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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · July 26, 2017

Nick Popper, BRE

WMQ 10 min read

Today’s post comes from Nick Popper, new Book Review Editor at the William and Mary Quarterly. 

By Nick Popper

The first reviewers of William Robertson’s landmark 1777 History of America tended towards rapturous praise. In June of that year, a review appeared in both the Scots Magazine and the Monthly Review exclaiming that “From the close of the fifteenth century we date the most splendid era in the history of modern times….but hitherto no author has bestowed the mature and profound investigation which such a subject required, or has finished, upon a regular plan, that complete narration and perfect whole which it is the province of the historian to transmit to posterity.”[1]  Robertson, the reviewer gushed, had fulfilled this urgent need.

Robertson was a paragon of the Scottish Enlightenment, while his text descended from a robust tradition of European inquiries into the shrouded American past, his philosophy granted unique significance to New World history as the brightest beacon illuminating the whole of “universal history,” that favored Enlightenment subject. For him, the main arc of this story was Europe’s political and religious “civilization” of the American peoples he saw as embodying humanity’s essential nature. This relentlessly philosophical history nonetheless rested on a sturdy bedrock of research, for he collected rare (European) manuscripts and circulated questionnaires to (European) experts.

Robertson’s reviewers recognized his ambitions and labors, and they took as their task the articulation of his achievement for their readers. They enthused over different aspects—all praising the philosophical system he built from his historical inquiry, many others lauding the scope of his research and the quality of the prose, and others appreciating more minor aspects like his attention to oft-disbelieved accounts of ancient discoveries of the New World.

But despite their raves, no aspect of Robertson’s work elicited universal acclaim. The London Review lampooned the archival work that impressed most reviewers, instead dismissing it as merely “the purchase of old books or manuscripts, containing facts and details which he might have searched for in vain, in works that have been made public.” Robertson’s efforts to draw attention to this labor, the reviewer claimed, distracted from the philosophical significance of this work. And yet, the reviewer further grumbled that “there are few matters of fact, related in the course of this volume, which are not generally known to most historical readers.”[2]

Complaints that did not contradict themselves might still seem alien to historians today. The Critical Review found most fault in “the ambiguity which frequently prevails in the language, from an improper or careless use of the relatives. In the same sentence the same pronouns often refer to different antecedents, and the reader is obliged to relinquish the expression, and to have recourse to the sense before he can comprehend the meaning.”[3]  The Gentleman’s Magazine lamented that Robertson had not queried, “whether the present race of Americans, the few in comparison who now survive, have derived most happiness or misery from their intercourse with Europeans?”[4]

Few contemporary historians would endorse Robertson’s system of history or prioritize his reviewers’ criticisms (though they might see reviews of their own work as similar to the above samples). Other aspects of Robertson’s reviews might seem peculiar as well. For one, they were almost all anonymous—a convention that would kill reviewing within today’s academic credit economy. They were often spread out over multiple issues, and in one case noted above, shared between two publications. Even more strikingly, most contained little original material, instead consisting predominantly of lengthy extracts from Robertson. In general, they more closely resembled a Googlebooks preview than a scholarly book review, providing a sample for potential buyers in an era of mail-order retail.

Despite these differences, these curious and sometimes conflicting essays balanced several functions that still resonate: to summarize, contextualize, criticize, and publicize. Each of these prioritize servicing the books’ potential audience, for the genre of the book review emblematizes a conception of scholarship as collaborative, imbricated in community. The genre was invented in the late seventeenth century at a time when scholars, scarred by almost two centuries of European warfare many attributed to unhinged or unmethodical learning, sought to quell disorder through reasoned critique and polite communication. As they worked to propagate this understanding of learning to broader publics, the book review crystallized as a forum for mediating knowledge to a wider readership while at the same time moderating learned dispute and conflict.

Hierarchies of importance change over time, but our reviews today should still orient readers to the sources, scope, narrative and argument of a book; frame it in relation to similar studies and identify its unique contribution; provide a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of its conceptualization and execution; and encourage and give direction to future scholarship. By attributing importance to such reflections, we exhibit respect to the author of the book in question, but we also acknowledge that the reader is part of the life of the book. This valuation of readership reflects a conception of knowledge as open-ended, continually subject to revision and improvement—a collective good.

As new Book Review Editor at the WMQ, I am eagerly looking forward to working with authors to fulfill these ideals. I am deeply grateful to my predecessor Brett Rushforth (and Karin Wulf and Robert Gross before him), who has performed this role with brilliance and vision. I inherit the conviction that WMQ should elevate probing, sustained consideration of new scholarship over their other functions. One imperative aspect of this project entails showing how expanding the boundaries of early America—whether geographical, chronological, or evidentiary—helps better explain all aspects of it. The best book reviews do this in part by looking backwards, putting previous visions and present scholarship in dialogue to generate future possibilities.

Robertson’s History, perhaps surprisingly, indicates the value of this enterprise.  The revolt in the colonies delayed his studies of British America, and the work’s consequent focus on the sixteenth century conquest of Latin America he saw as part of the British engagement suggests that the British myopia of Anglo-American scholarship only emerged in subsequent generations; the current vasting of early America is both a revelation and a recovery. I am grateful for the opportunity to work with reviewers to continue the project of enhancing our community of scholars and advancing knowledge of this most “splendid era.”

[1] Review of “The History of America, “ Scots Magazine 39 (1777): 302; Review of “The History of America,” Monthly Review 56 (1777):   449-50.

[2] Review of “The History of America,” London Review of English and Foreign Literature 5 (1777): 403, 405.

[3] Review of “The History of America,” Critical Review 44 (1777):  129.

[4] Review of “The History of America,” Gentleman’s Magazine 48 (1778): 26.

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