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Jared Sparks’ American Archives

by guest contributor Derek O’Leary

Jared Sparks—editor, historian, Harvard president—deposited a bundle of primary documents at Boston’s Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in the fall of 1838. It held a dozen or so political tracts, pamphlets, and newspapers from the middle of the previous decade capturing developments in the South American republics. There was nothing exceptional in such a Brahmin’s contribution to those archives, founded as the nation’s first historical society in 1791. A glance at the catalogues of donations and acquisitions in the MHS’s early decades reveals a local elite eager to give to its burgeoning collections. By also enticing a fairly far-flung network of corresponding members to contribute, the MHS exercised a strong centrifugal force. Within slighter orbits, the many state and local historical societies springing up from the 1820s onward followed this model, as H.G. Jones has shown most recently. Such new societies along the seaboard and in frontier cities drew toward them the scattered material record of the American past. And, dispersing diplomas and recognition, they urged filial piety to a swiftly passing revolutionary generation, which many were delighted to perform.

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Harvard president line-up (1861) with Sparks at center

Accessions piled up at the MHS. So, amid the compendia of donations in the first half of the nineteenth century, there is no reason Sparks’s modest collection of documents should stand out. But if stepping back or peering in closer, how can we read the construction of such American archives, and the meaning of a modest contribution like Sparks’s within them? Giving to an early archive represented the performance of some relationship with the American past, and it often implied a particular vision of the nation and its prospects. Closely reading these donations can reveal historical perspectives or arguments against what the societies might have imagined. On the broader phenomenon of performing and contesting historical consciousness in the early republic, scholars such as David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman have explored how it played out in the streets. In the text, the contentiousness and contingencies of telling the colonial and revolutionary past has emerged in such works as Edward Watt’s fascinating reading of competing American narratives of the French colonial legacy, and this intriguing anthology on memory and accounts of the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile, the nineteenth-century historical discipline has received close re-examination more recently by Eileen Ka-May Cheng. But the construction of the American archive itself remains a murkier place.

An MHS circular letter first authored in 1791 by founding member and seminal American document-gatherer Jeremy Belknap and addressed to “to every Gentleman of Science in the Continent and Islands of America” gives a sense, at least, of their early archival imagination. In order to “collect, preserve, and communicate materials for a complete history of this country,” the MHS called on towns to respond to their fourteen-point memorandum, which ranged across military history, religion, population statistics, topographical description, traces of Indian life, economic production, and educational institutions. Fellow founder Thomas Wallcut cast the ambitious scope of the society: “A collection of observations and descriptions in natural history and Topography, together with specimens of natural and artificial curiosities and a selection of every thing which can improve and promote the historical knowledge of our Country, either in a physical or political view, has long been considered as a Desideratum” (Thomas Wallcut, 1791, Massachusetts Historical Society Archives, 1758-1934, Officer and Council Records, Box 7, MHS).

Circular Letter, of the Historical Society, Jeremy Belknap, 1791, MHS

It was quite a desideratum, reissued in the following decades. Its numbered requests may have implied some proto-social scientific approach—perhaps belied by such inclusions as “singular instances of longevity and fecundity.” But it led to an unmanageable influx of paper and objects. In its first few decades, donors sent—or sought to sell—hundreds of election sermons, newspapers and pamphlets, personal papers and correspondence and Indian land deeds—satisfying at least some of the society’s stated aims.

Meanwhile, however, items more aptly deemed curious or totemic streamed in. This should not imply any clear partition between written and non-written traces of the past. Objects could be inscribed with or accompanied by text, and written records could surely attain meaning beyond their literal content. Tamara Plakins Thornton’s work on handwriting in the early US explores that theme, such as in the significance of autographs for appraisers and ravenous collectors. However, in the motley array of relics and specimens that Americans culled from their continent and the foreign world they increasingly encountered, the MHS collections brimmed over from the historical and into the encyclopedic. This is not to say these were all superfluous curios. But the whole is hard to read, and the sometimes intricate import of a donation can feel lost in the mélange. For instance, to take a snippet of donations reported at a 1792 meeting:

“…From Col. Andrew Symmes, One of the largest kind of spears used by the Savages on the N West Coast of America; Some hooks from the Northwest Coast and Sandwich Islands—a Ruler of Petrified Rice—and a Chinese Spoon […]”

“From Mr Elisha Sigourney an Egg of the Ostrich and some Shells from the Islands of the Indian Ocean [….]”

From one angle, these appear as a scattershot of exotic souvenirs, consigned to the relative obscurity of the society’s cabinet. And indeed, the MHS cabinet does not appear as a particularly accessible or well-curated site during these years. Yet from another perspective, it is a carbon copy in artifacts of the most ambitious and elaborate of American trade routes in the Early Republic—great oceanic arcs sweeping from New England, around South America to the Pacific Northwest, to the South Pacific, and onward to Canton, China, perhaps returning westward via the Indian Ocean. Stocked along the way, ginseng, silver, sea otter pelts, bêche-de-mer and other products proved barely enough to purchase coveted Chinese manufactured goods for delighted American consumers. It was a Boston story in particular—and one of great wealth and prestige, as much about inscribing the future as a record of the past.

