Thursday, August 30, 2012
August 30, 2012: Books That Shaped American Studier, College
[The Library of Congress is currently hosting a pretty cool exhibition called Books That Shaped America. Many of its featured books are ones I (or Guest Posters) have written about in this space, and the topic as a whole is of course central to much of what I do here. But this week I wanted to blog about a parallel but more intimate topic—a handful of the many books that have shaped this American Studier. Please share your responses and/or your own such books for the crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On the book that helped open my eyes to a new career opportunity.
One of this blog’s most overarching threads—indeed one of its central purposes, but also one I have explicitly discussed on multiple occasions—has been my evolving perspectives on and goals for a career in public scholarship. To some degree this is a new-ish development in my thinking, and one I could trace to the shift from my first book (which was based on my dissertation and as such constructed almost entirely for an academic audience) to my second (which I hoped, and still hope, could interest American Studiers outside the academy just as much if not more as those inside; check it out and see for yourself, wherever you are!). Yet as I’ve made this shift in my thinking, I’ve been greatly helped by the many strong examples of public American Studies scholarship I’ve encountered throughout my life—and one that particularly stands out is Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America (1994).
I read Johnson and Wilentz’s book as a freshman in college, in a History and Literature (America) sophomore tutorial that included a ton of great scholarly works: John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive, Christine Stansell’s City of Women, and David Hollinger’s Post-Ethnic America, to cite only three. Yet The Kingdom of Matthias stood out, as it’s able to combine some of the strongest features of each of those exemplary works: it’s a narrative history every bit as compelling as Demos’, is grounded in as extensive and thorough research and citation as Stansell’s, and feels as relevant to big American questions and narratives as Hollinger’s (particularly when Johnson and Wilentz get to their climactic reveal about Sojourner Truth, about which I’ve blogged previously). This is a book that reads quickly and compellingly while introducing its audiences to a great deal of specific sources and history, that does justice to a bygone era and subject while feeling fresh and relevant to our contemporary moment, and that highlights a far-too forgotten set of American histories and identities without feeling the slightest bit didactic or antiquarian.
Books are only part of the future of public American Studies scholarship, of course; as might be obvious, I’m also a big fan of blogs, websites, conferences and colloquia, and many other ways American Studiers can connect and converse about these key questions. But the truth is that what makes a great public scholarly book great parallels very directly what produces the best of all those other forms of scholarship; that means all those things in the last paragraph’s closing sentence, but it also and most directly means this: that it be unique, based on meaningful research and knowledge and analysis, and able to connect to other American Studiers and what’s important to them. Content that’s worth our time; authors with something genuine to contribute; an awareness of audience and ability to connect to those audiences. Might seem like a simple enough equation, but getting it right, well, that’s the trick (and one I’m most definitely still working toward). To my mind, Johnson and Wilentz got it exactly right—even if it took me a few years to really appreciate that college lesson.
Next shaping book tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts? Books that shaped you? I’d love to hear ‘em, for lots of reasons including the weekend’s post!8/30 Memory Day nominee: Roy Wilkins, the Civil Rights and NAACP leader whose editorial, political, social, and legal efforts contributed as much as any American to some of the 20th century’s most important achievements.