Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.

The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences

In the autumn of 1801, Susan Edwards Johnson of New Haven, Connecticut read several novels while visiting her cousin in New Bern, North Carolina. On November 27, Johnson recorded in her journal1: "Began to read the maid of the Hamlet an indifferent novel, by the author of the Children of the Abbey." She made this entry on December 2: "Passed our time principally in reading the beggar Girl; we got so much interested, that we sat up untill near one oclock, (reading) Saturday night—." In a December 6, 1801 letter, she wrote: "We ride, walk & read novels; last night we sat up until near one oclock & were then quite unwilling, to leave the interesting history of the beggar Girl—."

In mentioning these works, Johnson provides valuable insight into her contemporary literary world. In the summer of 1825, Olivia Caroline Laurens of Charleston, South Carolina who was visiting family in Pendleton also noted literary activities in her journal2, as on July 18: "Miss Hugers called to see us in the morning and promised to lend me 'Patronage', a tale by Maria Edgeworth" (222); and again, on August 25: "This morning I commenced reading Griscom's 'Year in Europe' find it extremely entertaining, it is in two thick octavo volumes 500 pages each" (226). In each instance, these allusions lend insight as to what women were reading and how they interacted with literature, thereby expanding our understanding of women's intellectual worlds and their contemporary literary tastes.

The Literary World of Early American Women: Using Digital Archives to Recover Allusions and Explore Influences

"Behold and Wonder": Early American Imprints as a Tool for Students' Research

Teaching the history and culture of early America to undergraduates is challenging on many fronts. Students' familiarity with the best-known documents of the Revolutionary period can breed either contempt or a reverential awe indistinguishable from ignorance and boredom. The lesser-known material from earlier years presents formidable conceptual obstacles and seldom stays in print very long outside of the excerpts found in anthologies.

In the past decade, online resources have opened up some pedagogical opportunities that can help overcome some of these obstacles in the study of early America. Web-based lectures and research assignments have become indispensable to my own teaching at the University of California, Irvine, where I regularly use early American materials in my lectures for the Humanities Core Course.

Humanities Core is a year-long course that enrolls about 1,200 first-year students. Taught in the usual combination of large lectures followed by small discussion sections, the course satisfies several of our general education requirements, including freshman composition; it is usually the first—and often the only—humanities course students take. Lectures must therefore be challenging but comprehensible to a naïve audience, and they must also equip students with basic research techniques that will allow them to apply what they learn in lectures when writing their own essays.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

A few years ago, a graduate student told me, "I'm changing fields. I'm switching to the wacky world of Early American Studies."

A few weeks earlier, I had sent her to the microfilm rooms in the University of Minnesota's library with assignments she could complete only by plunging into documents she found there in the two Early American Imprints microfiche series. Commonly called "Evans" or "Shaw-Shoemaker" after the authors of the authoritative bibliographies on which the series were created, they include more than 70,000 items—all extant material printed in the colonies and early republic from 1639 to 1819.

After many hours peering at those curious old documents and their funny typefaces, she surfaced and announced that, despite expecting a wasteland of dry and stupefyingly boring texts, she had discovered in the microfiche a nearly unexplored world of writing that she called wacky but nevertheless found oddly wonderful. Her phrase recalls a famous article about student reaction to early American studies that Daniel Williams published in "Early American Literature": "Not enough Rambo Action."

I find that if I can get students into the actual early documents, they discover that it's all Rambo Action: pirates, soldiers, spies, kings, queens, revolutions, dark nights of the soul, invasions, war and peace, politics, captures and escapes and what we too casually would call religious fanatics. I could have told her so beforehand, but she probably wouldn't have believed me.

Pirates, Spies and Dark Nights of the Soul: Entering the Wacky World of Early American Studies

From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's "Major Jack Downing"

Readers of the Washington, D.C. newspaper The Daily National Intelligencer witnessed a strange and disturbing transformation in 1847, when the nation’s most popular literary character freely admitted that he had become a greedy, cynical killer. Soon enough this beloved American hero, whose name was synonymous with Yankee Doodle, would threaten to stage a military coup to seize the Capitol and overthrow Congress! Readers of the Early American Newspapers archive can follow along, gleaning important hints to decoding contemporary political rhetoric.