Over decades, patriotic relics and Indian artifacts trickled in alongside such foreign and natural specimens. Again, though, items charged with a particular historical or other meaning can seem to homogenize in the archival catalogue. In 1832, John Watson of Germantown, Pennsylvania, and author of an often reprinted Annals of Philadelphia, sent northward various items. He presented an almanac annotated by English scholar Gilbert Wakefield, asserting that, “hand writing of such a venerable Patriot is a relic itself.” More literally, though, he also dispatched this hockey puck-sized box of relic wood, whether his own or another’s creation. On its bottom, he described its quadrants: “Walnut tree before the Hall of Independence-of the former forest there. The Mahogany is of Columbus’ house, St. Domingo, 1496. The Elm is of Penn’s Treaty tree Philda. The Oak, is part of a bridge once over Dock Creek, at Chestnut Street. The Gum is the last forest tree alive at Philda.-1832. ’Such relics as devotion holds / All sacred & preserves with pious care.’ ”

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Keepsake box donated by John Watson, 1832, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

Authentic or not, the artifact’s invocation of Columbus, colonial Pennsylvania, the Founding, and contemporary Philadelphia was a powerful composite of metonymic associations. His donation may not have so much preferred the MHS over his own state’s repositories as it vaunted Pennsylvania’s preeminent place in American history. Indeed, his concluding verse sacralizes it. Again, such items may in theory contribute to broader archival “desideratum” of comprehensively telling the country’s past, but they also imagine variations—sometimes contentious ones—of the national stories emerging at that time.

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Back of Watson’s keepsake box, Boxes 03.025 East Stack, MHS

These and sundry other items intersperse the long and narrow, chronological columns of documents in accession books at the MHS, as in many other historical societies’ catalogs. These columns almost teeter under the awkward diversity of things piled up to tell a part of the American past. At once, those columns might also appear to homogenize acquisitions into some unitary narrative project. Returning to Sparks, his bundle of documents appears as just a few blocks of text in these columns. Alongside myriad sermons, and such varied artifacts and singular relics, how could we interpret his papers as more than lines among many lines of accessions? And amid the arrival of so much, how could historical society members, the curious public, and visiting researchers broach it all? Though Sparks’s gift makes easy sense in the contexts of performing elite male identity and of heteroglossic donations, it fits oddly in the context of his life and work.

Sparks’s literary labors produced such ambitious undertakings as his editorship of The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (1829-30) and The Library of American Biography (1834-38), alongside publications of the life and writings of John Ledyard, Gouverneur Morris, and Benjamin Franklin. Beginning in the mid-1820s, though, his most abiding, near obsessive project, atop any archival pantheon, was the collection, curation, and republication of George Washington’s papers (1834-38). He fought and won access via Judge Bushrod Washington to Washington’s papers at Mt. Vernon. He roved the US and visited European state archives. He recorded oral histories. And he activated a wide-ranging network of correspondents. Day by day, in this mammoth effort of re-composition, he accumulated a massive collection of Washington’s doings and writings, along with quite a few artifacts. Throughout his diaries, we see through his gaze a geography of unrecovered papers and a demography appraised by individuals’ access to them. He became a perambulating archive of sorts. Only begrudgingly in 1835 did Sparks ultimately transfer to the US State Department the 192 bound manuscript volumes of Washington’s papers which he had already sold to them. (Indeed, he seems to have flirted with the idea of using them as a security for a $5000 loan that year.)

This drive to gather and keep propelled Sparks’s many labors, including those behind his spirited effort to build a collection of the South American revolutions and early independence in the mid-1820s. From the vantage point as editor of the North American Review, he pressed the US consular officers and diplomats stationed throughout the new South American republics, as well as local men of state and letters, to collect and dispatch all documents covering the full sweep of revolution and independence there. He wrote in rhythm with the approaching Panama Congress of 1826, orchestrated by Simón Bolívar, and aspiring to coordinate a South American security policy against feared infringement by Spain and the Holy Alliance. As Sparks began to comb the North American landscape for the written traces of its revolution, he simultaneously looked southward from 1824. In his many letters there, we sense his urgency to educate his compatriots about South America, to compile a comprehensive history of their revolutions, and perhaps to tell a hemispheric history of American revolution to suit the inchoate geopolitical vision of the Monroe Doctrine. His appeals for paper, and reproofs when it was not forthcoming, crescendoed as the US Congress debated sending a delegation to Panama.

And then, suddenly, they stopped. Surely discouraged by the miscarriage of the US delegation and the potential for inter-American concert, Sparks moved on. He redirected his energies from South America to the American South and Canada, and then across the Atlantic to the French and British records of his republic’s independence. This North Atlantic story replaced a budding hemispheric imagination. A decade later, Sparks deposited a portion of his small South American archive at the MHS, a rare off-loading from his collections. Again, how might we read the material construction of an archive in this period, when a submission can be as much a history— or, indeed, an imagined future—untold or jettisoned, as part of some comprehensive record of the past?

