Archive Fever

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Last week I spent a couple of days in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library, flipping feverishly through the papers of the Association of University Presses for the book on the history of American university presses I’m working on. I’ve finally finished cataloging my pictures and have begun going back through them and trying to get down all of the thoughts I had about them mid-flip. A lot of what I found interesting was about the origins of the AUP. (Here ends any useful reference to Derrida’s book on the origins of psychoanalysis, alluded to in this post’s title.)

I want to know more about the formation and early stages of the AUP (formerly the AAUP, until 2017, when the constant confusion with the American Association of University Presses apparently became too much to bear) not just because every story needs a good beginning but because the formation of the association happens at the time that university press publishing in the US is starting to come into its own, to see itself as an industry, albeit one forever tied to the individual campuses where presses live and to the scholars they serve. At moments like these, the tensions that animate institutional histories are made visible.


Take this description, from writer Christopher Morley’s preface to the first joint catalogue (titled Shelfward Ho!), issued before the association was formed, of the motivation for this new project: “Thirteen university presses, pooling their interests, have here listed sixty-five of their most exciting recent issues and and set out for a serious invasion into Bœotia.” Framing a catalogue designed to get scholarly books before a wider audience as an attempt to invade Bœotia–the region of Greece that ancient Athenians used as shorthand for ignorance and dullness–is of course meant to be funny, but it is also potentially telling, at least as concerns the way university presses saw their place in the world.

Also telling is the consistent early jokiness seen in the self-references made by Chicago’s20191015_110651.jpg Donald Bean and other representatives of the future members of the AUP. Calling themselves “producers of highbrow tobaccos” and “bootleggers,” even producing a pamphlet for a 1932 meeting arguing for greater coordination among themselves and with commercial publishers called “The Story of Pure Tobacco,” seems evidence of an anxiety about their position, though whether it was about being businessmen with such an unpromising product, disseminators of scholarship working in the unscholarly world of commerce, or some combination of both, I’m not yet sure.

It certainly seems connected to the tensions between the book business and the business of scholarship that persisted through the twentieth century and today. When press subsidies are cut, when presses are threatened, when traditional monographs seem impossible to publish given pressures on presses to be self-

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sustaining–whenever the question of what university presses are for and how should what they do be paid for–the old tensions embodied in “The Story of Pure Tobacco” are in play. The same is true when you look at the persistent lure of the crossover book, the title accessible and welcoming enough to Bœotians that they might shell out enough drachmai to support the publication of the light-selling scholarly monographs; the invasion into Bœotia is an attractive prospect, but it costs money to mount that kind of invasion, and it doesn’t always pay off. Likewise, the university press’s part in the ongoing contest over the value of the humanities has roots in these origins: beyond the esoteric knowledge produced for knowledge’s sake in the book-centric humanities disciplines, the argument over whether they have something to offer to the Bœotias surrounding the college towns and university-rich cities has become part of the argument for continuing to support them or for continuing to support them less and less.

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Origin stories are funny things; you can sift through the past and find the parts of the story you want to tell. As I sift, I’m coming across evidence of ingenuity as well as of old boy chumminess, of a cooperative spirit against a landscape of haves and have nots, of the amount of time it took to do anything before email, and I don’t want to leave any of this out. I want to end up telling a complicated story about the history of university presses, one that does justice to the many different possible stories, the failures and the successes, the bleak crises and rosy futures, and in doing so to make my own argument for the value of the whole enterprise, in the form of a university press book.


The State of the State

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 2.18.04 PMI’m revising a talk I’m giving on Missouri writers at the Vandalia Area Historical Society this weekend in between games at my son’s soccer tournament and thinking about the topic that serves as the title of the talk and this post. As I think I am just congenitally wired to do, my thoughts in the talk focus on dark aspects of the state’s history, and on their persistence, but manage to find hope in the way people have confronted them. I’ve given a few talks like this in order to help me think about these things and to get out into the state whose history and writers I’m supposed to be preparing myself to teach about (and in some small way to help publicize the minor in Missouri Studies I’m directing, which got a nice write-up in one of the local papers a few weeks ago).

