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Novelty and Historical Arguments

I’ve spent much of this summer working on revising my book manuscript based on readers’ reports (huzzah!), which has meant lots of editing, re-reading, new reading to catch up on scholarship since I sent the manuscript to reads a year and a half ago, a little research, and writing a few new sections. My students can tell you that I’m among the minority who find editing exhilarating—one of my favorite parts of the writing process is to pull out my pen (blue, Pilot, 0.5 mm) and work on text to make it better. Unfortunately, like many, I find writing on a blank page or screen to be excruciating, and that’s where I’ve been getting stuck. I’ve had particular difficulty with sections where I need to narrate an event or series of events for which I’m not making any new claims in my book, but which nonetheless need to be part of my story.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a section about the printing trade and the debates over ratifying the Constitution of 1787. Several historians have addressed the issue in one way or another, and they are nearly unanimous: printers liked the Constitution and hated the idea of circulating arguments against it. Pauline Maier has a chapter in her wonderful book, Ratification, on the press debates in the fall of 1787 about whether to publish anti-ratification essays, Saul Cornell addresses the issue in The Other Founders, and those are just two of the most obvious pieces of scholarship. I agree with the assessment of these scholars because the evidence is overwhelming.

For some reason, that has me stuck (and did in graduate school with the dissertation as well). Part of it would seem to be that this is my own personal hang-up, working on the theory that everybody has at least one. It also stems, I think, from the emphasis in graduate school on making new claims, on contributing to the historiography. It tends to obscure that sometimes as a writer one needs to narrate something familiar in order to connect from one new idea or claim to another. In the case of ratification, I have some contributions to make, largely that I think the debates and the overwhelming lean towards the Constitution demonstrates the culmination of the processes I’m arguing were developing over the previous twenty-five years. And that’s not nothing, especially because I want a strong note on which to end the book.

The problem arrives in how I tell that story. I haven’t uncovered new evidence, and thanks to the editorial project on the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, I’m not sure anyone will. So I’m working largely with the same evidentiary record as Cornell, Maier, John Alexander, and others. And the most important story—the account of that debate about publishing antifederalist essays—appears in each of their books. So I sit down to write and feel like I’m just rehashing.

At some point, I need to finish this book (if you don’t believe me, ask my editor, or my wife, or my kids, or all of my friends…). So I’m trying to remind myself of a few things. First and most important, there’s overlap between the people who will read my book and those who have read other scholarship on ratification. Many won’t have read anything else, though, and so the story is new to them. And as a corollary, even people who are deeply familiar overall with that scholarship may not remember the specific story. Second, ratification is part of my story so it needs to be in there, one way or the other. I can hem and haw and make a Hamlet-hash out of my drafts, but when the book is between covers, ratification has to be the end of chapter 6. Finally, I remind myself what one of my committee members told me in graduate school: not everything you say in the book has to be new. And moreover, you can and should leverage the familiar in order to connect how your new argument is part of a larger conversation. (Sometimes it also helps me to write a blog post about the problem.)

Having said that, it’s time to get back to chapter 6 and ratify my newfound motivation with writing progress.

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