Derek OLeary is a PhD candidate in UC Berkeleys History Department, where he is working on a dissertation about the construction of archives and historical narratives in the early US. He has an MA in International Relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

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Think Piece

What Was a Reading Community?

by guest contributor Edmund G. C. King

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Howard Ignatius, “8:41 Notting Hill Gate”

It’s just after 10 am on a dingy December morning in London as I approach Canada Water underground station. The morning rush hour crowds have receded, leaving only their wet footprints on the platform leading into the station. The outside sheet of a copy of this morning’s Metro, the free London commuter newspaper, has been pulped and trodden into the pavement near the entrance. A single word of the front-page headline is still legible: “Aleppo.” Inside, I walk down the escalators and turn right, onto the westbound Jubilee Line platform. A train arrives almost immediately. I get into the first carriage and stand inside the doors facing away from the platform. To my left there are twelve people sitting, facing each other in two rows of six. Exactly half of them are reading. A woman scrolls through her Facebook newsfeed on an Android phone. A couple in their 30s read copies of The Metro. Opposite them, an older man is skimming an article in the personal finance section of a tabloid newspaper headlined “The Hell of Middle Age.” Two women sit opposite each other, each absorbed in a book. One is reading management theory. The other has a thick, tattered pop-psychology paperback with subsections headed in bold and diagrams illustrating interpersonal relationships. Next to them, a woman sits, headphones on, reading a Spanish novella. No one in the carriage acknowledges the existence of anyone else, not even the couple with their matching copies of The Metro. Each reading surface has become what Erving Goffman calls an “involvement shield,” a way of demarcating personal space and signalling social “non-accessibility” in a shared environment. Seats free up at Southwark. I take one, pull out my iPhone, put my headphones on, load up Spotify and a cached copy of a Jacobin article, and prepare to immerse myself in my own media cocoon.

For the past year, I have been Co-Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, “Reading Communities: Connecting the Past and the Present.” The purpose of the Reading Communities project was to reach out to contemporary reading groups in the United Kingdom and encourage them to engage with the historical accounts of reading in the Reading Experience Database. But the experience of working on a project like this has also changed my own academic practice as an historian of reading. I find myself paying more attention to the everyday scenes of reading unfolding around me than I might have done otherwise, looking for the elusive connections between reading practices and reading communities in the past and the present. Of course, a random collection of readers in a London tube carriage does not in itself constitute a “reading community.” We, in our Jubilee Line media cocoons, might all be using books and other forms of reading material in avoidant ways, as coping mechanisms to deal with the intensities and demands of occupying shared spaces in a large city. Some of us may even be consuming the very same text—this morning’s Metro—simultaneously. These acts of textual consumption form part of our social imaginary; they are props for performing our roles as commuters and as Londoners. But simultaneity and a shared habitus are not sufficient in themselves to bind us together into a specific reading community. For a reading community to exist, the act of reading must be in some basic way shared. Readers need to interact with each other or at least identify as members of the same reading collective. The basic building blocks of a community are, as DeNel Rehberg Sedo observes, a set of enduring and reciprocal social relationships. Reading communities are collectives where those relationships are mediated by the consumption of texts. But how can we define the social function of reading communities more precisely? What relationship do they have with other communities and social formations beyond the realm of text? What can examples taken from historically distant reading cultures tell us about the social uses of shared reading experiences?

In Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, William A. Johnson interrogates ancient sources for what they can reveal about reading and writing practices in elite Roman communities. The scenes of reading preserved in ancient sources provide detailed glimpses into the place of shared reading and literary performance in daily life. In Epistle 27, Pliny describes the daily routine of Titus Vestricius Spurinna, a 78-year-old retired senator and consul:

The early morning he passes on his couch; at eight he calls for his slippers, and walks three miles, exercising mind and body together. On his return, if he has any friends in the house with him, he gets upon some entertaining and interesting topic of conversation; if by himself, some book is read to him, sometimes when visitors are there even, if agreeable to the company. Then he has a rest, and after that either takes up a book or resumes his conversation in preference to reading.

In the afternoon, after he has bathed, Spurinna has “some light and entertaining author read to him,” a ritual house guests are invited to share. At dinner, guests are entertained with another group reading, “the recital of some dramatic piece,” as a way of “seasoning” the “pleasures” of the evening “with study.” All of this, he writes, is carried on “with so much affability and politeness that none of his guests ever finds it tedious.” For Johnson, this reveals Pliny’s belief that shared literary consumption forms a necessary part of high-status Roman identity. “Reading in this society,” he writes, “is tightly bound up in the construction of … community.” It is the glue that binds together a range of communal practices—meals, exercise, literary conversation—into one unified whole, a social solvent that simultaneously acts as an elite marker. Shared reading experiences in this milieu are a means of fostering a sense of group belonging. They are ways of performing social identity, of easing participants into their roles as hosts and house guests, clients and patrons.

Another externality that impels the formation of ancient Roman reading communities is textual scarcity. To gain access to texts in the ancient world, readers needed social connections. Literary and intellectual culture in such a textual economy will necessarily be communal, as both readers and authors depend on social relationships in order to exchange and encounter reading material. As Johnson shows, the duties of authorship in ancient Rome extended into the spheres of production and distribution. Genteel authors like Galen retained the scribes and lectors who would copy and perform their works for a wider coterie of friends and followers. This culture of scarcity in turn imprinted itself onto reading practices. In the introduction to his treatise On Theriac to Piso, Galen describes visiting Piso at home and finding him in the midst of reading a medical treatise, an act of private reading that readily segues into an extended social performance for Galen’s benefit:

