This quarterly e-publication explores diverse aspects of digital historical collections and provides insights into web-based resources, including the Archive of Americana.

Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper

During his South African years (1893-1914), Mohandas Gandhi started a printing press and a newspaper, Indian Opinion. One of the world’s great intellectual archives, Indian Opinion constitutes an experiment with reading and writing that fed into Gandhi’s ideas on satyagraha or “passive resistance.” 

Writing in an age of vertiginous acceleration via telegraph, train and steamship, Gandhi grappled with an industrializing information order in which readers were bombarded with ever more reading matter. In this context, Gandhi saw reading and writing as ways of managing the tempos of the industrial pressure. Such strategies questioned the relationship of speed with efficiency, a link that lay at the heart of satyagraha and its critiques of industrial modernity. 

Gandhi’s ideas on reading and writing hence have much to say to our frantic, information-smothered lives. In a recent book, Gandhi’s Printing Press: Experiments in Slow Reading (Harvard University Press, 2013), I explored these themes of speed and sovereignty, satyagraha and reading. 

Satyagraha and Reading

Satyagraha is generally understood as a political practice of non-violence, civil disobedience or non-co-operation. But it is equally a mode of building swaraj or “self-rule,” which for Gandhi meant literally that, namely, rule of the self. In his thinking, such self-rule or independence cannot be conferred on a person; it has to be built up painstakingly by each individual. 

Slow Reading the News: Gandhi’s Philosophical Experiments with His South African Newspaper


Bay Mares, Coquettes, and Plumage: Naming and Novel Celebrity

For most present-day racetrack goers, it seems unlikely that a horse named Eliza Wharton might cause a flash of recognition, a knowing smile, or a startle at the potential impropriety. But for nineteenth-century racing fans, this was not the case.

“Eliza Wharton” was the heroine of Hannah Webster Foster’s 1797 best-selling novel, The Coquette, loosely based on a New England scandal of the previous decade involving Elizabeth Whitman, the daughter of a well-known minister in Hartford, Connecticut. The novel’s heroine, likewise a minister’s daughter, spurns the advances of a rather staid minister, only to succumb to the seductive wiles of a well-known rake, fall pregnant, and flee her parents’ home for Danvers, Massachusetts, where she eventually dies after delivering a stillborn child. Readers who might have been expected to condemn the fallen woman instead sympathized with her.

Why exactly the name Eliza Wharton was chosen for the bay mare, we can’t be sure: was the novel a particular favorite of her owner, Thomas Doswell of Virginia, or his wife, Susan Brown Christian? Did the horse remind them of the novel’s well-bred and refined heroine? Or was there a bawdier reason, suggesting both the horse and the novel’s heroine were “fast”? Regardless, the horse serves as a marker of the novel’s saturation in the American imaginary. It is unlikely that anyone who read its name in a newspaper of the 1830s did not immediately grasp the association.

Bay Mares, Coquettes, and Plumage: Naming and Novel Celebrity


Frontiersman or Southern Gentleman? Newspaper Coverage of Andrew Jackson during the 1828 Presidential Campaign

During the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson came under attack for a number of reasons: his violent temper, his execution of U.S. militia and foreign nationals during the 1810s, and even the questionable circumstances of his marriage to his wife, Rachel. Often overlooked was the question about Jackson’s southern identity. During the final six months of the 1828 campaign, newspapers across the nation were filled with attacks and counterattacks about whether Jackson fit the expectations of a southern planter.

Two main questions about Jackson’s southern identity drew the attention of the nation’s media: Old Hickory’s slave mastery and his support of southern disunionism. Critics highlighted accusations that Jackson had been a slave trader prior to the War of 1812, which Jackson denied. This charge called into question his moral judgment and fitness for office. “There is no charge which ought to affect more seriously the reputation and prospects of General Jackson than that of speculating in slaves,” the Daily National Journal (Washington, D.C.) declared in mid-October. “Could the people of the U. States, under the influence of a momentary infatuation, elevate to the first office in the nation a man who had been engaged in carrying slaves from one State to another, for the purposes of traffic and profit,” the editorial continued, “ages would be insufficient to wipe away the foul stain from the annals of our republic.”

Frontiersman or Southern Gentleman? Newspaper Coverage of Andrew Jackson during the 1828 Presidential Campaign


Dirty Searching and Roundabout Paths: Using Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, in a Master's Level Seminar

Would you consider sealing your next envelope with a sticker that read: “Be not partakers in other men’s sins.” More pointedly if you received such a missive, by ripping the seal would you be endorsing or decrying the maxim? I’m not sure, myself. But I was glad to learn about and see the page of gummed Abolitionist labels that my student placed within the discourse of indulgence and sin during the nineteenth century.

In fall 2013 my graduate students explored the online collection Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922: From the Library Company of Philadelphia. They were instructed to construct a historically informed narrative from what they found—a narrative that could demonstrate what possibilities the collection might offer future users: students, scholars, and archival tourists alike. Since I was teaching this Clemson University Master’s level seminar, English 8200, The Slave Narrative in English, I directed students to primarily read texts as representations of a cultural and literary imagination. Nonetheless, I also instructed them to relentlessly frame questions of storytelling with rich contextual shaping of cultural truths, historical events, and material culture studies. While we focused mainly upon reading history and theory of the narrative tradition, as well as on contemporary iterations within important Neo Slave novels, the class was designed to explore the language and culture of racial power and social change more generally for the 19th century.

Dirty Searching and Roundabout Paths: Using Afro-Americana Imprints, 1535-1922, in a Master's Level Seminar


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