Q&A: Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter

15272-1Yesterday, Jessica Parr reviewed Lindsay O’Neill’s new book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). O’Neill received her PhD from Yale University and is now Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California. Today, she speaks with The Junto about her book project.  

JUNTO: Can you begin by telling us a bit about how you first came to this project and also a bit about how it transformed from an idea into a dissertation and from that into a book?

LINDSAY O’NEILL: As my undergraduates would say, I’ve been interested in communication between people in distant places since the BEGINNING OF TIME (or at least since graduate school). I first approached it from the level of news. I wrote a paper examining the types of news reported in different eighteenth century newspapers across the British world and how topics changed (or didn’t) depending on location. Elements of this idea float around the book’s final chapter. However, I eventually decided I was more interested in personal modes of connection and this brought me to letters. I wrote a paper on the epistolary networks of the Byrds of Virginia and from this sprang the dissertation. The book was a distillation of that dissertation. I sat down and looked for common threads that weaved their way through the chapters, which could be braided together to form one core idea and intervention. I discovered that, at base, this was a book about networks writ large and how epistolary networks did or did not intersect with other forms of connection writers possessed.

JUNTO: Writing a book about—at a really basic level—the significance of one type of primary source, seems to present a unique kind of research challenge: I imagine you’d get funny looks if you told an archivist you’d like to see every letter from the better part of a century. In the intro you describe how you built your work around collections that were relatively complete and contained a range of types of correspondence (9). Can you talk more about how you settled on your main cases? Did you go to the archives with some idea of collections you thought might be illustrative, and how did your plan change in the archives?

O’NEILL: The source selection was made easier when I realized it was a book not about the disembodied material letter, but about the people who produced them. This meant I wanted subjects who not only had large sets of surviving correspondence, but also diaries and other supplementary material. John Perceval, James Brydges, Nicholas Blundell, and William Byrd II all had surviving diaries as well as sets of letters. I also looked for a mix of different sorts of letters (so I supposed I did care about the disembodied material letter). I wanted letter books and autograph letters. This is how I ended up with Hans Sloane, who had a vast of amount of autograph letters surviving. With all these stipulations, I thankfully never had to ask an archivist to see all the letters. Not only would I have gotten some questioning looks, but also I think I might still be sitting in those archives reading those letters.

JUNTO: You included a number of network visualizations in the book. How did rendering your data this way shape your analysis? Relatedly, how did network analysis and work on networks in disciplines other than history inform the way you approached early modern letter writing and networking? 

O’NEILL: The network visualizations gave me images to think with. Not only did they reveal that these were networks, but I spent a vast amount of time looking at them and dissecting what stories they told that the letters did not. What did it mean that Matthew Buchanan had a number of unconnected nodes? Why was Helena le Grand so deeply embedded in the network? I also had to force myself to question the visualizations and put them in motion. The images were snapshots in time of a network, so I had to ponder who remained in a network over time, who disappeared, and why. I had to keep in mind where people were located geographically, when that altered, and how that might affect their place in the network. So parts of the analysis actually came from a distrust of the network visualizations themselves.

Using social network analysis made me think about absence. Most scholars using it are not dealing with the dead and can construct their samples to fit their needs. I could not and so I was constantly aware of what I could not do. However, using it also forced me away for over valuing the letter itself, the literature on social networks pushed me to think of these webs as living beings that existed in many different forms, sometimes in letters, sometimes not.

JUNTO: The book draws together multiple fields—British social history, the history of the British Empire, Atlantic history, and early American history—that are often detached from one another. Since we’re an early Americanist blog, can you expand a bit on how you hope drawing these fields together can influence colonial American history?

O’NEILL: This project kept reminding me that the past was made up of people. National boundaries and geography did create borders, but people also crossed those borders. I think we often create historiographical divides that aren’t there. These were mobile people and even if they were not, they often had connections around the world. Part of the goal of this book is to convince scholars to think of points of connection rather than points of difference, of people rather than place. However, it is also true that differences matter. My project was centered in Britain and my networks usually reached out from there. I do wonder what the result would be if we looked at networks, epistolary and otherwise, grounded in the colonies. Would they echo mine? Would they have more connections with colonists of other nations? With the indigenous? It would be fantastic to see the results of other studies such as these.

JUNTO: Okay, a quick rapid fire round (h/t to Rachel Herrmann for this idea):

Four books you kept with you while writing and editing?

O’NEILL: Besides the new crop of books on letter writing by Sarah Pearsall, Konstantin Dierks, and Susan Whyman, I often thought with Alison Games’ Web of Empire, David Hancock’s Citizens of the World, Adrian John’s The Nature of the Book and a collection of essays edited by Alexandra Shepard and Phil Withington entitled Communities in Early Modern England.

JUNTO: Favorite letter that you found?

O’NEILL: Now, there’s a hard question. I suppose I fell a bit in love with a letter John Perceval’s tutor, Henry Roby, wrote to John and his brother Philip when they were young. In it he challenged them to chart voyages around the world. He sent one boy to the Cape of Good Hope, onto the Spice Islands, and from hence to Japan. The other was given the task to rent a boat from the Laplanders to take him to China and from there he was to find his way to California. I adored the way the wider world sat within this little letter that was sent to two small boys who lived far from their tutor at the time.

JUNTO: What’s your next project?

O’NEILL: One story haunted me while I was doing research for The Opened Letter. It seemed that every letter book I opened mentioned the plight of two African princes from Delagoa in east Africa who had arrived in London in 1721. They had boarded a ship to see England, but the captain nefariously sold them into slavery in Jamaica instead. Miraculously, after almost two years as slaves, they freed themselves and ended up trying to drum up support in London to get back home. This story gripped me and has not let go, so presently I am tracing the travels of these princes and the motivations of those who got involved with them. Besides giving me the chance to tell a fantastic story, I hope their journey will also allow me to delve deeper into the nature and organization of British global power in the early eighteenth century.

I’ve also been working with the USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute to create an animated podcast based on The Opened Letter, called “Early Modern Friend Requests.” We just launched it last week, so that has been exciting as well.

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