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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

A Nation of Stoves

In the preface to his recent book [Home Fires: How Americans Kept Warm in the Nineteenth Century, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014] my old research colleague at the Hagley, Sean Patrick Adams, was kind enough to say that my "work on nineteenth-century stoves promises to be the definitive work on the subject" (p. ix).  Sean was being optimistic as well as generous: this work has been under way since 2004; parts of it have been aired at seminars and conferences since 2005; and sections of it have seen the light of day in print since 2007.  But it is not yet a book, and I don't know when or whether it ever will be.

I began the writing of draft chapters in, I think, the summer of 2008, and carried on with it, off and on, for the next four years.  I blended writing with further research, and the cranking out of seminar papers that turned into articles with steady progress on The Book.  I was always happy to be distracted by a new find.  Major primary source collections -- the records of Samuel G. Wright and David C. Wood, Philadelphia-based stove manufacturers of the 1810s-1840s; of Powell Stackhouse, Philadelphia pattern-maker in the 1830s and early 1840s; bankruptcy proceedings involving most of the leading New York stove makers and dealers of the 1830s; account books of John F. Rathbone, a pioneer Albany stove founder of the 1840s -- drew me far away from my original intentions.  They reinforced the effect of digitized printed primary and secondary sources, particularly rich for the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, and transformed a project that I originally expected to be focused on the period between the Civil War and World War One, when the stove industry reached maturity, experienced stagnation, and began its decline.  The antebellum years turned from what I expected to be a brief prologue to the real action into the main subject of my work.

So what happened next?  Redefining the boundaries of a project as one becomes familiar with available source material is quite normal, and while it may have slowed my progress, it didn't stop it.  But a couple of years ago I sort of ran out of steam.  There were many reasons for this, some of the most important quite personal, but I think the more fundamental problems were intellectual.  I lost confidence in the publishability of the work that I was producing: it was too descriptive, too narrative in approach, too merely chronological in organization.  It wouldn't cut much ice with my fellow academics (the critical reception of the seminar paper that turned into my last published article was a clear warning of this), because it wasn't dealing with Big Questions, and yet it was far too heavy and detailed to appeal to a different possible readership, old-stove fans and enthusiasts for early Americana. So why continue with it?  When I stopped writing, I was also increasingly unsure about how I would finish Chapter Six, and how I would then proceed to wrap up the entire book in a Chapter Seven that I knew I needed, but whose shape I could not see in advance.

I also ran out of motivation -- not, by any means, out of interest in the subject, or readiness to undertake further research and writing about it; just out of any sense of urgency about finishing the manuscript of another book, and then trying to place it with a publisher and negotiate it through the approval and review process.  By the summer of 2012 I had decided to retire, and I began to slow down and disengage from an academic career that had occupied my entire adult life.  All of the pragmatic reasons for busying myself with research leading to publication in a respectable academic form -- journal articles or books -- disappeared, and I no longer have to do anything more along those lines, ever again.  Research has become just a hobby, and I have become free to invest my energies in types of writing (in particular, blog posts) that satisfy my desire to write with some kind of end result in mind, and not to worry about publishing them in any conventional sense.  This blog brings me into contact with people who know something about the subjects that interest me, and who seem to be ready to take an interest in what I write, and to help me with it.  That's enough for me.

I've now reached a point where I have decided to share my chapter drafts as freely as I share anything else on this blog or via my research website.  I have put a lot of work into them; it's a pity if nobody who wants to know something about the history of the American stove, its users, and the industry that supplied them, can get hold of them easily.  Maybe this is a mistake -- maybe I will get back to the manuscript, and finish Chapters Six and Seven, and then try to publish the whole thing, only to find that I've weakened my arguments for the book by releasing so much of it too soon, and in this way. Well, if this begins to seem at all likely, I can always take this stuff down again almost as easily as I put it up... knowing, of course, that in the wonderful world of the Internet, nothing is ever really and truly deleted.  Tant pis, such is life, seems to me right now that this is a small risk worth taking.

I will link each draft chapter to a separate posting, which will contain a brief synopsis of the chapter's contents.  That way, I will at least be able to track page-views of the individual postings, though not of course how many (or how few) views of the chapters themselves may result.

One warning: when these document files (created in Open Office, but in Word 97-2003 format) open in Google Docs, funny things seem to happen to the formatting of some of the illustrations -- pictures hide their captions.  You can probably get around this, if it bothers you, by downloading the file and opening with Word or Open Office directly.

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