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Nearing the End

As I near the deadline (April 17th) and defense (shortly thereafter), I’m going to start posting things here to help me reflect on my journey through thesisland. The first tidbit is this bibliographic entry I wrote fall semester of junior year about an article that really sparked my imagination:

Upton, Dell. “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” in Material Life in America, 1600-1860 ed. by Robert St. George. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

           Upton’s article examines the tidewater plantations of Virginia to argue that architecture creates a social experience through the organization of movement in daily life. Through the meticulous construction and enforcement of boundaries and borders, white planters constructed hierarchical and “processional” landscapes that became at once commercial, educational, social, and governmental centers. Upton encounters no difficulty in examining the white plantation landscape—much of it remains intact, and can be further interpreted through a wealth of primary documents.

            Upton encounters more difficulty in examining the black experience of the plantation landscape, but constructs an argument based upon material evidence and “hints collected from the documents.” He concludes that, as a direct result of their duties and roles, slaves subverted the “processional” white landscape by moving through a plantation while disregarding established barriers and formal approaches. At their own quarters, slaves redefined the landscapes constructed by plantation owners; they formed communities and sought seclusion and secrecy. 

            Upton’s article is based upon his own “continuing [field]work on pre-Revolutionary Virginia architecture” and secondary scholarship on the social history of colonial America. He seeks to discern the ways in which landscapes were experienced, and therefore makes frequent references to travel journals—which represent excellent sources of information on landscapes and infrastructure because of the frequent changes in landscape that a traveler experiences. The rapid observation of differing landscapes lends to the traveler a sensitivity to buildings and spatial surroundings. 

Thesis, Part II

I’ve been having trouble getting back to work. After writing forty pages last semester, I lost the routine over a relaxed winter break and started off the semester just enjoying time with friends as we look towards graduation. But now it’s time to reestablish a schedule and refine my trajectory towards a completed thesis, so I return to posting on the blog.

The honors colloquium should be just the jumpstart I need to get moving again.  (In case you’re interested, I’ll present on Monday, February 16, at 6 p.m. in Blair 221.) I hope to have another chapter thoroughly outlined by then, so that I’ll really have some substance to present.

Unfortunately, I encountered a bit of a setback two weeks ago when my hard drive crashed. I still have the portions of the thesis I have already written (thank Jove). But I lost the database of newspaper ads that I began compiling last semester–the body of sources that this next chapter will analyze. In a way, that’s okay. I now have the opportunity to reconsider how I was collecting those ads, and perhaps to revise my methodology.

To that end, here’s what I plan to do this week:

  1. Read up on early newspapers in NYC in Frank Mott, American Journalism, and develop a plan for how to collect a representative sample of advertisements.
  2. Begin collecting those advertisements to create a new database, keeping a keen eye open for clues about the reasons and ways that hotels emerged as the public houses of the elite.

In the trenches

I’m about halfway through the introduction (I decided to go straight to prose), and am looking for a break from the books. Nobody’s on Facebook on a Saturday night, so I’ve turned to updating my blog. Ha.

People have cautioned against writing the introduction first, but I felt adrift without that literature review under my belt.  So I’m preparing an introduction, devoting roughly seventy-five percent to historiography and the rest to stating the thesis and outlining an argument. I’m sure I will return to the introduction in April and revise the heck out of it, but now I feel a bit more confident in the direction that future research and writing will take.

I enjoyed Thanksgiving with the Good Sir David Christopher Williard (’07). We spent copious hours rehashing the ins and outs of graduate admissions and the ups and downs of graduate work in history. As with everything we discuss, Williard did not fail to complicate my assumptions by simultaneously boosting my confidence and reigniting my fears and apprehensions. Both sensibilities have renewed my dedication to the thesis and my passion for the work. Thanks, Williard 🙂

OK, coffee break’s over. Back to campus tomorrow! PS–when I can’t be here:

Daily Grind Williamsburg

. . . I’m here:

Java's Rochester

Were I ever to write a book, would it be weird to thank coffee shops in the acknowledgements?

Have been finishing Upton, Another City and combing through a 1915 anecdotal history of public accommodations in NYC (W. Harrison Bayles, Old Taverns of New York). That Swem has this book in the stacks warms my soul; that the book is non-circulating chills it again.

I plan to have solid eight- to ten-page outlines of both the Introduction and Chapter One upon returning to campus Sunday night, and to devote the entire week to writing those outlines into prose. I have procrastinated a bit, yes, but that’s really nothing new.

In other news, I bought today a second-edition copy of the first history of the United States ever written. In 1795, a Philadelphian named John McCulloch published A concise history of the United States, from the discovery of America till 1795. He issued a second edition in 1797, one of which I brought home from a used book store for $25. (Suckers!) I won’t let myself read it until after the chapter is submitted for peer review, but after that I’ll post anything particularly fun on the blog.

Happy Thanksgiving, all.

