Guest Post: The Winthrops and their Books: A Transatlantic Tale

Guest posters Richard Calis and Madeline McMahon are graduate students in the History Department at Princeton University. Along with Frederic Clark, Anthony Grafton, and Jennifer Rampling, they are part of a collaborative research project (@WinthropProject) studying how multiple generations of Winthrops read, annotated, and acquired books on both sides of the Atlantic. 

John Winthrop (1588-1649) and his son John Winthrop Jr. (1606-1676) are now known primarily as protagonists in the turbulent political history of early America. But in addition to shaping the government and theology of New England as governors of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut (respectively), they and the rest of the Winthrop family also participated in a transatlantic and inter-generational bookish culture. Long before the Arbella sailed to Boston in 1630 to build a “city upon a hill”, generations of Winthrops began to talk about books, ways to read them and, as we will illustrate here, the difficulties and contingencies of collecting them—on both sides of the Atlantic. Continue reading

Set in Stone

Stone LibraryEvery president has a past, and to his regret, John Adams did not save all of it for history’s sake. “Whatever you write preserve,” he directed his grandsons in 1815. “I have burned, Bushells of my Silly notes, in fitts of Impatience and humiliation, which I would now give anything to recover.” Continue reading

Academic Audiobooks: Or, a Thinly-Veiled Plea for Recommendations

IMG_5335Over the past few years, I’ve become (to my great surprise) an avid listener of audiobooks. What initially began as a means to keep me awake and alert during a series of near-monthly drives back and forth from Virginia to northern New Jersey has become, over time, what I prefer to listen to in almost all circumstances: on my morning run, on my daily commute, during the several short walks I take across campus throughout the week, and even occasionally at day’s end, as I lay in bed trying to unwind before falling asleep (with my headphones in, this is a far less intrusive means of me “reading” for my slumbering wife).  Continue reading

Guest Post: The Value of Storytelling

We’re thrilled to welcome as our latest guest poster, Casey Schmitt. Casey is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law under the supervision of Brett Rushforth. Casey holds an MA in history from the University of Utah, where she wrote an excellent thesis on the British Asiento, illicit trade, and the limits of empire in the eighteenth-century Caribbean. Her teaching and research interests center on the inter-imperial nature of the early modern Americas.

As a newly-minted ABD embarking on my first stab at teaching the early American history survey, I find myself buried beneath my own excitement for the material. No one warned me that the biggest obstacle to designing a course would be curbing my own unrelenting enthusiasm. Perhaps no part of that enthusiasm has proven more damaging to my syllabus than my passion for storytelling. Specifically, I approached teaching the early America survey with a litany of historical works of fiction and non-fiction that I wanted to familiarize undergraduates with: 12 Years a Slave, Benito Cereno, Poor Richard’s Almanac, Letters From an American Farmer, among many, many other titles. Before too long I was looking at a weekly reading word count over 150 pages. Yikes. Continue reading

Sounds of Silence: Managing Student Preparation

In all the teaching orientations and training manuals I’ve encountered, they all advise instructors not to be afraid of silence. The average student, they say, takes up to 8 seconds to mentally prepare an answer to an analytical query. But what happens when the silence isn’t because students are choosing which of their brilliant thoughts to share with the class but because most of them failed to do the reading? I suspect every college teacher has had a class session in which most questions were met with complete silence. What can we, as the instructors, do in such situations? And how can we better incentivize students to take their assigned reading seriously? Continue reading

Autumn Reads

"Indian Summer," Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1866

It’s a glorious fall in New England, and that means it’s time to scout out a few good reads for the snowy days ahead. Here’s a sampling of new releases and forthcoming titles in early American history that I plan to check out. What’s on your fall reading list? And what can you recommend for us to review here?

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Locating the Literati: Charles Brockden Brown in Philadelphia

Charles Brockden Brown - NYPL Digital GalleryIt’s hard to write about early American print culture or intellect without thinking a lot about geography. Scholars like Trish Loughran, Richard John, John Fea, John Brooke, and Mary Kelley have suggested, in all sorts of ways, that it’s often wise to understand “the” early American public as a web of fundamentally local reading and writing publics. Intellectual culture meant something different from what it means in an age of mass media. But tricky questions come up when you try to write a local history of ideas or culture. Just how local can we reasonably go? How much detail can we actually use in an intellectual map of the early United States without getting lost in coincidences and irrelevance?

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Reading and Magic

interesting narrativeLast week, the Library Company of Philadelphia and the McNeil Center for Early American Studies hosted the Early American Literature and Material Texts Workshop, generously sponsored for the fifth time by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  Led this year by Meredith McGill, the workshop offers a chance each summer for some material-texts scholars to get together and talk about their work and reflect on what attention to the material conditions of texts can bring to the study of, primarily, history and literature.  This year there was a particular focus on materiality as it relates to how we think about form and genre–we had great sessions on nineteenth-century autobiography as a genre, P.T. Barnum, the print transmission of colonial media narratives, and the meaning of format from manuscript to magazine to mp3.  It’s always humbling and exciting to glimpse the high level on which other scholars are thinking about some of the things I’m interested in. Continue reading

Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life

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William J. Gilmore’s Reading Becomes a Necessity of Life is an odd book. Published by University of Tennessee Press in 1989, it was not particularly well reviewed—its oddness frustrated readers. Gilmore set out to “learn how the American version of modern civilization began to influence the lives of the overwhelming majority of rural Americans” by making a fine-grained, comprehensive study of the reading, purchasing, and—less comprehensively—thinking habits of the people who lived in the Upper Connecticut River Valley between 1780 and 1835 (xx). Along the way, there are references to contemporary events Iran and Iraq, Isaac Asimov, corn-husking frolics, and the meaning of human happiness. Paul Johnson, with characteristic precision and wit, summarized the book’s problems in his JAH review (September 1990): Continue reading