I once came to your house as is my custom and found you with many of your accustomed books lying around you. For you do especially love, after the conclusion of the public duties arising from your affairs, to spend your time with the old philosophers. But on this occasion you had acquired a book about this antidote [i.e., theriac] and were reading it with pleasure; and when I was standing next to you you immediately looked on me with the eyes of friendship and greeted me courteously and then took up the reading of the book again with me for audience. And I listened because the book was thoughtfully written … And as you read … a great sense of wonder came over me and I was very grateful for our good luck, when I saw you so enthusiastic about the art. For most men just want to derive the pleasure of listening from writings on medicine: but you not only listen with pleasure to what is said, but also learn from your native intelligence …

As Johnson notes, this passage is striking precisely because of its unfamiliarity, for what it says about the gulf that separates “Galen’s culture of reading” from “our own.” Specialised texts in the Roman world were so scarce—and hence so valuable—that it was axiomatic to readers like Piso and Galen that the “good luck” of mutual textual encounter should be maximised by an act of shared reading, not simply of a small extract, but of the entire work. The result is a precisely described scene of reading that baffles us with its strangeness.  What these anecdotes indicate is not only that, as Robert Darnton puts it, “reading has a history,” but that reading communities everywhere bear the unmistakable imprints of that history.

In early Victorian London, juvenile pickpockets reacted in their own way to the externalities of textual scarcity. As Henry Mayhew records, literate gang members would read their copies of Jack Sheppard and the Newgate Calendar aloud in lodgings during the evenings to those in their networks who couldn’t read. These acts of shared reading not only fostered group identity, but enabled gang members to maximise their communal resources, to make literacy and textual possessions go further. The reading communities in early twentieth-century New Zealand that Susann Liebich has studied are similarly embedded in wider networks of friendship and group belonging. Sharing books and reading tips was, as she demonstrates, a means of “fostering connections,” a way for “readers to connect with each other and with a world beyond Timaru.” What each of these examples shows is that the social function of shared reading differs according to the needs and norms of the wider communities and cultures in which that reading community is embedded. At the same time, however, attending to these differences encourages us to consider what is distinctive about norms and practices within contemporary reading communities, helping us limn what Rob Koehler elsewhere on this blog identifies as “the intimate and complex relationships between individuals, texts, and lived experience” across time and space, within history and our own present moment.

Edmund G. C. King is a Research Fellow in English Literature in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at The Open University, UK. He works on the Reading Experience Database and is currently researching British and Commonwealth reading practices during the First World War. He is co-editor (with Shafquat Towheed) of Reading and the First World War: Readers, Texts, Archives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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Religion in Late-Nineteenth Century American Life?

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

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Gilded Age America saw an uptick in the construction of spaces like Boston’s Trinity Church. They are often referenced as expressions of their builders’ wealth and status, but what can they tell us about their religious lives and ideas?

Henry Adams (1838-1918) returned home from his Grand Tour in 1860 and came of age in American elite society as the American bourgeoisie underwent the most profound cultural, social and intellectual shifts it had experienced since the Revolution. A prominent historian and writer, and a grandson of Presidents John and John Quincy Adams, Adams’ posthumously published autobiography documented his experience of these changes. Among them he counted the disappearance of religion.

Of all the conditions of his youth which afterwards puzzled the grown-up man, this disappearance of religion puzzled him most. … The religious instinct had vanished, and could not be revived …. That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew, should have solved all the problems of the universe so thoroughly as to have quite ceased making itself anxious about past or future  seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.—Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1907)

The published claims of Adams and his contemporaries have led many historians of the late-nineteenth century to characterize the period as one of religious decline. This narrative is reflected in many foundational histories of the period, which see the Gilded Age as a time of secularization.  In his 1981 cultural history of late-late-nineteenth century antimodernism, historian T.J. Jackson Lears sees religion as taking on a primarily therapeutic rather than spiritual role during that time as Biblical Criticism, Darwinism and the social injustices wrought by industrial progress undermined religious authority. In The Feminization of American Culture (1977), Ann Douglas argues that the clergy became politically impotent as a result of the secularization of American life in the Gilded Age. Instead of focusing on politics, she argues, they turned their focus to the “feminine” arts and literature, abandoning efforts to speak to the American public on more pressing issues. Similarly, in his classic 1982 study of gilded age society and culture, historian Allen Trachtenberg references religion only as a source of division among the working classes and an arena of oppression for native Americans except for considering it marginally as an arena within the pursuit of culture and refinement. This narrative has deeply influenced more contemporary accounts of the period as well. In his 2003 cultural-economic history of the New York bourgeoisie, Sven Beckert only discusses religion in the context of arguing that the class transcended religious difference.

Many historians of the progressivism go even further in relegating religion at the sidelines of their narratives. Since the 1940s, historians of American religion have seen the social gospel, a late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century American religious movement that stressed social justice, as the progenitor of the progressive movement. Recent histories of the progressive era, however, do not consider religion as a force in the foundation of the progressive movement. Daniel T. Rodgers’1998 Atlantic Crossings, for example, which argues that American progressive movement was largely based on the importation of European ideas, does not consider the social gospel as a force in the movement. Many more recent works and textbooks on the progressive era similarly omit religion from their narratives. This can perhaps be partly explained by the fact that religion plays very little role in either of the two foundational studies of American progressivism, Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 Age of Reform and Robert Wiebe’s 1967 The Search for Order. More recent work on progressivism is reversing this trend. Ian Tyrell’s 2010 Reforming the World argues that American imperial expansion in the late-nineteenth century was an effort to “remake the world in terms of Protestant cultural values” that was inspired by progressive and social gospel politics. Most historians, however, continue to position religion as marginal in their work on American society and culture during the period.

