Monday, December 31, 2012

Project Reading (and Writing)

First, I was encouraged by Joseph Adelman's post yesterday at The Junto.  It looks like someone is actually interested in my attempt to chronicle some of the reading I am doing for my project on Presbyterians and American Revolution.  Thanks, Joseph.

I hope that these "project reading" reports will serve as a nice way of motivating me in my work.

I have failed to mention so far that a lot of the reading I have been doing these past few weeks has been connected to the preparation of a book proposal.  I am playing with two titles right now.  One is "A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic."  The other is " 'Yet to be Decided Quote': Presbyterians in a Revolutionary Age."

My choice of a working title will depend on how I frame the book.  Will I be writing a new history of the American Revolution in the mid-Atlantic that takes the role of radical Presbyterians seriously?  Or will I be writing a history of Presbyterians in the eighteenth century and how they intersected with the American Revolution?  The answer to these questions will come to me as I continue to read in primary and secondary material.

I have already written a preliminary book proposal with a preliminary chapter outline.  My "project reading" over the last week or two has really been centered on the sample chapter--a vital part of any proposal.  Most scholars assume that the sample chapter submitted with the full proposal should be a finished and polished chapter, a piece of prose that will appear close to "as is" (with minor copy-editing) in the finished book.  Indeed, this is how I approached the assignment for both Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Such an approach will probably suffice for most university presses.

But I am going to try something a bit different this time around, especially after reading Susan Rabiner and Aldred Fortunato's Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction--and Get it PublishedHere is what they say about a book proposal's "sample chapter": 

A sample chapter is not really a chapter at all. It looks and smells like a chapter, in that it usually runs about a chapter's length and has a beginning, middle, and end.  But like no chapter in your final book, it succeeds by cannibalizing other chapters, stealing the best material in the book and presenting it in such a way as to showcase the dramatic potential of the book or the power of the argument, or the richness of the topic.

Rather than calling this a "sample chapter," Rabiner and Fortunato prefer to call it a "writing sample."

Since the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and what Mark Noll has called "the Princeton Circle," plays such a prominent part in the book I hope to write, I decided to focus my "writing sample" on Princeton and John Witherspoon. I may not end up with an entire chapter in the book devoted to Princeton and Witherspoon, but for the writing sample I have chosen to "cannibalize" from material that will be dispersed throughout several chapters.

I got up early yesterday morning and started writing. This is what I've got so far:



Princeton

“Nassau Hall.  May she again flourish and continue the nursery of statesmen, as she has been of warriors.”

            --Independent Gazetteer, May 3, 1783



           Things were beginning to look a lot brighter for John Witherspoon.  The president of the College of New Jersey was presiding over a gathering of dignitaries, including William Livingston, the revolutionary governor of the state, who had come to Princeton in late April 1783 to commemorate American independence.  As Witherspoon looked at the candles illuminating Nassau Hall, the college's main building, and listened to a local infantry company fire cannons in celebration, he must have been hopeful.  Nassau Hall was damaged but still standing after the Battle of Princeton.  Students had returned in 1778 (originally sharing the building with an army hospital) and repairs were almost complete.  Most importantly, independence had been won.  When he came to Princeton from Paisley, Scotland in 1768 Witherspoon knew very little about the colonies' grievances against England.  He had arrived to bring leadership to a fledgling college and unite a divided American Presbyterian church.  He could not have imagined toasting independence with some of the mid-Atlantic's most prominent revolutionaries at a school he had transformed into a “seminary of sedition.”  

But what if Witherspoon never came to Princeton?  What if he had done the safe thing and settled for the security of his Paisley parish over this small crossroads village in central New Jersey?  Commemorations like the one that took place in Princeton on that Spring afternoon in 1783 can be times of contemplation, times to reflect on what might have been.  As Witherspoon thought about his brief but tumultuous sojourn in America he probably also remembered that he almost didn't come.

 



6 comments:

Michael Hattem said...

John, I've done a lot of research over the last few years on the conflict between Presbyterians and Anglicans in the middle colonies in the 1740s and 1750s (pre-bishop controversy), particularly on William Livingston. Hence, I am very much looking forward to both your reading project and the book itself.

John Fea said...

Thanks, Michael. Livingston is a fascinating figure. I just finished reading through his published papers and hope to get to Boston and NYC this summer to read the rest.

Happy New Year.

Jonathan said...

Nicholas Miller devotes much of a chapter to Witherspoon in his recent _Religious Roots of the First Amendment_. Miller's reading of Witherspoon differs from your treatment of him in Was America Founded? It would be worth looking at.

John Fea said...

Jonathan: That book is sitting on my desk as I type. I need to do a note on it for B&C.

Michael Hattem said...

Livingston's papers from the MHS are available on microfilm so you shouldn't need to make that trip. Other than that, the significant post-1772 stuff is in the Prince volumes. The, in my opinion, far more important pre-1772 stuff is somewhat limited and very scattered at that (which is why Prince settled on starting in 1772).

I'm sure you know this, but, aside from the Reflector, pamphlets, and voluminous newspaper essays, the one truly can't-miss manuscript source is his letters with his college friend and lifelong correspondent, Noah Welles, in the Johnson Family Papers here at Yale (also on microfilm). They start in the early 1740s and contain some of his most direct writings on religion, particularly on revivalism.

John Fea said...

Thanks, Michael. I did not know the Welles stuff was microfilmed. That saves me a step.

Have you looked at the Livingston Papers at the New York Public Library?