By Martha Howard
February 01, 2017
Homesick for the Quarterly
8 min read
by Benjamin L. Carp
Publishing in this issue of the William and Mary Quarterly felt like a homecoming for me.
When John Demos taught “The Social History of the American Revolution” during my junior year, he assigned Alfred F. Young’s award-winning 1981 article on the shoemaker George Robert Twelves Hewes. Young included a few lines about Hewes’s apparent lack of civic engagement before he joined the revolutionary movement: “He does not seem to have belonged to any associations. [Ebenezer] McIntosh was in a fire company. So was Hewes’s brother Shubael. Hewes was not” (584). This led me to ask, “What did it mean to belong to a fire company during the Revolutionary era?” My answers initially yielded an inchoate paper that flailed in four different directions, but the seminar also cemented my decision to apply to graduate school in early American history. After further research, my senior thesis on firefighters became more focused than the seminar paper. Once graduate school further tamed my sloppier impulses, I worked on my thesis further, and my advisers encouraged me to send it to the Quarterly.
The experience of submitting and revising the article was exhilarating, and the process toughened my hide. Young himself signed his name as one of the readers, as did two other scholars who (at the time) were faceless heroes to me. The published article appeared in the October 2001 issue of the Quarterly, which encouraged me to pursue other research questions.
In subsequent years I had another submission to the Quarterly rejected and I served as peer reviewer half a dozen times. Otherwise I was content to subscribe but not submit. I wrote two books, which left little time for journal articles. In some ways it’s easier to get a book published (especially after the first one), since the peer review isn’t double-blind, and it’s possible to earn a little money from books. As a result, some historians never go back to publishing articles, but I had always admired great essayists like Joyce Appleby, T. H. Breen, Jack P. Greene, Pauline Maier, John M. Murrin, or Mary Beth Norton, who have continued to work out their ideas in scholarly journals even after attaining distinction and seniority. Over the past decade I’ve also edited an undergraduate sourcebook and written essays for edited volumes and popular audiences, but I have not written many peer reviewed articles. I felt the absence in my intellectual life, and it started to rankle.
A year ago, Karin Wulf’s robust defense of academic history touched off a debate between John Fea and myself about the merits and drawbacks of academic and public history writing. John confessed that he wasn’t sure he wanted to write for scholarly audiences any longer. Little did John know that his own work on cosmopolitanism and religion had already inspired my own exploration of homesick Delaware Valley natives who went south, and that I was knocking on the Quarterly’s door.
During my dissertation research I had run across Samuel Rowland Fisher, a Philadelphia merchant who kept a miserable diary about his experiences in Charleston, South Carolina. With some further research, I discovered a handful of other Quaker traders with similar experiences, and I set out to interpret what it all meant. The subject was best suited to an academic article.
And so in August 2013, I decided it was time to test my ideas against the rigors of the peer review process. Given its reputation for heavy criticism, the Quarterly was my first choice. I got what I asked for: I was raked over the coals by four (later five) anonymous reviewers, who ranged from skeptically intrigued to frustrated at my obfuscations. I had offered extensive criticisms to a few aspiring Quarterly writers over the years, and now I stoically chewed on my karmic deserts.
The editorial process and revisions took more than three years, many drafts, and further frustration from the referees. (The delay was lucky for me in any case, since some new books came out in the interim that helped to reshape my argument.) I threw out entire conceptual frameworks. I scaled back some overblown claims. I bounced my introduction against the scholarly literature. I lashed my primary source evidence more tightly to the analysis. I bolted down a glib conclusion. I got to feel like a young scholar again, kneeling at the feet of wiser thinkers. And I also wondered whether all was lost. Finally late last summer I got the good news: I had crawled my way back to the Quarterly: the beautiful typeface, the voluminous (and verified) footnotes, and the opportunity to see how our early Americanist family might respond to a new set of ideas. Many, many aspects of this process were psychic torture, but I feel better for having done it, and the article is certainly better than it was. Even more exciting is that the article appears alongside essays by Adrian Chastain Weimer and Nicholas Wood, with an introduction by Geoffrey Plank, a bit of serendipity that I could not have anticipated back in 2013.
I disagreed with John Fea about whether tenured historians ought to give up on academic writing. For my own part, I found that my William and Mary Quarterly homecoming was a source of self-improvement. Even as I still strive to reach wider audiences in other venues, I continue to value the Quarterly as a forum for experts.