Lindsay O'Neill is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California. This interview is based on her new book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (University of Pennsylvania Press, October 2014).
LO: Growing up as the world of the Internet developed gave me a front row seat to communicative change. It also revealed to me the strains such alterations create. But I knew this was not the first communications revolution the world had seen and so I became curious about previous moments of transformation. This drew me to the British Isles in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries: a time when print culture was blossoming, the post office was permanently opened to the public, and the British world was expanding geographically. It was a period that had and needed new modes of communication. At first, it was print and the growth of the newspaper press that captured my interest, but that lacked the frisson of the personal. I wanted to know how people connected with each other over long distances. I found the answer in letters. However, I also wanted to do something different with these letters. My investigations suggested that they connected whole social networks rather than simply two individuals. This led me to the world social network analysis, which allowed me to map out the webs of connection embedded in letters. Explaining what these uncovered became The Opened Letter.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Opened Letter?
LO: As the British world expanded geographically and individuals circulated through it more frequently letters became a critical mode of communication and connection. They allowed the British to establish and extend the social networks that increasingly kept their world turning during a time of geographic and social change.
JF: Why do we need to read The Opened Letter?
LO: First, the book helps us understand how the geographically expansive British world of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries functioned socially, economically, and politically by recognizing the importance social networks. However, second, it also helps us question and think about our own communicative world. We too live in an increasingly global world that is dependent upon new forms of media. I hope that reading my book will push people to put their own experience of change into a wider historical context.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
LO: I always tell people that I became a British historian because I wanted to study America. I grew up loving American history. I remember getting chills when reading about “the shot heard ‘round the world” in fifth grade and my family possesses embarrassing video footage of me giving a tour of Gettysburg in eighth grade. However, when I took classes in college I was inundated and intrigued by the histories of other countries - places that had very unfamiliar and new stories to tell. In British history I found a happy medium: I got to explore the history of a place that was foreign to me, but one in which the future America rested.
JF: What is your next project?
LO: One story haunted me while I was doing research for The Opened Letter. It seemed that every letter book I opened mentioned the plight of two African princes from Delagoa in east Africa who had arrived in London in 1721. They had boarded a ship to see England, but the captain nefariously sold them into slavery in Jamaica instead. Miraculously, after almost two years as slaves, they were freed and ended up trying to drum up support in London to get back to home. This story gripped me and has not let go, so presently I am tracing the travels of these princes and the motivations of those who got involved with them. Besides giving me the chance to tell a story full of drama and tragedy, their journey will also allow me to delve deeper into the nature and organization of British global power in the early eighteenth century.
JF: Thanks Lindsay, sounds intriguing!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author's Corner