Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


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


Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America

For many, the American Revolution represents the beginning of our history as a society. In the public memory of the past, the preceding colonial years are relegated to Puritan pre-history, as if only after 1776 we began to walk upright. This assertion of public sentiment can be traced through diverse sources, including civic commemorations, historical fiction and America's early newspapers.

This pre-history was not akin to a period of prelapsarian innocence. There is evidence that America's newly minted citizens were reluctant to embrace their Puritan heritage. A unique feature of American newspaper accounts in the years between 1776 and 1784 is the absence of any allusion to that biblical and metaphorical "city on a hill" invoked by John Winthrop, incoming governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in his 1630 sermon preached on board the Arbella bound for New England. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said, and warned that if the Puritans made a mess of things, they would become global laughingstocks. 1

If the "eyes of all people" were upon the colonies in 1776, the colonists—at least those whose letters and opinions appeared in the papers—were not interested in having that gaze cast backward at their Puritan forebears. Francis J. Bremer, who detected a similar evolving pattern of Puritan neglect in Boston's civic commemorations, concluded that "the first symptoms of Winthrop amnesia emerged as early as 1905." 2 Judging from the manner in which Winthrop and the Puritans were treated—or not—by the revolutionary press, amnesia set in significantly earlier than that.

Puritan Amnesia and Secular Attitude: Newspapers and National Identity in Revolutionary America


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