This trend is unwittingly encouraged by the religious historical work on the period, which, since the 1970s, consists mainly of studies of the liberal and fundamentalist schism. Historians of American religion writing on the late-nineteenth century are primarily concerned with this period as the origins of fundamentalism. As a result, their work focuses on theologians’ reactions to scientific innovations such as Darwinism and Biblical criticism rather than religion’s place in the society and culture of the period.

How fair is this narrative of religious decline during the late nineteenth century? It is fair and accurate to argue that religion began to play a less vocal role in late nineteenth century bourgeois politics and that it occupied less time in the life of many bourgeois and working class individuals. As the historians cited above document, during this period many Americans Americans became more theologically liberal and embraced religious movements that demanded less time in Church and less restrictions outside of it. Religion certainly did not play the same kind of role it had in antebellum pro-slavery/ abolitionist politics. That said, according to sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s 2005 study of American religious demography, the combined population of people affiliated with the three largest Protestant denominations— Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists–  in 1890 was close to fifteen million, almost a quarter of the population. This was a large market share increase from 1870 when it was close to seven million and only about seventeen percent of the population—despite that Catholics were a much smaller percentage of the population then. Lears and Douglas’ arguments that religious liberalism was a symptom of secularization do not preclude that many individuals still chose to affiliate with religious denominations. Discounting religion entirely from any narrative of late-nineteenth century culture, then, would seem unwarranted. Religion was very relevant to that society, even if its role in society changed.

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-5-50-59-pmHenry Adams’ first cousin, the Episcopalian minister Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), is an example of a figure that can open a window onto how religion functioned in late-nineteenth century American society. Brooks was a scion of one of the richest families in Boston. His Unitarian parents converted to Episcopalianism when he was a boy, and after graduating from Harvard, Brooks pursued ordination and eventually was asked to lead Boston’s Trinity Church. Brooks’, a theological liberal with strong evangelical leanings, was one of the most popular preachers of his age and his published sermons were bestsellers. When he died, the City Council of Boston sponsored a small book chronicling his years in the city. Brooks did indeed live in a time of secularization. However, he had an avid following and his ideas and the ideas of similarly popular religious figures who lived at the same time can serve as valuable sources on nineteenth century thought and culture.

Historians ought to follow the lead of historians like Douglas and Lears, who explore the function and impact religious live and religious ideas in American society as it became more secular. This is a project that few recent scholars have engaged with. Many of the few studies that do this are studies of material culture. Historian Peter Williams, for example, argues that the nineteenth century gospel of wealth had a corollary in the gospel of art, which saw the wealthy as having a duty to patronize the arts in religious institutions. In her Material Christianity (1998), religious studies scholar Colleen McDannell explores how Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery reflected religious ideas about landscape.

For historians of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century material culture, the religious nature of their corpus is hard to ignore. During that period, Americans erected many of the country’s largest churches and religious monuments and produced a great deal of religious paintings, prints and works of decorative art. Historians who use written sources also stand to gain a great deal from considering religious texts from this period more carefully in their work, if not to challenge narratives of secularization, at least to enrich our understanding of its inner life.

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Social Media in an Analog Age: The Henry Subscription (1898-1899)

by guest contributor Elizabeth Everton

In a 2009 interview, Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, drew upon the dictionary definition of “tweet” – “a short burst of inconsequential information” – to characterize his creation. Ten years after Twitter’s inception, few would persist in dismissing it as inconsequential; from the Arab Spring to Occupy and Black Lives Matter, the degree to which political and social movements thrive on social media is clear. Yet politics has always existed on the margins – dominant discourses have always been baited by smaller counter-discourses, composed not only of grand speeches but maddening collections of inconsequential information.

One legacy of the Dreyfus Affair is a welter of words, from Emile Zola’s justly famous “J’Accuse” to the hundreds of works of non-fiction and fiction inspired by the case.  The Affair also produced innumerable bursts of inconsequence, in the form of signatures on petitions and manifestos; letters, such as the 2000+ sent to Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus; postcards and songs, stickers and cigarette rolling papers; and names published in newspapers, intended to expose (lists of Jewish officers in the French military) or extol (lists of members of newly founded leagues).  And perhaps the most infamous, the Henry Subscription, the “Golden Book” of anti-Dreyfusism, the list of names and messages published between December 1898 and January 1899 in the anti-Jewish newspaper La Libre Parole.

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Sticker, “Français! N’achetez rien aux Juifs!” (Archives Nationales de France, 1898/1899)

The origins of the Henry Subscription lie in the byzantine efforts of the French Intelligence Bureau to block the reopening of the Dreyfus case, specifically the retroactive proof of Dreyfus’s guilt forged by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Henry in 1896.  Produced to the right people at the right time – that is, military and civilian officials casting about for reasons not to look further – this document seemed to settle the case until “J’Accuse” cracked it open in January 1898.  Reexamined under electric light, the forgery was discovered and its creator questioned and arrested. The next day, Henry committed suicide.

