Sean Moore is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire and recently completed an American Antiquarian Society-National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship at the Society. His work has received support from a variety of institutions, including the John Carter Brown Library, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Fulbright program, and he has just received an NEH Fellowship for the 2015-2016 academic year. Sean’s current project is entitled “Slavery and the Making of the Early American Library: British Literature, Political Thought, and the Transatlantic Book Trade.” He recently sat down with us to discuss this new project and his research at AAS.
Past is Present: Can you describe your current project?
Sean Moore: My project, “Slavery and the Making of the Early American Library: British Literature, Political Thought, and the Transatlantic Book Trade,” was inspired both by Brown University’s investigation of its endowment’s origins in profits from the slave trade and from my interest in how British books made their way to America in the eighteenth century. In seeking to connect these two interests, I discovered that many pre-Revolution American subscription libraries were founded by people with investments in slavery. I have planned six chapters for this book: 1) on private libraries financed by slavery, 2) on the Redwood Library of Newport, 3) on the Salem Social Library, 4) on the Charleston Library Society, 5) on the New York Society Library, and 6) on the Library Company of Philadelphia. I am pairing a British literary text, and sometimes a philosophical one, from the period with each library. For example, the first chapter, on which I have spent the majority of my time at the AAS, discusses the reading of Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela by early American women slave owners like Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Esther Edwards Burr, and the purchase of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government by male slave owners like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison. I do so in order to assess their appetite for imported literary commodities, their general consumer habits, and the means by which they found the money to pay to participate in British consumer culture. My chapters on the subscription libraries basically cross-reference library proprietorship and patronage with records of who was involved in slavery and related enterprises like sugar, rum, tobacco, and shipbuilding. The goal of my project is to map the dissemination of British books in America through what I am calling “slavery philanthropy.”
Past is Present: What historians or literary scholars inspired your entry into the field/inspire your work today?
Sean: My first book project sort of accidentally brought me into book history from postcolonial and economic theory when I began to realize that many of Jonathan Swift’s comments about imperial Britain and the Irish economy were making use of the jargon of workers involved in the book trade, and that he was saying that a Dublin book trade was necessary for the rest of the Irish economy to thrive. The work of Irish book historians like Mary “Paul” Pollard, Raymond Gillespie, and many others inspired me, and I began to read more generally in the field of book history, like the work of Richard Sher, Adrian Johns, Leah Price, Robert Darnton, Lisa Maruca, and many others. Maruca’s The Work of Print, in particular, introduced me to the seventeenth-century book trade handbook by Joseph Moxon, Mechanick Exercises, a copy of which Swift owned and perhaps made use of while writing many of his Irish political satires.
In preparing for my current project, I was inspired by Hugh Amory and David Hall’s The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World and many of the essayists they included in it, especially James Raven, who has written the most about British imports and the Charleston Library Society. I also have taught D.F. McKenzie and Jerome McGann, making use of their concept of the “sociology of the text,” as well as Philip Gaskell’s New Introduction to Bibliography as a means of deepening my knowledge of the field. For the slavery side to my project, I have been particularly inspired by the work of Simon Gikandi, Philip Gould, and Craig Wilder.
Past is Present: What does the AAS fellowship mean to you? What have you looked at while you’ve been on fellowship? What would you have liked to find? What would be your ideal find?
Sean: Prior to taking this fellowship, I was serving a three-year term as director of the UNH Honors Program, which, together with teaching and raising a young family, made it difficult to write a major monograph, though I have been able to publish an essay collection and write several articles. The NEH fellowship this fall has been crucial in helping me to jump-start my work, and I have written 80 pages this fall and read many, many books and manuscripts in the reading room and in the scholar’s residence. The central manuscripts for me have been the Boston bookseller Jeremy Condy’s account book, a memorandum on books borrowed from the Salem Social Library, and the catalogs of many eighteenth-century American libraries. Moreover, conversations with library staff and fellows have introduced me to much current secondary reading in early American studies, almost all of which the AAS has. I have also spent a considerable amount of time in newspaper databases and the University of Virginia Press’s digital papers of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Pinckney to assess the availability in America of certain British books and the transatlantic business transactions of early Americans.
What I would really like to have found, and perhaps may on another visit to the AAS, is more evidence that could help me cross-reference early library membership with members’ business affairs. I haven’t really asked anyone to help me with that on this trip, as I have been busy writing and reading other material, but if I could get lists of the proprietors of the five libraries I am researching and historical, biographical, and genealogical data on members that would really help. An ideal find would be evidence of a barter exchange of a slave or slave-produced commodity for books, as I have seen in the digitized papers of Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
This fellowship has been crucial in immersing me in early American studies, a field in which I am somewhat of an immigrant as an Irish and British studies scholar, and the staff and fellows have been wonderfully welcoming.
There’s more! Read the full interview here!