by Kirsten Fischer
In today’s post, WMQ author Kirsten Fischer (July 2016) delves into her relationship with Reader D and how their interaction ultimately influenced her piece.
Powerful intellectual opposition to one’s ideas is a disturbing, provoking, and very useful thing. That’s what I learned from Reader D, the anonymous reviewer who went to great lengths to refute the arguments I made in an article I submitted to the William and Mary Quarterly. His review was daunting. (Reader D used the male pronoun for me, the anonymous author, and I shall do so in turn.) I claimed that the New York-based freethinker Elihu Palmer (1764-1806) was a vitalist, and that his notion of a divine life force immanent in matter was distinctive and differed in important ways from the deist adherence to a transcendent and sentient deity. Because Palmer has been understood as an American deist by historians since the 1930s (I myself had initially presumed the same), the article needed to explain vitalism and show the sources of Palmer’s vitalist thought. Reader D was not persuaded. And to his credit and my benefit, he read Palmer’s Principles of Nature very carefully and wrote a five-page single spaced rebuttal of my claims, referring to page numbers in Palmer’s book and explicating the text. It was a tour de force of oppositional intellectual labor, and it ended with the pronouncement that the article should not be published.
There are many things I could say about this letter: how frustrating it was to feel the weight of Reader D’s utter rejection of the piece, especially since he is clearly an erudite and conscientious scholar; the thrill of seeing someone engage with Palmer’s thought with such attention to detail; the mix of emotions I had at the prospect of revising and resubmitting the essay in the face of such overt opposition. (The other three readers had given the essay a heartening thumbs up, but the editor, Joshua Piker, explained that any revision would be sent back to all the reviewers.)
Convinced that I had seen something previously overlooked in Palmer’s work and that I had something original and important to say about ideas in the early American Republic, I took on the challenge. Piece by piece, I addressed Reader D’s critique. It took six weeks of full-time labor, during which I realized that Reader D was often right. I needed to explain things better and be more nuanced in my assertions. The article became clearer and more precise in its claims. It improved significantly, thanks to Reader D’s challenges. And although Reader D never became a supporter of the piece, he did eventually (reluctantly) agree that the article “does make a significant contribution to late 18th/ early 19th c. American intellectual history. And thus an argument for Quarterly publication.”
Here is the other thing I learned: to publish something new, unexpected, and possibly controversial requires an editor who is willing to take some risks. This willingness is a welcome—even crucial—element of any top-notch historical journal, in my opinion. As everyone reading this knows, the William and Mary Quarterly is a prestigious journal vested in publishing meticulously researched and much-vetted scholarship. The editing process is more intensive than the uninitiated might imagine: three editors read my article many times each. And yet, the insistence on polished prose and perfect footnotes must coexist with the uncertainty of publishing something untested and, in this case, disputed, if a journal is going to air new ideas and bring them into a broader scholarly conversation. Journals offer important venues for such intellectual experiments, and I think most readers don’t mind—and may even welcome—seeing new ideas being worked out in print. I’m grateful now for Reader D’s thorough critique, and I’m even more pleased that the WMQ was willing to publish my article despite Reader D’s lingering concerns. A broader intellectual engagement with vitalism can occur now that it has been made available to the public, and the thoughtful, fair, and forthright wrangling with ideas—which Reader D demonstrated so well in his review and that Joshua Piker promoted by publishing my article—is all to the good.