One of my favorite internet magazines, Common Place, has just published a special issue dedicated to American literature. Stanza and Kindle readers won’t want to miss on
“Who Publishes an Early American Book? From Codex to Kindle,” only one of several outstanding articles on American literature and publishing.
Common Place takes its name from the commonplace book, a part of every educated person’s schooling in Early Modern Europe. Young scholars used a sheaf of paper or bound book as a place to copy significant passages, essays, poetry, or even letters for reference and sharing. It was the earliest version of social bookmarking!
“Literature as Evidence: Historians recommend American books” by Eric Slauter will be of special interest to researchers and family historians. Slauter briefly discusses the popularity (or not) of Adam Seybert’s 1818 volume, Statistical Annals
an eight-hundred-page, six-pound volume, printed in the dimensions of a modern metropolitan phone directory, with 175 numeric tables describing population, commerce, and debt—aimed at nothing less than a full representation of the United States in book form.
When Seybert’s Annals failed to be a bestseller (imagine that!), the U.S. government ended up purchasing hundreds of copies. Seybert’s work helped establish America’s love affair with statistics, numbers, and facts, “what historian Patricia Cline Cohen has called the ‘quantitative mentality’ of the early United States.”
Family historians and genealogists quickly find that there is more to a life than names, dates, and places. Discovering social context through literature is an exciting way to flesh out our ancestors’ stories and bring the past to life. It is affirming to note that Slauter cites historians who have moved past data-only to include literature as evidence of shifts in social attitudes and as documentation of life experiences. This is exactly the kind of social context the family historian attempts to build.