Q&A with Joseph Adelman

joe-headshot-croppedToday, The Junto interviews our own Joseph Adelman about his new book Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789. Jordan Taylor’s review of the book appeared yesterday.

Junto: Let’s start off on a hostile note: Why should anyone care about early American newspaper printers?

JMA: Well if you’re going to be hostile, I’m tempted to just say “because I said so.” But assuming that will work about as well here as it does with my kids, let me make the case as best I can. At its core, Revolutionary Networksargues that the material realities of texts matters, and that scholars have tended to elide or simply stipulate their importance. Or, to put it in historiographic terms, we need to integrate book history methods more fully into our understanding of politics in Revolutionary America. So when I started doing research for the book when it was a dissertation, I focused on the production and circulation of texts and the impact those processes had on how American colonists and British officials made political decisions.

What I found is that printers played a key role in making the Revolution possible, and they did so through what were otherwise ordinary business practices that evolved in both Britain and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They literally made the texts that historians agree are important to spreading anti-imperial and revolutionary ideology and then they were largely responsible for circulating them to other places. When we examine the work that they did closely, it turns out that they’re making key decisions about what versions of accounts circulate, where they go, when, and so on. If we are to understand the narrative of anti-imperial protest as something that emphasized the orderliness of crowds (whether or not that was actually the case), we need to look to the printers who specifically chose accounts the underscored that point, who edited passages to do so, and so on.

Junto: It’s pretty easy to study newspapers without thinking about the labor and material forces involved in their creation. Some archives (understandably) encourage researchers to use digital databases of newspapers, rather than looking at the real thing. How does understanding the sights, the smells, and the work in the print shop change how we ordinarily think about early American newspapers?

JMA: First of all I should say that digital databases were crucial for my research—and my teaching, for that matter. Much of what I discuss in Revolutionary Networksis based on research in those databases to track the circulation of individual paragraphs through space and time. That simply would not have been possible had I needed to page through a run of every newspaper published between the 1760s and the 1780s. And though I am very fortunate to live within commuting distance of the American Antiquarian Society, which has the most extensive collection of these newspapers in the United States, it would have been nearly impossible to do the work without being able to access materials remotely.

However, I certainly agree with the underlying premise of your question. To understand the materiality of these texts and how they operated in the real world, it is helpful to actually see them in physical form. In the introduction I work through how printers laid out a weekly newspaper, which is difficult to see through a view of single pages in PDF form. I also was able to see (literally!) some important developments in newspaper runs by being able to see the size and quality of the paper, for example. Others are doing great work on paper specifically that I was also able to draw on (the work, that is, not the eighteenth-century paper). Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say how much I learned through conversations I had with archivists and librarians at the American Antiquarian Society, the Library Company of Philadelphia, and other archives. It is a privilege in several senses of the word to work with and learn from them, and those conversations make the book stronger than it might otherwise have been in thinking about what it would have been like in the print shop itself.

Junto: What was your favorite archival find? Or conversely, what was your biggest source of archival frustration with this project?

JMA: The most honest answer possible for biggest frustration would be missing issues of newspapers, either in physical or digital form. That’s an artifact of preservation of sources that we all face, but it meant there would be gaps in what I could say about the circulation of particular stories or discussion of particular events. Or it would prevent me from confirming something that I knew was likely to be true but would have been in a missing issue. Alas.

As for my favorite find, I’d have to say the story from the Stamp Act crisis about Boston radicals who in February 1766 tried a piece of stamped paper for treason and then ceremonially hanged and burned it. It may be my favorite story of the entire Revolution, both because it’s so Boston and because it encapsulates so much about how Americans in the 1760s viewed print and paper (it could commit crimes!). And then I’ll be coy and say that for the full story you’ll have to read Chapter 2.

Junto: Your book opens us to the “Art and Mistery of a Printer.” You now have some insight into the Art and Mystery of a book writer. Any advice for those working on their first big project, or in turning a dissertation into a book?

JMA: At the risk of sounding trite because I’m not sure I have much more position to say something than I did a year ago, I’ll offer four suggestions.