Major Jack Downing.
(Portrait credit: Library of Congress Prints
and Photographs Division)

The Intelligencer, formerly a nonpartisan legislative record, became the flagship of the Whig Party when it split from Andrew Jackson’s Democrats in the early 1830s. But it was during the second year of the war between the United States and Mexico that the newspaper would green-light one of the most audacious political satires in U.S. history. If you imagine a sequel to Forrest Gump in which the benign protagonist masterminds the torture of the Abu Ghraib detainees, you might gather some sense of the controversy produced by the corruption of Seba Smith’s iconic everyman, Major Jack Downing.

Seba Smith (1792-1868).
American humorist and writer.

From Mascot to Militant: The Many Campaigns of Seba Smith's

Supplementing Early American Imprints: The Extraordinary Collection of Michael Zinman

Many of the hitherto unknown early American imprints now being digitized by Readex at the Library Company of Philadelphia were acquired in 2000, a mere ten years ago, from Michael Zinman, a private collector who surely ranks among the greatest Americana collectors of all time. Zinman’s collection of some 11,500 books, pamphlets, and broadsides printed in the thirteen colonies and the United States through the year 1800 was the largest such collection assembled in the 20th century, and larger than all but a handful of institutional collections. Not counting a great many duplicates, the Zinman collection added roughly 5,000 imprints to the collections of the Library Company. Including materials on deposit from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, its holdings then stood at over 17, 500 imprints, second only to the American Antiquarian Society, which has about 22,000. The total number known is over 45,000.

At a Council held in Boston January 8. 1679. The Council doth upon further Consideration judge meet to alter the day of Thanksgiving. [Boston: J. Foster, 1679]

Supplementing Early American Imprints: The Extraordinary Collection of Michael Zinman

Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and "The Crisis": Reflections on Religion and American History


Historical anniversaries provide occasion to remember, to reflect, and to create meaning. The controversy surrounding the 1994 Enola Gay exhibit and the memory of World War II offers a case in point. Current debates about September 11 memorials, museums, and mosques in New York City serve as others. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its centennial in 2009, only months after America’s first black president Barack Obama was sworn in. The NAACP’s official magazine, The Crisis, turned 100 in November 2010 and thus provides an occasion to remember and to reflect.1

Still in print, The Crisis represents the struggle, the ingenuity, and the fruit of its founder W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Du Bois spent nearly twenty-five of his ninety-five years as its editor (1910-1934). Throughout his autobiographical writings Du Bois proudly reflected on this achievement. In Dusk of Dawn (1940), for example, Du Bois maintained that through the work of the NAACP and The Crisis he could “place consistently and continuously before the country a clear-cut statement of the legitimate aims of the American Negro and the facts concerning his condition.” In his 1968 Autobiography, published posthumously, Du Bois remembered that “With The Crisis, I essayed a new role of interpreting to the world the hindrances and aspirations of American Negroes.” 2

Commemorating W.E.B. Du Bois and

Talking News with Carolyn Cassady: A Conversation with the Matriarch of the Beat Generation

Closing in on her 88th year, Carolyn Cassady is still gracefully full-speed ahead. The wife of Neal Cassady, one-time lover and confidant of Jack Kerouac, and a somewhat reluctant Beat Generation icon herself, she’s recently returned to her home in England after a whirlwind trip to the U.S. for the production wrap-up of Walter Salles’ new film version of Kerouac’s masterpiece “On the Road,” in which she is portrayed by actress Kirsten Dunst. Her daily duties include sheaves of mail in need of reply, books to sign (her own “Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg,” a treasure in itself), the occasional visiting rock star, and interviews to grant and subsequently deliver. It isn’t odd for the BBC to call or knock requesting a quote or access to the private mementos of her storied past.

A decade after I did my undergraduate work at Marlboro College on Beat Generation writers, with focus on the women, Carolyn and I became friends through correspondence. And as one might assume a fan would, I’ve peppered her with whatever questions cross my mind. Many times, she’ll implore me back to her book. “Didn’t I cover that in ‘Off the Road’?” And of course many times I find she has, to my chagrin. But she is always welcoming, reminding me that a simple sign in her kitchen reads “Ask Carolyn.” So I do.

