OI History: Tales from Former Apprentices, Part 8
As part of our seventy-fifth anniversary, we at the Omohundro Institute continue to reflect on what makes our institution such a special place. One of those things is our Apprenticeship in Historical Editing. Today’s guest post comes from former apprentice Sean P. Harvey who is now an Associate Professor of History at Seton Hall University. Sean’s article “Native Views of Native Languages: Communication and Kinship in Eastern North America, ca. 1800–1830” was recently published in the October edition of the William and Mary Quarterly.
“The Apprentice’s New World”
By Sean P. Harvey
I was an OI apprentice in 2000-2001. Apprenti, as they are called at the Institute, are privileged to see strong, important scholarship in a form not quite raw, but certainly unfinished. We spent most of our time tracking down the published sources used in articles and book chapters in manuscript, checking the accuracy of citations and putting them in Chicago style. It could be tedious and the number of errors—in what would become prize-winning books—surprised me because, as a young master’s student, I knew no better. Nevertheless, it was exciting to get peaks at forthcoming work through citations that provided scholarly maps through places as remote as England and New Mexico.
Most of all, the apprenticeship was edifying. That edification came not only from the scholars whose work we encountered but also from the tutelage of editors, beginning with weeks of pre-semester training. Thereafter, the late Gil Kelly, the incomparable managing editor of books, met with the apprenti once a week. From the whiff of pipe smoke to the housework-themed pop-art mug, those meetings in the Institute’s seminar room are some of the strongest memories of my apprenticeship.
One day, Gil wanted to see what kind of skills we had as copyeditors. He gave us all thirty or forty pages of photocopied typewritten manuscript with no other information than that it was a chapter, as submitted by an author, of a book that the Institute had published. He directed us to read it closely, edit what needed editing, and not to try to check it against the published version. I played by the rules (and my 22-year old self, not even halfway through a master’s thesis on Jacksonian Pennsylvania, had no idea what book had so much to say about Catawbas). One might think that a student, who had less than a year of graduate training under his belt and possessed what could be charitably called stylistic quirks, would approach this task with modesty. I did not. I was determined to show that I could be a good editor. I spent hours poring over the chapter line by line, page by page, changing punctuation, reconstructing sentences, and, generally speaking, making it sound like something that I’d say; but, you know, better.
When we re-convened, Gil asked us what we thought of the chapter. There were some mumbles about making some changes, but my fellow apprenti were noncommittal, as was I. Gil leaned back, nodded, and paused with his familiar “O-kay.” He then told us that we should have changed next to nothing. This chapter from James Merrell’s The Indians’ New World, we learned, was excellent historical writing and as close to a perfect manuscript chapter as Gil had ever seen. Lesson: editing was at least as much about not changing what did not need to be changed, as it was about fixing ostensible mistakes. A good editor should never try to force an author’s style or voice to echo one’s own. Gil taught us this, like other things, in great humor. That lesson stayed with me, and I tried to apply it when I co-edited the Reviews section of the Journal of the Early Republic from 2014-2017.
Ironically, given my former ignorance of one of the field’s seminal books, Native history is what brought me to the William and Mary Quarterly as an author. “Native Views of Native Languages: Communication and Kinship in Eastern North America, ca. 1800-1830” examines how Lenapes, Wendats, Haudenosaunee, Cherokees, Creeks, Shawnees, Kickapoos, Miamis, Anishinaabeg, Sauks, and Foxes understood linguistic relationships. These sometimes corresponded to the present-day classifications (e.g. Algonquian, Iroquoian, Muskogean) adapted from linguists by archaeologists, historians, and other scholars. Often they did not. In either case, indigenous orators, consultants, and writers identified particular relationships at particular times to demarcate ethnic boundaries or to create or maintain bonds among peoples. Just as importantly, Natives often viewed linguistic relationships to be the result not of shared ancestry but rather of current or former proximity or the deliberate maintenance of relationships.
The finished product represents a considerable improvement on its earlier iterations. Generous colleagues, including the Quarterly’s anonymous reviewers, did their part through criticism and encouragement. The editors did their part too. I have thought often of my days as an apprentice in the past few months as I experienced, for the first time, the other end of the Institute’s unparalleled editing process. I knew, more than most first-time authors in WMQ, what I was getting myself into. The editorial rigor was still stunning. Through scores of queries, Josh and Meg pushed me to hone my argument and clarify my expression, all while leaving its voice my own. And they corrected plenty of mistakes in quotations and citations too. How many I’d rather not say. As an apprentice I may have been surprised; by now I know better.
My OI apprenticeship marked some of my first steps in what was then becoming a vaster early America. So much of the subject matter of the citations I worked on was a “new world” to me. So too was just how much work by editors goes into turning great research into a great publication. My experience as an author in the Quarterly only reinforced that point in my mind. The work is a service to authors, readers, and to the profession. I’m grateful to have experienced it, as an apprentice and now as an author.
Stay tuned next week for part 9 and the conclusion of OI History: “Tales from Former Apprentices.”