For Dreyfus’s supporters, this was proof not only of Henry’s guilt but Dreyfus’s innocence.  Historian Joseph Reinach, one of the foremost Dreyfusards, published a series of articles arguing that Henry had colluded in the treason for which Dreyfus was convicted.  Henry’s widow Berthe protested, bringing a suit for defamation.  La Libre Parole, an adversary of the Jewish Reinach, called upon the “good folk” of France to send money to pay the widow’s legal bills. The subscription drive started on December 14, 1898; by the time it wrapped up on January 15, 1899, over 130,000 francs had been raised from about 20,000 donations.  During the drive, La Libre Parole published subscriber names and messages, thousands upon thousands of them, a window into the identity and attitudes of the donors and, by extension, the anti-Dreyfusard movement.

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Masthead advertising Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 23 December 1898)

Dreyfusards and anti-Dreyfusards alike immediately identified the Henry Subscription as a watershed.  In 1899, Dreyfusard Pierre Quillard published a compilation of subscription entries organized by profession, social status, and attitudes expressed in messages.  For Quillard, the Henry Subscription represented an outpouring of anti-Semitism, inflected with militarism and clericalism; his goals in compiling and publishing the entries were to name and shame subscribers and reveal the latent hatred at the subscription’s core. Historians studying the Henry Subscription tend to use this compilation – the original submissions being long gone and the published lists published unwieldy – but in so doing, they unconsciously reproduce Quillard’s Dreyfusard perspective. There is no question that many subscribers and messages were anti-Semitic; it was, after all, published in an anti-Semitic newspaper with the tagline “for the widow Henry against the Jew Reinach.” But the Quillard compilation decontextualizes the lists and imposes a new ordering system defined by a Dreyfusard interpretive framework exterior to the subscription itself.  For Quillard, the individual messages, excepting those that particularly reflect this whole, are unimportant –so many bursts of inconsequential information. This epistemological framework, in the end, obscures the perspective of the milieu that created the lists: the anti-Dreyfusards.

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Excerpt from the third list of the Henry Subscription (La Libre Parole, 16 December 1898)

Let us look again at these messages. The Henry Subscription as monument fades away, to be superseded by an image of the subscription as a work in progress, a collective project undertaken though the collaboration of thousands of subscribers, guided by the active intervention of the editors of La Libre Parole.  The first aspect of the subscription to be recovered is their temporal dimension.  The Henry Subscription lists existed not only to put anti-Dreyfusard attitudes on display but also to inspire further subscriptions, to be published on subsequent days.  This encouragement came not only from La Libre Parole but from the subscribers themselves, such as a December 15, 1898, message scolding of the Minister of War for not having subscribed. These sorts of appeals did not go unheard or unremarked; the name of General Mercier, the former Minister of War who engineered Dreyfus’s arrest and conviction, appeared at the head of the December 16 list.

What we see with the Henry Subscription, then, is a complex form of multidirectional communicative exchange.  It functioned as a public site where subscribers could communicate with the newspaper, with each other, with non-subscribing readers, and with those involved in the anti-Dreyfusard movement more broadly.  These communications ranged from the generic – the first message printed was an uncontroversial “for the love of France and its army” – to the surprisingly personal, including expressions of anger, sorrow, and shame.  Subscribers published these messages with the expectation that they would be read, and so they were.

Meaning can and should be found not only in the content of the lists but in their construction.  I suggest that the Henry Subscription can be read as a project akin to the Enlightenment Republic of Letters as expounded upon by Dena Goodman: a system of reciprocal exchanges working towards a common Enlightenment project, out of which emerges an oppositional public sphere. Drawing a connection between the Henry Subscription and the Enlightenment Republic of Letters seems absurd, given the disdain many anti-Dreyfusards felt for the legacy and values of the Enlightenment.  But similarities exist nonetheless, in its collective, collaborative nature and creation of an oppositional counter-state.  Few observers in 2016 can be surprised that counter-discourses and the technologies that amplify them need not be progressive. La Libre Parole described the lists as a “patriotic hodgepodge” in which people of all ages, genders, professions, and walks of life could rub shoulders.  The only commonality was their membership in the true nation, a sort of anti-Dreyfusard silent majority given voice by the subscription.  But the lists pose a conundrum.  For the anti-Dreyfusards, the nation was rooted in ethno-nationalist concepts of identity that excluded religious minorities and those identified as “foreign,” in sharp contrast to the assimilationist republic. We find in the lists, however, contributions from foreign nationals, from Protestants, and even from Jews.  In sending money and publishing their message, subscribers of all backgrounds could stake their claim in the nation.  To admire Madame Henry or the army, to denigrate Reinach and the Dreyfusards – these actions placed one within the “patriotic hodgepodge.”  Membership in the true nation, writ small in the lists of the Henry Subscription, can therefore be seen as not only a function of ethnicity but also of action.  Further examination of this document may reveal even more cracks in the seemingly solid veneer of the anti-Dreyfusard nation, not to mention the power of new technologies to shape or even create public spheres.

Lest the interviewer be fooled by his description of tweets as inconsequential, Jack Dorsey expanded upon his statement, explaining “bird chirps sound meaningless to us, but meaning is applied by other birds.  The same is true of Twitter: a lot of messages can be seen as completely useless and meaningless, but it’s entirely dependent on the recipient.”  What was true of Twitter in 2009 was true of the Henry subscription 110 years earlier and is true of other dribs and drabs of text that accumulate around political events.  Like the messages of the Henry Subscription, these texts may be partial, adulterated, or untrustworthy in various ways; in listening to them, we are as much at the mercy of their creators as we are with any other work.  Yet they can and should still be heard. The language of birds may be obscure, but it is not incomprehensible; with patience, these words too can be understood.