This week

This week didn’t see much work on Chapter One because I was writing that paper for Antebellum America, which will eventually form the bulk of a later chapter. The paper’s title was “‘Nurseries of intemperance, disorder and profligacy’: The Humane Society’s Early Temperance Movement in New York City.” It partially focuses on contrasts between an 1810 temperance movement and later temperance reform (1820s-1840s). That kind of analysis will probably become a footnote, but the bulk of the writing will remain intact. Out of a sixteen-page paper, I estimate that ten pages will be weaved into the thesis. Which means . . .


 Thank you for allowing that moment of exuberance. Just to give an idea of what this paper was all about, here’s the thesis: “The Humane Society’s early motion for temperance reform represents an attempt by patrician New Yorkers to harness their own power to preserve a republican vision that they, at the top of society, saw beginning to falter.”

Actually, there was one other important development this week. On Monday I received the October issue of the WMQ, which held a special surprise: an essay by UCLA historian Michael Meranze, entitled “Culture and Governance: Reflections on the Cultural History of Eighteenth-Century British America.” Meranze advocates a “refocusing” of cultural history in light of the eighteenth-century definition of “culture,” given by one 1755 dictionary as “the act of cultivation; the act of tilling the ground; tillage.” Culture was an active process that legitimated the right to govern–a “technique of growth and direction.” And in early America, Meranze says, culture was central “because governance was up for grabs.”

This is something I can work with. Hotels, as I see them, were both expressions of culture and venues for cultivation. Except for the very earliest ones, hotels were aesthetic compositions–purpose-built objects of architectural beauty that intended to intimidate some and ennoble others. They hosted concerts, balls, lavish dinners, and meetings of all manner of associations. They tilled within many the senses of virtue and prerogative. They helped to legitimate governance.

I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this. At the moment, I think Meranze’s article will form a sounding board for my introduction and conclusion.

Moving on. To do this week:

  •  Collect travel narratives of visitors to New York from 1780-1825 (tonight’s task, as I’m in more of an administrative than analytical mood)
  • Finish Upton, Another City
  • Outline the literature review for my Introduction
  • Begin writing Chapter One (!!!)

On a note only tangential to the thesis, I suffered a minor spazz attack yesterday with the joint realization that not only do I need to find a job for the next year or two, but also–far more terrifyingly–I won’t have an excuse to sit at the Grind all day and read. Alack! Crimmins was privy to about ten minutes of it; thanks for commiserating 🙂

Moving towards crunch time

I’ve been consumed by papers for other classes for the last few days, but prior to that was making good progress on the thesis. I received the FileMaker database software and have been able to continue compiling newspaper ads. This actually has been a frustrating process–I don’t think I’ve taken the opportunity to complain about it yet. As incredible as the Newsbank database of Americas Historical Newspapers is, there are some real technical flaws with the advanced search mechanism. Halfway through a large batch of returns, the database will lose my original search terms and I have to start over again. Slowgoing, but in the end it will yield good results, I think.

Other than that, I’ve been reading some new things:

  • Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and a New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (1984). Less helpful than I would have hoped.
  • Dell Upton, Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American (2008).
  • Edwin Burroughs, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (1999). This is an amalgamation of scholarship on New York City, which I’m reading for context and to spark new ideas.
  • And a whole lot of literature on reform for my antebellum America paper, which I’ll discuss in a bit.

I found the outline assignment a worthwhile kick in the butt. If anybody has feedback on my first draft of a thesis and the preliminary chapter breakdown, I’d love to hear it:

  • Introduction. THESIS: The hotel–not only a new architectural form, but also a business model distinct from the tavern–reflected the desires of social and cultural elites to cling to traditional social structures while simultaneously improving their new nation, thus embodying a central paradox of American ideology in the years of the early republic.
  • Chapter 1: Taverns in New York City, 1783
  • Chapter 2: New York’s First Hotels
  • Chapter 3: The Republican Vision and Symbolism of New York’s Early Hotels
  • Chapter 4: Hotels as a New Approach to Health and Morality
  • Chapter 5: Hotels, Capitalism, and Industrialization
  • Conclusion

The paper I’m writing right now for the class on antebellum America will factor heavily into Chapter 4, and much of what I’m reading will affect Chapter 3, as well. The paper centers on that 1810 pamphlet by the Humane Society of New York City condemning “petty taverns” as centers of vice and disease, and intersects with the antiliquor writings of Benjamin Rush (1780s-1810s).

I argue that the Humane Society’s early motion for temperance reform represents an attempt by patrician New Yorkers to preserve a republican vision that they, at the top of society, saw beginning to falter. By examining an earlier period, the paper strives to reassess scholarship on the later temperance movement (1820s and 1830s) that was associated with the height of the Second Great Awakening, concluding that the Second Great Awakening did not give rise to temperance, as has sometimes been argued, but rather transformed and augmented it.

