’s post here.

A Tour of the American Antiquarian Society

AASOur reports from the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Providence last weekend continue to roll in.  Elise Leal is a Ph.D candidate in American history at Baylor University.  She is  working on dissertation on the relationship between evangelicalism, social reform, and childhood in the early nineteenth century with a particular focus on the American Sundays school movement.  Read all of her posts here. –JF

On the third day of OAH 2016, I participated in a special tour of the American Antiquarian Society. Six other conference attendees joined my bright and early Saturday morning for the drive to Worcester. I was the only graduate student, as the majority of the group were archivists, plus a high school history teacher. One of the archivists was a native of Massachusetts and regaled us with interesting historical facts about the state to help pass the time. For example, I learned that if you take the commuter rail from Worcester to Boston, it will take you just as long to get there today as it did in the late nineteenth century due to the slow speed of the trains.

We were greeted at the archive by Paul Erickson, AAS Director of Academic Programs, and James Moran, AAS Director of Outreach. They began the tour by sharing a brief history of the Society’s illustrious founder, Isaiah Thomas. A Revolutionary War era patriot and printer, Thomas was an outspoken promoter for independence in his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy, which forced him to flee from Boston to Worcester in 1775 to escape being arrested by the British. In 1812, Thomas founded the American Antiquarian Society (then called the American Society of Antiquities) out of his personal library, creating the first historical society established in the United States with a national focus. The AAS now houses the largest collection of materials produced before 1820 and is surpassed in total collections size only by the Library of Congress.

One thing that I appreciated about the tour was that it was structured without being restrictive. After the brief historical overview, Paul and Jim took us through the main AAS Postcard.jpgreading room and upper conference room containing historical memorabilia (think commemorative china plates sporting Lafayette’s face or a grandfather clock belonging to John Hancock). They then spent the majority of the tour taking us through various archival stacks. Throughout this whole process, they let us wander around with a fair degree of freedom and allowed us to handle many of the historical documents. For example, the first archival room we visited housed the AAS’s extensive collection of eighteenth and nineteenth-century newspapers. Paul and Jim pulled a selection of these newspapers for us to view, and they generously let us pour over these documents to our hearts’ content (it definitely took awhile…) My personal favorite, though, was the next room, which housed the nineteenth-century literature, pamphlets, graphic arts, maps, and the like. Paul asked about our research interests a few days before the tour, and he had prepared a lovely stack of American Sunday School Union books for me to view. Of course, the Revolutionary War letters from British officers, eyewitness accounts of an eighteenth-century cross-dresser, the mid-nineteenth century Valentine’s cards, and the giant hand-drawn genealogies that he pulled for other tour members were pretty cool too.

Speaking of cool things, Paul pointed out a large collection of railroad sources that have never been viewed and said that he’d love to have someone come use them for a project. If there are any early stage graduate students reading this, I’ve just found you a dissertation topic. You’re welcome.

In all, this two-hour tour was definitely worth the trip to Worcester. I got a fascinating insiders view of how archives are run from two very engaging AAS staff members. I also got to view a range of rare historical documents, some of which I didn’t know existed let alone thought I would handle. Many thanks to the American Antiquarian Society, and to Paul and Jim in particular, for making my first OAH experience that much more enjoyable.

Newspapers and British Identity in 18th-Century Quebec City and Halifax

If you have not discovered Borealia, you should go check it out.  The editors of this blog are pushing us to expand our understanding of early America to include Canada. (Of course scholars have been doing this for a long time, but I appreciate the effort of the folks at Borealia to bring the conversation to a larger reading public).

I just finished reading Keith Grant’s excellent review of Michael Eamon’s Imprinting Britain: Newspapers, Sociability, and the Shaping of British North America. Eamon uses newspapers to show how the so-called “public sphere” found its way to the British cities of Quebec City and Halifax.  I have been fascinated with these kinds of studies since graduate school.  Discussions of print culture, sociability, and the Enlightenment in early America influenced my 2008 book The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America.

Here is a taste of Keith Grant‘s review:

