Today’s guest poster is Ariel Ron, who earned his PhD in history at the University of California, Berkeley, and is currently a visiting research associate at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies.
Three or four years ago, while doing research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, I stumbled upon a lost cache of some ten-thousand pamphlets. I had been browsing the papers of Stephen Colwell, a nineteenth-century ironmaster and writer, when archivist John Pollack called me into the closed stacks behind the reading room. There he showed me Colwell’s personal pamphlet library, neatly bound into hundreds of volumes. The collection also included three thousand works from the library of Colwell’s friend, Henry C. Carey (see picture to right), without question the most important American political economist of the mid-nineteenth century. The sheer size of the corpus floored me.
I later mentioned this material to two Carey scholars, neither of whom had ever heard of it. It turns out the collection was somehow never catalogued even though Penn librarians regarded its acquisition as a major coup in the 1870s. And so it has remained squirreled away in the closed stacks for the past 140 years, rarely seen by scholars, effectively “lost” and waiting to be “discovered” anew. I am now hoping to organize a project to have the collection cataloged and digitized so that it can be made widely available. Step one is to do a rough initial survey, which thus far indicates that the bulk of the collection comprises British and American pamphlets from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries covering a wide range of social, political, and economic issues. Recently I wrote a guest post about this for the Unique at Penn blog explaining, among other things, the significance of Carey and Colwell as historical figures and the potential value of digitizing this collection.
Here I want to discuss a line of thought that occurred to me while digging through all of that forgotten commentary. In its heyday, pamphlet literature aimed for immediate impact. Its authors addressed issues occupying public attention at the very moment of their writing and often cast their contributions as direct replies to other pamphlets or articles. They also typically self-published. Inevitably this struck me as partially analogous to our blogosphere, giving me the bright idea to propose this post. Kindly Juntoists agreed but pointed out that people had made this connection before. Caleb McDaniel wrote about “Blogging in the Early Republic” way back in 2005 when “web 2.0” was a buzzword, and Joe Adelman regularly comments on this sort of thing in the Common-place column appropriately named “Publick Occurrences 2.0.” So pamphleteering as blogging is hardly a new idea.
Still, my recent explorations in the Carey-Colwell collection give me the sense that it is an idea worth revisiting. The link from pamphlets to blogs first occurred to me while going through volume 149 of the collection. I noticed that in contrast to the usual hodgepodge of print types and page sizes, all the pamphlets in this volume were identically formatted. I soon found that each came from the same source, a quarterly publication called The Pamphleteer. The purpose of The Pamphleteer was to arrange otherwise ephemeral commentary on public issues into “books” of “typographical uniformity.” In this format, the editors believed, they would be saved from “the obscurity of transient opinions” (viii), preserving many a valuable argument. The editors explicitly distinguished their endeavor from the “miscellaneous and chaotic confusion” of magazines and from the “analytic and judiciary” format of reviews. They “presume[d] to think indisputable” the “novelty” of the plan (ix). To me it sounded a lot like an online aggregator.
My search for the history of The Pamphleteer, admittedly fast and loose, has turned up nothing. I find this incredible. The journal did a very respectable run from 1813 to 1827, putting out at least twenty-seven volumes of two issues each. In that time it compiled several hundred pamphlets on matters of religion, foreign affairs, national defense, economic theory, education, prison reform, pauper laws, agriculture and more. Although I am not a scholar of print culture, it strikes me as a landmark publication, a kind of capstone to the golden age of pamphlet literature at the cusp of the newspaper age. Among other things it would probably make an excellent corpus for a text mining study. Certainly we would want to know who published it, which kind of opinions appeared in it (and which did not), and who read it.
Colwell or Carey must have been among its readers. Here the particulars of the collection’s bound volumes suggest intriguing habits. Volumes 149, 160, and perhaps others are comprised of selections from The Pamphleteer, but not in complete sets: each contains some but not all pamphlets from several different issues. This would seem to suggest that either Colwell or Carey undid the original bindings to separate out the pamphlets, precisely the opposite of the editors’ preservationist intentions. It is, of course, possible that Penn librarians did this, but it is hard to imagine why. On the other hand it is easy to suppose that Colwell or Carey meant to share specific pamphlets with others, thereby re-ephemerizing them (to coin a neologism). Another possible explanation is that the essays were separated out in order to reorder them by subject, thus creating threaded debates. If so, this supports Caleb McDaniel’s insight that grasping the era’s proliferation of media requires looking to reading practices first.
Just as Bernard Bailyn’s seminal findings on Revolutionary-era political thought emerged from pamphlet-cataloguing work, I suspect that the Carey-Colwell collection can tell us a lot we do not know about the history of transatlantic policy discourse in an age of transformative change. As Joe Adelman noted last year, “it was in non-book publications—pamphlets, newspapers, almanacs, broadsides, ephemera—that much of the intellectual and political work occurred” during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Pamphlets occupied a special place in this fast-moving section of the public sphere. Intended for immediate consumption, they were nevertheless longer and more detailed than other literary forms concerned with current events. They therefore promise to reveal a level of public discussion somewhere between popular reportage and rarified social theorizing, an intermediate plane particularly suited to a discourse concerned with practical policy making.
What do Juntoists and fellow early Americanist/Atlanticists think? I’d be curious to see people’s thoughts about both the pamphleteering-as-blogging analogy in general and the potential value of the Carey-Colwell collection in particular.