That paper is due on Monday, and another (smaller) one is due for a different class on Tuesday. So I probably won’t get much thesis work done until next week. I do hope to finish reading Upton by the end of the weekend. After that, I’ll start writing Chapter 1 using the newspaper ads, travel accounts, a slew of anecdotal histories of New York, and three recent books on taverns in other early American cities.


Progress, yes. Both in the sense of working towards a thesis, and in the sense of the early-nineteenth century American ethos–a theme that’s coloring my sources and secondary readings on every page.

Finished the book review on Wilentz, Chants Democratic, and now have a much firmer grip on social relations and political ideology in early New York City. The biggest idea I’ve gleaned from that task is that, although the first hotels appeared within a(n essentially) pre-industrial context, they seem more representative of the culture and social structures that emerged from post-1825 industrialization in New York. Something to chew on and work with.

Am still compiling the database of newspaper ads–less progress there than I’d hoped. I need to make this a higher priority.

Have been working with a source on the early temperance movement–an 1810 condemnation of “petty taverns” as centers of vice, degradation, and even disease–for Carol Sheriff’s class on antebellum America. Something really cool is going to come of this, though I’m not sure what precisely. I’m analyzing the relationship and differences between this pamphlet and the later reform movements that marked the height of the Second Great Awakening (1830s), using W. J. Rorabaugh, Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1981). At the moment (as in, this afternoon) I’m looking through the New York City directories for 1810 and 1814 to determine WHO, precisely, the authors of this pamphlet were. Early returns suggest, as predicted, that they were quite the group of civic-minded patricians.

And just received in the mail a brand-spankin’-new copy of Dell Upton’s new book, Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (2008). I’ll really be able to engage with his work, which deals mostly with Philadelphia and New Orleans and focuses on many of building types and institutions that emerged in the early republic, but not really hotels (!). In fact, the index doesn’t even have an entry for “hotel.” What the heck, Dell? Thanks, I guess . . .

Plan to continue pushing ahead on all fronts, with a two-day sabbatical for Homecoming 🙂

Back on the bandwagon

I really have been terrible at keeping this blog updated the past few weeks. I think my aversion to posting indicates how uncomfortable I’ve been with a recently slow rate of progress. But now that midterms are over I can get back in business and hereby solemnly pledge to devote the following time blocks to my thesis (let’s see if this actually works):

  • Today from 11:45 to 2:30, and again from 6:30 to 9:30
  • Tomorrow from 9:30 to 4
  • Monday from 11 to 2

Here’s what I’ve been up to recently:

  • Decided that FileMaker Pro is the best way to organize these newspaper ads. Downloaded the free 30-day trial and applied to the department for funding to get the full version.
  • Began compiling my database (which is actually progressing quite nicely), which I’ll use to begin discerning how, when, and why taverns gave way to hotels.
  • Started working on a research paper for Professor Sheriff’s course on antebellum America which will examine that 1810 Humane Society pamphlet in light of the themes of that class (reform movements, the emergence of the middle class, etc.). A lot of what I’ll write for that paper will probably come to play in my work with the honors thesis next semester.
  • Moving towards a book review of Wilentz, Chants Democratic.

The plan for now is just to keep pushing on those fronts for the weekend and then see where I’m at. I’m really going to be better from now on about updating this blog.

Link to NYT article

Here the link to that New York Times article I mentioned yesterday in class. PS, I’m really not left of Marx and Michael Moore, it might just seem like that sometimes.

OH MAN, Exciting Day!

Had a bit of a revelation in Professor Sheriff’s “Antebellum America” class today, thanks to her lecture on urban boom. YES. She synthesized a library worth of urban histories into the argument that cities in the early Republic embodied a kind of dissonance. That is, cities stood as the physical manifestations of elite and middle-class ideas about progress and republicanism (think churches, museums, government, arts; the pinnacle of human civilization; like Thomas Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, hardcore) while simultaneously functioning as centers of poverty, crime, working-class depravity, and moral decay.

I can work with this. Bushman fits in perfectly. The taverns–>hotels architectural transformation fits in perfectly. The 1810 Humane Society report on NYC taverns/jails fits in perfectly. AWESOME. I’m not yet sure of all the nuances of the argument, but I’ve just opened up about 800 new themes to work with as I forumulate a thesis. To start with, I think that the hotel form embodies those elite and middle-class perceptions of the city as American republican center, which helps to explain Andrew Sandoval-Strausz’s contention that the hotel emerged as a uniquely American building and institution.

The challenge now is to not formulate an argument before I have evidence that gives rise to it. So while I have a reading list that just became three miles longer, I’m only allowing myself to read a few introductions until I assemble this newspaper ad database. In case you’re curious, those intros are:

  • Mary Ryan, Cradle of the Middle Class: The Family in Oneida County, New York, 1790-1865 (1981);
  • Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1798-1860 (1987); and
  • Stuart M. Blumin, The Emergence of the Middle Class: Social Experience in the American City, 1760-1900 (1989).

OK I’m psyched. More to come as an argument emerges.

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