I’ve felt especially unsettled while working on the talk this time, and I think the reason is captured in the title too. To break some shattering news, the state of the union these days is not strong. Of course everyone who reads a newspaper and is honest with themselves knows this, and I don’t know what to say about the rest other than that I hope their children have good teachers, but I think knowing it and thinking about it are only one of they ways we experience the state of the union. Moving in the past few weeks from the low-grade anxiety engendered by having a man like our current president* at the helm to the the full-blown despair and rage (and no, those words are absolutely not too strong) brought on by recent events and revelations, I’m reminded that people experience the state of the union not only in our brains and our hearts but in our bodies. The refusal to confront the truth by the overwhelming majority of the party in power, the cruelty that again and again seems to be the point, the lack of regard for the impact on everyday lives of the policies being vomited out of Washington–we can feel this in our bones. (And I’m very much aware of the luxury of experiencing this presidency as a white man and citizen and all the other things that make the threat a good deal less existential. But still.)

screen-shot-2019-10-07-at-3.19.56-pm-e1570479661849.pngAs I’m preparing to go talk to strangers about the history of a state that’s much more theirs than mine, I’m also anticipating feeling out of place. Given the way the president* and his shameful defenders–offenders–talk about the divide between the regular, real Americans they pretend to champion and the elites they pretend to defend them against, given the mistrust that talk breeds and reinforces, I’ll be opening with a joke about how growing up in New Jersey makes me an obvious expert on Missouri, but it’s a joke that hides (or maybe doesn’t hide) real anxiety. And it’s an anxiety made worse by the state of the union. I don’t imagine whatever red hatters roam the Vandalia area will be hanging out at the Historical Society this weekend, but I do think that those of us who are hatless have the feeling that they’re living inside our heads, and at times are making us see the world through their eyes.

I gave a talk in August at the St. Louis Public Library into which I worked some of what I know about the history of race in St. Louis from the first state constitution to freedom suits to redlining to Ferguson, and the Q & A after devolved into a lamenting of how the adult children of many in the audience had moved away because of some of the negatives highlighted in my talk. I say devolved because, as I said, I can’t help but lean toward the future and the positive. Like many of the writers I talk about, as much as I explore the wrongs of the past, I want to be hopeful, to imagine a future in which people repeat past mistakes slightly less often. Many in my profession find this kind of attitude naive, arguing that history doesn’t work like that, objecting to observations about current events like This is not who we are and We’re better than this, by saying instead Yes, its exactly who we are, and We are not anything other than this.

I have to believe that it’s who we have been but it’s not who we are. I have to believe that “we” is always expanding and becoming more diverse, despite constant pressure and occasional spasms of contraction. I have to believe that the current victory of those who would keep “we” small, who would stoke resentment, isn’t permanent. It’s not an aberration either, as has been recently said. It’s got a long history. But there’s also a long history of resistance. As I drive this weekend from a multimillion-dollar astroturf soccer complex in St. Louis County to Vandalia, pop. 3899, thirty miles southwest from Mark Twain’s Hannibal, ninety-five miles northwest of Michael Brown’s Ferguson, I’ll be thinking about that.

Just in Time

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 1.55.12 PMGot the news today (oh boy) that a roundtable proposal I put together for January’s Modern Language Association meeting has been accepted by the Program Committee. It will be one of the MLA’s new “Just-in-Time” panels covering late-breaking events that broke too late for sessions about them to make the usual submission deadline, and is called “Just in Time: The University Press and the University.”

The roundtable’s topic will be the relationship between university presses and their parent institutions, in light of recent events and focusing in particular on what happens when funding arrangements become unstable. Participants will include press directors Nicole Mitchell of U of Washington P, Gianna Mosser of Vanderbilt UP, and Stephanie Williams of Ohio UP; editorial directors Greg Britton of the Johns Hopkins UP and Alan Thomas of U of Chicago P; and professor and series editor Loren Glass of U of Iowa. I imagine the talk will range far and wide, from current events to the impacts on the health of individual presses to the fate of areas of intellectual inquiry and the tenure and promotion system itself.

One thing that may come up if this presider has anything to say about it, and he may not, is what’s at the bottom of the scarcity of funding for worthwhile ventures such as university presses. I’ll let David Leonhardt say it for me: