Crossing over, part III: The uses and limits of literary models


Mary with Laura holding Susan. Illustration by Garth Williams, Little House in the Big Woods, 1932

Today’s post is an unanticipated part III in my series Crossing Over, on writing and publishing an academic book that aims to be a “crossover” title with a popular audience.  Part I can be found here, “What is my book about?”, and Part II here, “Will I ever publish this book?”  Many thanks to those of you in the comments on those posts who encouraged me to write a Part III.  I hope to hear from the rest of you as to the writers and titles you see as your historical and literary models.

One of the challenges in writing The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) was the fact that her life is very eventful early in childhood and adolescence, and then again in old age–a reversal of most biographies, which tend to focus on the adult years of a subject’s life, and offer only scant attention to their youths and their decline in old age.  But while her childhood was very eventful–taken captive at age 7, brought to New France at age 12, and announced her intention to become a nun at age 14–most of it before she enters the Ursuline convent as a student at age 12 is only very lightly documented.

How does one write the history of an eighteenth-century childhood, especially one almost entirely undocumented?  Although I was powerfully influenced by the historians I’ve been reading all my professional life, especially those who have focused on telling the story of a single life, I saw this as more of a literary problem than a historical one.  That is, I knew what I could do as a historian–I just didn’t know how I could bring it all together.  Or, as I wrote in part I of the Crossing Over series a few weeks ago: Continue reading

Crossing over, part II: Will I ever publish this book?

Do I feel lucky?

Do I feel lucky?

Howdy, friends!  Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016).  For part I of this series, “Crossing Over:  What is my book about?” click here.  When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make.  The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.

After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction.  He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again.  (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)

The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me.  I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns.  I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out. Continue reading

Crossing over, part I: What is my book about?

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

View of Quebec City across the St. Lawrence

In a post last weekend, I revealed that my forthcoming book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2016) would be published as a crossover academic-trade title.  Some of you expressed interest in how I got a contract like this, as many of the scholar-readers here are interested in writing beyond a traditional academic audience of other professors and their students.  So, I’ll tell you my story and do my best to draw a few lessons out of it.

(Over the last several years, I would tell junior scholars who asked about how I got my first book published to ask the same question of a lot of other people, because it seems like no two journeys to a publisher and to publication are the same.  Maybe this is a truth universally acknowledged?  Those of you with more experience, PLEASE weigh in with your ideas, advice, and experiences!) Continue reading

End of the line

End of the cog railway on Pike's Peak in Colorado

End of the cog railway on Pike’s Peak in Colorado

I’m in the last six weeks of completing my second book (and third monograph!) and the end of my last research trip to Québec, so it’s the end of the line for me.  As much as I’ve been itching to get this book done, it’s a little sad now to think of not returning to Québec.  It’s too bad, because I’ve got the condo situation sussed out, my favorite épiceries and boulangeries figured out, the vagaries of seventeenth and eighteenth-century French navigated, and now this information will become irrelevant to anyone (including me) in the next few years.  Isn’t it always the case that just as we get good at something, it’s time to wrap it up and move along?

I guess the only way to avoid this feeling is never to finish a project, which is just a bridge too far for me.  I take pride on being the kind of historian who can get stuff done, get it out, and move along.  I’m a perfectionist, but I also recognize that there is such a thing as the best book I can write right now.  I just can’t nibble a project to death.

All this week, I’ve had two alternating thoughts as I’ve reviewed some of the archival material I’ve taken notes on already, as well as a few new items:  first, omigod, how did I miss this the first time around??? and next, OK, this helps you and merely adds a few choice details to the story you’re already telling.  Still, don’t most of us wonder how many wonderful, awful stories we’ve missed? Continue reading

Friday round-up: the good and evil edition

Ding a ling a ling!

Ding a ling a ling!

Ask not for whom the dinner bell tolls!  I’m on a tight deadline to crank out an essay before the bell rings, so here are a few long reads to keep you busy while I’m out roping up some historiographical longhorns.  I don’t know why, but all of these links seem to be about good actors struggling to cope with their mixed feelings about the bad behavior of others.  Bookmark this post the next time someone tells you that “secular humanists” and “liberal relativists” refuse to deal with the problem of evil in the world, willya?

