With spring break upon us here in New England, I’ve been able to take a sort of mini-retreat to focus some energy on the book project over the past few days. It’s been delightful to get some dedicated time to work and assess where the manuscript and research stand. That also means I’ve been reflecting on where this project is taking me as a researcher and writer.
Any second project will lead a researcher into new territory. I already have some comfort writing for a more public, general readership from my work at the Junto and other spaces, so for me the shock to the system has come primarily from the source bases I’ve been reading. Having trained as an eighteenth-century historian, I became accustomed (without realizing it at the time) to reading primary sources on a certain type of paper, with particular forms of handwriting and spelling, particular typefaces and layouts on printed sources, and specific geographies from which my sources came.
This project has broken all of those ideas and made me realize just how comfortable I’d gotten in my own little corner of the past. The first project has zeroed in on the era of the American Revolution largely on the Atlantic coast of North America. So for the past ten years I’ve grown extremely proficient at reading the long s, comprehending variants spellings for words (e.g., “politicks”), and analyzing the typical hand of late eighteenth-century writers. In most cases I no longer need to think consciously about what I’m doing when I encounter these sources.
But the post office book spans the entirety of American history up to and (possibly) including the very recent past. Because I’m writing an institutional history, many of the sources originated in Washington, DC, but this weekend I’ve also been working through an edited collection of documents about the postal service in the Republic of Texas. All of a sudden I find myself reading primary sources from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—articles from glossy news magazines, letters produced on a typewriter or reproduced in faint purple type on ditto machines (which brings back quite the memories from elementary school of the distinctive smell of dittos). Modern newspaper stories are written in a much different voice, which is an obvious point but nonetheless jarring when one makes the transition so quickly. A few weeks ago I even downloaded a primary source, a PDF of a 2006 act of Congress on the Postal Service (the controversial Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act). My first project ends with the drafting and ratification of the U.S. Constitution; my second will involve discussion of the George W. Bush Administration.
Of course this is a relatively minor problem to have, and I’m certainly not complaining. I’ve taught material on the time periods of most of the book, in particular in an upper-level course I offer on the history of media and communications. But it’s one way in which I’ve always seen teaching and writing as separate, which is to say that I’ve split in my head the topics on which I have enough expertise to write about and those on which I have enough expertise to teach about. The project is changing my perspective on that (more in future posts, I imagine). Whatever it does to my writing (or teaching), however, at the moment I’m trying to embrace the challenge of piecing together a historical narrative with very different sources from time periods with which I am somewhat less familiar.