Eamon’s cultural definition of Britishness also includes the moderate Enlightenment’s emphasis on “useful” and “improving” knowledge. He gives us enticing glimpses of Haligonians who participated, however modestly, in the transatlantic Republic of Letters, as well as the surprising liberality of Governor Frederick Haldimand’s Quebec Library. Newspapers, almanacs, and magazines disseminated Enlightenment science in abridged form to a broad reading public.
Colonial newspapers were closely allied with other kinds of face-to-face sociability. The pages of colonial newspapers aired debates about the propriety of Freemasonry, theatres, and coffeehouses, with printers often advocating for their usefulness. As the detailed appendices demonstrate, those papers prove to be one of the few windows into colonial associative life, and readers are indebted to Eamon for cataloguing mentions of societies, coffeehouses, and plays performed in Halifax and Quebec City. Northern winters were no obstacle to flourishing social scenes, as one Quebec City correspondent reported in December 1790: “Tho’ surrounded with Ice and Snow, we enjoy health & are at least as social as in any other quarter of the Globe” (116).
Eamon charts a shift in colonial associative life as the eighteenth century progressed, from sociability for the sheer pleasure of it toward an increasing concern for the public good. “Let the social virtues shine / Doing good is sure divine,” declared a Masonic song printed in a Nova Scotia newspaper (135). (The Illuminati conspiracy theorists among our readership will be interested—perhaps apprehensive—to know that every eighteenth century governor and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia was a Freemason! [133])
Mention “print” and “sociability” in the same sentence, and cultural theorist Jürgen Habermas’ concept of the “bourgeois public sphere” is sure to come to mind.  However, though it was incubated in similar coffee houses and likewise deliberated through a burgeoning print culture, the public sphere of British North America, Eamon argues, was less egalitarian than its bourgeois European or republican American counterparts. The colonial print community created “hybrid spaces of sociability and social control” (11), and its discourse “favoured consensus and balance over discord and radical change” (189). Imprinting Britain will find a place on reading lists on British North American sociability and the public sphere, alongside works by Jeffrey McNairn, Darren Ferry, and David Sutherland.

The Author’s Corner with Eric Gardner

Eric Gardner is Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University.  This interview is based on his most recent book, Black Print Unbound:  The Christian Recorder, African American Literature, and Periodical Culture (Oxford UP, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Black Print Unbound?

EG: Most immediately, writing a chapter on the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s newspaper for my last book—Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (UP of Mississippi, 2009)—confirmed my sense that there were several books that needed to be written about the Christian Recorder.  For a host of reasons, I’m convinced that it was the single most important Black periodical in the nineteenth century, and its amazing stories—stories that can aid students of literature, culture, history, faith, and activism—have barely begun to be told.  I wanted to focus on the years during and just after the Civil War because most histories of Civil War print culture (especially literature) are lily white, and much work on nineteenth-century African American literature deemphasizes or even skips over the War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of Black periodicals and/or Black church print.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Black Print Unbound?

EG: While filled with specific arguments on diverse texts, individuals, and events, Black Print Unbound’s larger argument is that the Christian Recorder in specific and both faith-centered structures and Black periodicals more generally represented critical modes for African Americans to insert themselves in an often-hostile American print culture.  Black Print Unbound is thus both a call to and an example of the ways in which we might rethink American literary history to make room for voices, genres, and print venues that have been ignored, forgotten, dismissed, and willfully erased.

JF: Why do we need to read Black Print Unbound?

EG: As a study of a periodical of national reach among free African Americans, Black Print Unbound is at once a massive recovery effort of a publication by African Americans for African Americans, a consideration of the nexus of African Americanist inquiry and print culture studies, and an intervention in the study of literatures of the Civil War, faith communities, and periodicals.  At its most basic and as one of the fullest studies of an early Black periodical done to date, it shares information on a massive number of authors, texts, editors, and print processes that have much to say to our current moment and are ripe for further study.  The book also offers the most in-depth study of early Black periodicals subscribers (and likely readers) in existence—and does so in a way that attends to both broad demographic trends and the stories of several individuals.  The book pairs this kind of rich cultural and material history with close analysis of diverse and often unknown texts that were crucial to the development of African American literature and culture and that challenge our senses of genre, authorship, and community.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

EG: This is a tough question, as my degrees, disciplinary home, and teaching are all in literary studies.  But, if pressed, I’d say gradually and partially in answer to the first part of the question and out of both love and necessity to the second.  I came to literary studies in large part because of a fascination with the past and with the stories we tell (and don’t tell) about our pasts.  The more I moved toward an emphasis on early Black print culture, the more I understood that careful historical work was and would be simply essential in helping correct the myriad misconceptions surrounding African Americans and print in the nineteenth century.  I spent a long time early in my career simply learning more, engaging with historians and cross-disciplinary scholars, immersing myself in archival work, learning to appreciate the craft of history more fully, and thinking about its intersections with literary scholarship.  When I call myself by the old-school term “literary historian,” I thus try to invoke the dance of disciplines and the necessity of dialogic approaches to our work.

 JF: What is your next project?

 EG: Another tough question, because there is so much work to do.  I’m currently engaged with three large projects: a study of the early Black press in San Francisco, further consideration of the Recorder during the editorial term of Benjamin Tucker Tanner (a kind of sequel to Black Print Unbound, if you will), and more in-depth study of women writers connected to church print (especially Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, but also Edmonia Goodelle Highgate and a range of other folks).  You’ll also soon see publication of a special issue of the journal American Periodicalsfocused on Black periodical studies that I co-edited with Joycelyn Moody.

JF: Thanks, Eric!