  • Clemson Communications Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika writes at the NPR Code Switch blog about “The Cost of White Comfort,” and nails a sneaking suspicion I’ve had about the (mostly white) chorus of hosannas about the forgiveness shown by the families of the black victims of last week’s terrible massacre in Charleston:  “I couldn’t shake a paralyzing feeling: When black people and white people clasped hands in the arena that night, the comfort wouldn’t be evenly distributed. The healing wouldn’t flow both ways.”  White Americans just love it when we’re let off the hook, don’t we?  We’re the kings and queens of the fantasy that history doesn’t matter.
  • Writer Andrew Chee dishes on his time in the early 1990s working as a cater-waiter for William F. and Pat Buckley:  “The tuxedo and the starched white shirt—and the fact that each assignment was at a different, often exclusive, place—all made me feel a little like James Bond. Sometimes my fellow waiters and I called it the Gay Peace Corps for how we could come into places, clean them up, make them fabulous, throw a party, and leave. And I liked that when I went home, I didn’t think about the work at all.”  But would his recent past as an ACT-UP activist get him kicked out of the famously anti-gay Bill’s household?  Or would it get him an invitation to skinny dip with Bill at the end of the evening?  (Because “that’s how they used to swim at Yale, after all.”)  Really!  For you younger people, this essay really captures a slice of gay, urban life in the 1990s, before and just after the invention of protease inhibitors while rendered HIV a condition people could live with instead of just die from.  I was an urban straight at the time, but Chee and I are the same age and his recollections really jibe with my memories of the time.

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Blooming where you’re planted, flourishing in stony soil, plus Robert Frost



Tom Bredehoft has another post up at Chancery Hill Books about the ways in which not teaching at an R-1 fundamentally shaped his career as a scholar in fruitful ways.  In brief, he writes that building his career at a regional comprehensive university and then adjuncting for a few years at another university made him a more creative and more theoretically inclined scholar than he ever thought he would be as a medieval Old English literature expert:

Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.

But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn’t rely on other theorists’ thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.

As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.

Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.

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Be sure you’re right THEN GO AHEAD: more on the alt-ac/post-ac trackity track.

crockett1840backFriends, I’ve been at the beach for a last look at the blue Pacific, packing up, and picking up loose ends of my sabbatical year as we get ready to hitch up the team and head eastward back to our home in the alta sierra.  While I’m busy with all this glamour, check out Tom Bredehoft’s latest post on the alt-ac/post-ac life.  He’s got a fascinating description of a little mystery he solved regarding a Davey Crockett almanac of 1840:

The almanacs in this lot, as it turned out, were very much a mixed bag, but the one I immediately spotted as most interesting was titled only “Crockett Comic Almanac 1840.” No author or publisher was given, and there seemed no obvious way to identify even the printer. But I knew that much of Davy Crockett’s reputation as a rough-and-ready frontiersman had been spread and elaborated by a variety of Crockett almanacs dating from the 1830s to the late 1840s, and that those books were very collectible indeed. My almanac was missing one leaf, and someone had snipped out a further joke or two, but it still seemed likely to have some value.

But it wasn’t listed in Drake, the standard bibliographic reference on American almanacs before 1850. A closer look revealed that the first interior page, listing the eclipses for the year, stated that they had been calculated for the longitude of Cincinnati, and it seemed likely that the book had been printed there. Still, I could find no record of any Crockett almanac printed in Cincinnati, and the Morgan online bibliography of early Ohio imprints had no record of such a book either. At last I turned to WorldCat, and was nearly frustrated there, too, but for a buried reference to an almanac with the same title bound in a collection of almanacs from the 1840s in the state library of Ohio. On my next trip to Columbus, I dropped into the library and called for the book, and I was delighted to see that it was the same as my own Crockett almanac. Further, I glanced through the other almanacs bound together with it, and I discovered that type batter on the eclipses page of another Cincinnati almanac enabled me to pin down the printer (and probably the publisher) with certainty. I had learned something.

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