Elizabeth Everton is an independent scholar living in Charlotte, NC. She has a PhD in history from UCLA. She is currently working on a manuscript titled National Heroines: Women and the Radical Right during the Dreyfus Affair.

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Think Piece

“Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” at The New York Society Library

by guest contributor Charles Cuykendall Carter

Circulation ledger featuring Melville's Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.
Circulation ledger featuring Melville’s Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

The New York Society Library’s current pop-up exhibit explores the life and experiences of Herman Melville in New York City, during the time leading up to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. The more specific, and more intimate, concern of the exhibit is the symbiotic relationship between an author and his library, both as a site of research and as a vehicle for promotion.

For much of 1848, and then again for a time in 1850, the Society Library was Melville’s library. (He did also personally own a good number of books, many of which he annotated; some can be seen in digitized form through the impressive Melville’s Marginalia website.) While in the throes of composing his masterpiece, Melville regularly spent time doing research in the reading room of the Society Library, then on Broadway and Leonard Street. He was again a Society Library member in the years before his death in 1891.

Some treasures from the Society Library’s archives featured in the exhibit vividly demonstrate Melville’s membership and activity. One charming display item is a facsimile of Melville’s 1850 Society Library membership certificate, reproduced on cardboard and able to be handled and examined up close. Other indices of Melville’s personal relationship to the Library include a contemporary city directory listing Melville’s home address at “103 Av. 4,” about a half-hour’s walk away; and his large autograph signature in a circulation ledger, dated 1850.

Most exhibition materials reflect Melville as author. Among them are the first published excerpt of Moby-Dick in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of fall 1851, and a facsimile of an early manuscript invoice showing Society Library purchases of Melville books.

The largest exhibit piece is a pin-board chart covered with index cards, which are connected with tightly-strung lengths of different colored yarn. The cards represent specific Society Library readers; the yarn, Melville’s first seven novels. The display renders visible for the viewer what is addressed by most modern introductions to Moby-Dick: upon publication, it was a commercial dud.

Melville’s earlier, less complex, more straightforward travel adventures—Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket—were in frequent circulation at the Society Library in the late 1840s–early 1850s. Moby-Dick was borrowed fewer than twenty times during the period represented by the chart. Melville’s next book, Pierre, was even less popular—and, as the exhibit points out, earned him the headline “Herman Melville Crazy” from a contemporary reviewer.

Perhaps the most amusing exhibit item shows a unique exchange between Society Library readers of Melville. In what amounts to a nineteenth-century version of internet comments (including insults and a silly pseudonym), at least three Library members left penciled notes at the end of a chapter of White-Jacket:

[annotator 1:] This is a bad chapter. / E. B. / July 5 1860
[annotator 2:] Why the devil don’t you put the real date in. (Signed) Adolphus Fitz Noodle
[annotator 3:] I should think you were a noodle indeed. G.J.V.

Also on display are several mid-nineteenth-century scenes—prints and photographs of the New York City harbor—artfully paired with quotations from Moby-Dick. A panoramic engraved view of the city from the East River accompanies Ishmael’s opening admission that seafaring adventures are his cure for frustrations with obnoxious city life, when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off . . . .”

The absent star of the exhibit, the barely-circulated first edition of Moby-Dick belonging to the Society Library, is unfortunately now lost, perhaps disappeared in its depths.

Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” is on display, free to the public, at the New York Society Library, in the Peluso Family Gallery, until November 7.

Charles Cuykendall Carter is the Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. He is also Associate Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and is on the board of The American Printing History Association.

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Think Piece

“Good men are God in the flesh” : Frederick Douglass, Virtue Philosopher

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In his most famous speech, “Self-Made Men,” written in 1854, and performed for the rest of his life, Frederick Douglass contends that: “from the various dregs of society, there come men who may well be regarded as the pride and as the watch towers of the [human] race.” Social class does not determine one’s virtue or worth. For the last thirty years of his life, between the legal demise of chattel slavery in 1865 and his death in 1895, Douglass gave hundreds, if not thousands, of speeches, published countless articles, and two books, offering an alternate vision for how humans could conceive of difference between one another. In an 1865 speech, Douglass asserts that good “poets, prophets and reformers,” must act as “picture-makers,” painting for their audiences visions of the future of the human race. They must keep, “ever present” in their “mind some high, comprehensive, soul-enlarging and soul-illuminating idea, earnestly held and warmly cherished, looking to the elevation and advancement of the whole [human] race.” Douglass’s vision, in the last thirty years of his life, is of a world built on virtue.

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Photographic portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Francis Schreiber, 1870. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass fought for an America beyond slavery. He believed that emancipation had not merely “emancipated the Negro, but liberated the whites” as well. In an Emancipation Day Address, titled “Emancipation Liberated the Master as Well as the Slave,” Douglass held that the institution of slavery enacted violence against all of its member. In another speech, “Strong to Suffer, yet Strong to Fight,” Douglass declared that since emancipation, people are no longer “required to defend with their lips what they must have condemned in their hearts.” Slavery was a system that forced people to deny the fundamental, to Douglass, truth, that all humans are created equal. By enslaving another person, slaveholders had to violently strip them of a central tenant of their humanity, and had to support their dehumanization with systematic, normalized violence. Slaveholders had to present a united front. They could not speak out against, or even question, the violence and domination that was central to the system.

