by James Rice
In a recent series of Uncommon Sense posts, Karin Wulf, Ann Little, Anna Mae Duane, and Lynne Withey celebrated the 75th anniversary year of the Omohundro Institute by writing about the OI books that most influenced their intellectual journeys through early American studies. I’d like to join in the anniversary celebration, first by singing the praises of the people who have made rigorous editorial and production values a hallmark of OI publications since 1943, and second by remarking on the ways in which the OI fosters scholarship over the long haul, sometimes from its earliest conception until it goes to press.
I’ve just had an article on “Early American Environmental Histories” published in the Quarterly (July 2018), and witnessed up-close the remarkable amount of work and energy that went into this article by managing editor Meg Musselwhite and the WMQ’s graduate editorial apprentices. They challenged me to be a more meticulous scholar and writer by checking every single quotation and citation, unraveling thorny grammatical issues, and flagging those clunky phrases that drive one crazy after they’re frozen in print. Editor Josh Piker also engaged closely with the text, pushing me to write better transitions and to simplify overly-convoluted sentences. All of this for just one article out of three (plus a “Sources and Interpretations” piece by Joanne van der Woude and Jaap Jacobs) to appear in the July issue, which was itself one of the nearly three hundred issues of the Quarterly in the past 75 years. All of this, too, while numerous other articles and OI books were simultaneously in the works. Precious few academic history journals or book series have the resources to produce such squeaky-clean copy, and I count myself lucky that the OI publications are among them. (In fact, it’s one of the things that led me to study early American history in the first place.) This kind of close editing and production is true scholarship, at the most foundational level.
Like so many books and articles in early American history over the past 75 years, “Early American Environmental Histories” was cultivated from a very early stage through an OI program. The 2017 WMQ-EMSI workshop that gave birth to the essay brought together eight presenters, plus EMSI director Peter Mancall, WMQ editor Josh Piker, book review editor Brett Rushforth, and a roomful of highly-engaged attendees for a two-day conversation about the past, present, and future of early American environmental history. The influence of these workshop participants can be seen not only in my essay, but also in several recent and forthcoming publications that were originally presented at the workshop. Robert Morrissey’s “Climate, Ecology, and History in North America’s Tallgrass Prairie Borderlands” will appear in 2019 in Past & Present, Andrea Pappas has revised her workshop paper into a crucial chapter of her nearly completed book, Embroidering the Landscape, and Christopher Parsons’ essay is now chapter four of his A Not-So- New-World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America (University of Pennsylvania Press, August 2018). Again, I can’t help but think about the continuity between their publications and those hundreds upon hundreds of others, stretching back to 1943, that have been nurtured by the Institutes’ fellowship, conference, workshop, and publications programs – including the books so justly celebrated by Wulf, Little, Duane, and Withey.
One need only look at the acknowledgments to a typical scholarly monograph or article to see that historians, while seldom co-authors, nearly always write in community. We as a profession count on that community and, given the dearth of resources at most journals and presses, on the dedication and commitment of un[der]paid and understaffed editorial teams at scholarly journals and university presses. The OI, thankfully, has the critical mass of resources that makes it possible to not only provide a forum for excellent scholarship, but also to foster and refine it. The OI books that so inspired Wulf, Little, Duane, and Withey would likely have had major impacts on the field with another publisher, but I’m pretty sure that they’re even better for having been supported by OI programs, editing, and production. So, one more thing – or rather, a thousand little things adding up to something much bigger – to celebrate during the 75th anniversary of the Institute.