First, make sure you really want to do this. Writing a book is a ton of work and has more steps than you realize going in, even if others warn you. Some book writers need to write one as part of tenure requirements, and that’s just a reality, even if it’s true for fewer and fewer scholars. Absent that career impetus, ask yourself whether a book is something you want to produce, if there’s something you want to say that requires it.

Second, be consistent in how you work on the project. For some people, that will mean writing every single day, for others it might mean only applying oneself to a project during semester breaks or the summer, and there are several other possibilities of course. For me, the book really got done when I decided I was going to finish it and made time in my schedule.

Third, I’d adapt Mister Rogers’s advice to “look for the helpers.” Find your support network, both professional and personal. Form a writing group, or simply figure out which colleagues and friends you can contact to read something or talk through a knotty research or writing problem (and for whom you’ll reciprocate, of course). Outside of work, find people who will keep you sane, whether family or friends (or both or neither). Taking time to re-charge is good and necessary.

All of that is advice that’s “outside the covers,” so to speak, but one note about what you’re writing. Pick your audience and be true to it. If you’re writing a traditional academic monograph for an academic audience, commit to that and write for scholarly colleagues. If you want to write a book for a trade audience, do that. Whatever you choose, be clear to yourself and to prospective publishers who you want to write a book for.

Junto: Your book is chronologically structured. It starts in colonial British North America, and winds its way up through the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Were there any other ways to arrange this material? Is there another version of Revolutionary Networks that is topically-arranged?

JMA: That’s a difficult question for me to answer. The short version is, I never really thought about the book as having anything but a chronological narrative. The argument is very clearly chronological rather than thematic and as someone who started by thinking about political history, it seems obvious for me to structure my account that way.

Now having said that, there are some themes that I draw out through which we could imagine a different way to organize Revolutionary Networks. The first would be an exploration of communications infrastructures. Much of the book examines how printers (and their collaborators) created both formal and informal mechanisms to circulate news and information, through the post office, committees, and the networks that printers developed—with one another, with political leaders, with economic elites, and others.

A second thread that runs through the book is the changing conception of freedom of the press, and especially its relationship to the business practices of the printing trade. Dating back to the early eighteenth century and Benjamin Franklin’s “Apology for Printers,” printers portrayed themselves as mechanics who set type and pulled the press, but remained outside of the political debate. The Revolution brought that to an end. Independence also forced printers, and political leaders to reframe their thinking about the press from its position as opposition against a distant government to its standing as a constituent part of the new republics.

Finally, the thing that ties everything together is the overlap between commercial and political interests. It seems a truism to say that out loud, but for printers those concerns interacted in complicated ways, both across the group as a whole and for individuals over time.

Each of these themes developed over time, and the Revolution caused a rupture in the trade that makes it difficult to place together events that occurred before, during, and after it. A chronological organization therefore was the most logical for Revolutionary Networksbecause I think the key driver in the story is change over time. The challenge, therefore, was to figure out how to thread these themes through various chapters in a way that was compelling and clear.

Junto: The news is in the news. We spend a lot of time today thinking about the brokenness of our media landscape. Did researching and writing this book provide you with a different perspective on modern media?

JMA: Absolutely. On one level, I spent over a decade thinking about how the news worked behind the scenes during the Revolution, and one can’t help but then see those machinations (for better and worse) in contemporary news outlets. At the same time—and I think lots of other historians and media scholars are in a similar place on this—journalism and the news media are in this interesting moment where they seem to be reverting to practices that are more reminiscent of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than what’s often seen as the “golden age” of journalism in the mid-twentieth century. The ideal of objectivity still governs much of journalism, but the legacy media outlets that most adhere to it—CNN, the New York Times, and NPR are probably the best examples—are grappling both publicly and privately with what objectivity means. And at the same time there’s a resurgent partisan press.

As a scholar of the late eighteenth-century press, none of this seems unfamiliar, and there’s certainly an important story to be told about the ways in which particular sorts of communications networks, funding mechanisms, and partisans allegiances coalesce in news media (and no, I’m not just thinking of Fox News here). The good news (pun intended) for me is that it provides an opportunity to talk about these issues in public, even if it’s not necessarily been a healthy development for American politics and culture.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: New York History Around The Web This Week - The New York History Blog

  2. Pingback: Tapping into Revolutionary Networks | History on the mysteryStream

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