Talking News with Carolyn Cassady: A Conversation with the Matriarch of the Beat Generation

"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule." Students Test the Scholar in the Digital Archive

I love putting history on trial in my undergraduate courses. These students still typically think of history as finding, identifying or uncovering a set of hard facts, but, as Hayden White reminds us, history has a subjective dimension—historians construct claims, create narratives, interpret facts, build cases, possess agendas, have pre-dispositions. History is much more interesting than students sometimes think.

Well, there's no better place to put history on trial—that is, to experience the role that invention plays in the writing of history—than the massive digital collections in the Archive of Americana®. And while working with these collections there is a generic assignment I have found valuable in assisting undergraduates be critical thinkers about history that I call "Testing the Scholar."

Let's test the scholar, I say, by first understanding the scholar's argument and then forming our own judgments by investigating virtually the same bundle of data, tapping the inherent power of access to rich primary materials.

Let's take a representative example of this exercise from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Let's say we want to learn about execution sermons—a topic sure to have "curb appeal" for undergraduates.

If we click through the "Genre" tab to the healthy list of subcategories under sermons, there is a category for execution sermons. There are 90 such sermons in this grouping, about 65 first editions, not an impossible task for a class of, say, 20 or 30 students to divide up, read and hold in their group consciousness.

The first thing I would do is have the students read Ronald Bosco's "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon"—an essay that covers precisely the time period as Early American Imprints, Series I—and, as a class, identify all Bosco's claims, both major and minor.

Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

"Twas founded be th' Puritans to give thanks f'r bein presarved fr'm
th' Indyans, an' . . . we keep it to give thanks we are presarved fr'm th' Puritans."

—Finley Peter Dunne, "'Thanksgiving,' Mr. Dooley's Opinions" (1901)

Holidays are like peaks in a nation's topography. Without them, the landscape would be flat and monotonous; with them, we find places that rise above the everyday world and give us lofty views and broader perspectives. America's national holidays are the extraordinary annual events that help define the United States and its people. On such occasions, Americans tell themselves and the world who they are. They commemorate their origins, call attention to their basic values and ideals, celebrate their good fortune and express thanks to those who created, nurtured and protected their nation. All these qualities make Thanksgiving especially promising terrain for American historians, ground that's easy to chart because historical actors have left such prominent signposts—documentary records—of their festivity.

Thanksgiving is America's most cherished holiday. The autumn festival's nearly universal appeal comes peculiarly from its elasticity and ambiguity. Invented in the 17th century, Thanksgiving has been continually reinvented ever since. Though it began as an exclusive tribal rite for white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New Englanders, Thanksgiving has been appropriated generally by Americans of various tribes well beyond the New England Pale. Some might quibble with Mr. Dooley's historical analysis, but he was surely correct in noticing the value—to immigrants and other marginalized Americans—in the creative recycling of this vital American tradition.

Thanks for the Memories, ... and the Documentary Records: Thanksgiving and the History of American Holidays

Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana

Finding recent scholarship on 18th- and 19th-century literature poses no great challenge to the skilled researcher, who may use a variety of available tools to support such an inquiry. It can be more difficult, however, to discover contemporaneous responses to significant 18th- and 19th-century authors. One useful tool for that type of search is the digital Archive of Americana. With a bit of strategic searching, students can discover a wealth of book reviews and other responses to classic American literature within the Archive, especially in America's Historical Newspapers.

American Broadsides and Ephemera and both series of Early American Imprints all include "Book Reviews" as a genre. However, only a few items are identified as belonging to this genre—four in American Broadsides and Ephemera and one each in Series I: Evans and Series II: Shaw-Shoemaker. These varied items range from a compilation of critical responses to The Life and Labors of David Livingstone included in the Hubbard Bros.' exclamatory prospectus ("A BOOK OF MATCHLESS INTEREST! WITHOUT A PEER!! MAGNIFICENTLY ILLUSTRATED!!!")

Click to access full image

to John Quincy Adams' "rather political than literary" American Principles: A Review of Works by Fisher Ames.

Finding Book Reviews of Classic American Literature: Search Tips for Students Using the Archive of Americana


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