However, the American promise of Emancipation dissipated. Lynch law dominated the whole nation, as it begun amassing overseas territories. In an 1895 speech, “The Color Line,” he declared that in this supposedly emancipated and advanced society, the “rich man would have the poor man, the white would have the black, the Irish would have the negro, and the negro must have a dog, if he can get nothing higher in the scale of intelligence to dominate.” Though slavery had ended, the mindset that underlay it had survived. People still placed themselves in relation to each other based on characteristics about which they had no power.

Throughout the last thirty years of his life, Douglass fought against all outgrowths of a philosophy built upon prejudice and discrimination. He fought against sharecropping. He supported the work of women’s rights, calling himself a “radical women’s suffrage man” and declaring that granting women the power to vote would be “the greatest revolution” that the world had ever seen. Douglass lent his voice to the struggle for reparations for the formerly enslaved, arguing across a number of speeches and in a widely circulated pamphlet that “American slaves were emancipated under extremely unfavorable conditions. (…) even despotic Russia gave a plot of land and farming implements to its emancipated serfs and (…) when the Jews left Egypt they were allowed to take their former masters’ jewelry.” On this basis, he called for reparations for the formerly enslaved in America. Douglass rhetorically supported the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish people in Europe, and stood behind oppressed Chinese laborers in California. The philosopher even supported the rights of animals to be treated well, admonishing farmers not to beat their work animals.

In the vision of the world that Douglass offered his listeners, the highest ideal of a person was one who was like God. In a speech of the same name, Douglass argues that “Good men are god in the flesh.” Across a number of eulogies and public speeches, he extolls as examples of this his fellow abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone. In Douglass’s phrasing, Garrison becomes “the man–the Moses, raised up by God, to deliver his modern Israel from bondage.” Abraham Lincoln, he declares in a speech on “Great Men,” likewise, possesses “a more godlike nature than” any man he had ever met. Though he often uses wealthy and famous men as his examples, Douglass acknowledges “wealth and fame are beyond the reach of the majority of men.” Still, “personal, family and neighborhood well-being stand near to us all and are full of lofty inspirations.” If everyone worked towards the betterment of themselves and their communities, Douglass contends, “we should have no need of a millennium. The world would teem with abundance, and the temptation to evil in a thousand directions, would disappear.” Everyone could become godlike.

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Frederick Douglass’ study and library in 1962. Note portraits of Toussaint L’Ouverture, himself. Out of frame are pictures of his other heroes: Abraham Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Philips, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Frederick Douglass’s philosophy of virtue was not wholly new. It fit into a tradition of radical humanist and liberal thought going at least far back as the reformation. In a 16th century poem, the Settennario, God appears to the author, only known as Scolio, and explains that he had given to each group of people on earth “Ten Commandments to each of them The same, but which they comment on separately.” He goes on to explain that each group of people could go to heaven if they just followed their own set of commandments, which were quintessentially the same.

Douglass took many ideas from the famous Scottish historian and enlightenment thinker, Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes and Hero Worship (1840). In the work, Carlyle argues that “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men.” Each chapter is dedicated to a different form of innate greatness and a different person who exemplified such greatness in their society’s history. All but one of Carlyle’s great men are white and European. The only exception is the prophet Muhammad, whom Carlyle describes as “by no means the truest of Prophets; but I do esteem him a true one.” While Carlyle evinces a theory of virtue as based on thought and action, he ends up supporting a tautology. Someone is great because they greatly impacted the world. Carlyle’s philosophy, then, implies that people who do not greatly impact the world must be morally inferior. Consequently, Carlyle held that the “African race” was incapable of producing Great Men. In 1849, nine years after publishing Heroes, Carlyle anonymously published an article titled “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question,” in which argued that African people were naturally inferior to whites and because of their inherent degradation, fit to be slaves. In the face of derision and public humiliation, Carlyle stuck to his beliefs, republishing the piece with an even more overtly racist message as a pamphlet in 1853.

As an abolitionist, woman’s suffrage man and radical, Douglass sought to open up greatness to all people. As a result, he needed to have a clear conception of what godliness did and did not look like. In an outline to a speech, written during his visit to Egypt in 1884, Douglass accuses Egyptian Coptic Christians of being “Mohamedan in custom” and points out disparagingly that “their women are veiled.” Only American missionaries could bring true Christianity and education to the Egyptians. “It is the redeeming of the land” from misrule and misbelief, Douglass wrote, and “the bringing to people our knowledge of the” gift of education “that is its great need.” They have been “establishing schools, distributing Bibles, showing the people how to be clean, how to live virtuously, which is to live healthfully + honestly.” American protestants needed to teach the “degraded” people true virtue. By opening up virtue to some, he had closed it off to others. Carlyle’s definition of virtue could be malleable, allowing even Muhammad to be great, because he had restricted virtue to the achievements of a single class and, essentially, geographic setting.

However, in an era marked by the rise of Lynch Law, across the U.S. American South, restrictions on voter rights, and a turn away from African American rights across the nation, Frederick Douglass travelled widely, and used his podium to argue that any person, notwithstanding physical attributes, class, or caste, could attain virtue. Douglass built his conception of virtue on a long tradition of a not-quite-universal universalism. Douglass was, and remains, far from alone in not being able to accept that other systems of virtue could be equally valid, nor that other gods could be equally divine.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live. 


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