[Note: At this point in my career, I have published three books, two of which came out this summer. I figured that at least a few of my faithful readers might be interested in where the ideas for those volumes came from.]
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When I entered graduate school in the fall of 1968, the path ahead seemed pretty clear. I would be at Emory University for about four years, write a doctoral dissertation, be awarded my degree, and then, of course, line up a college teaching post. I was told that, once I got the first college job, I would need to prepare my dissertation for publication, so that I could earn tenure, a promotion, and a career of distinction as a historian.
What actually happened was that my career didn’t quite pan out that way. I spent five years at Emory, completing my doctorate and earning a PhD. in American History, but, when I was finishing, in 1973, there were no college jobs available. Still determined to teach history in some fashion, I began to investigate the possibility of working on the secondary level. And, as luck would have it, I wound up getting a job at a “prep school” across town from Emory, The Westminster Schools, where I would spend the next thirty-seven years, retiring in 2010.
Still, my Emory mentors had taught me well. I continued, at least for the first years in my new job, to hope that “something better” might come along, on the college or university level. While waiting for this to happen, I reviewed books for historical journals, even gave occasional public lectures (this was, after all, the decade of the American Revolutionary Bicentennial, and the first chapter in the dissertation examined political factionalism in Georgia during the War for Independence). Eventually, I returned to the idea of revising the dissertation for publication As part of this process, I began reworking selections from that hefty tome as articles, in hopes of shortening the prospective book manuscript.
No academic publisher in Georgia was interested in the manuscript, but eventually I was able to publish it through the University of Delaware Press—and, to this day, I don’t know why a small press in Delaware accepted for publication a book on Georgia history! (OK, in the interest of full disclosure, perhaps the fact that I was a Delaware alum helped, but still. . . .)
Politics on the Periphery, while hardly a best-seller, did fill a niche in the historiography of post-Revolutionary Georgia. It was well reviewed in professional journals and, over the years, cited in a number of historical monographs.
By the time I published it, I’d pretty much written off the possibility of moving on to a college position, even if the opportunity arose (which, realistically, wasn’t likely). My wife had a job that she loved at the same school where I worked; our sons also attended that pricey academy tuition-free; and I was a member of a top-notch faculty.
And yet, back in 1970, when I had offered the prospectus for my dissertation, I proposed studying the evolution of factions and parties in Georgia from the American Revolution through about 1825. This goal proved unrealistic for a variety of reasons, so I cut off the study in 1806, when the state’s first “party boss,” James Jackson, died.
As I burrowed into my life at Westminster, I kept hearing the voices of my grad school professors advising me to publish, publish, publish! And, of course, I had not yet been able to fulfill the terms of my prospectus, which gave me a target to shoot at.
By the early 1990s, I was anxious to begin a sequel to Politics on the Periphery, just in case that “college job” suddenly came calling; and Westminster awarded me a sabbatical that allowed me to start the research.
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In Atlanta’s “Olympic Summer” of 1996, I launched that research, which I hoped would carry the story of political party development in Georgia from 1807 to the point when the state’s parties resembled those active on the national level. Given the demands of my day job, however, research was pretty much limited to summers, so things went slowly. By the time I retired, fourteen years later, I had certainly made progress, but not enough to warrant publication in the near future.
Once I left Westminster, though, I had “all the time in the world” to work on the book–and I needed it. At first, I thought I’d be able to answer all of the big questions I’d originally asked in my prospectus if I carried the story of political party development in Georgia through about 1836, when Democrat Martin Van Buren was elected President as Andrew Jackson’s successor. Yet, I found myself adding years to the scope of the book.
Moreover, since I’d begun research in 1996, there had been an Internet-enabled explosion in available primary sources for the decades after 1806, especially of digitized antebellum Georgia newspapers (thanks to the “Digital Library of Georgia,” at the University of Georgia’s marvelous “Galileo” website), presidential papers, and congressional records. In short, I had lots more grist available for my research mill this time round, and much of it was accessible from home.
This second book was a huge undertaking, not only because of the number of primary sources available, but also because of the increasing importance–and complexity–in the later period of issues like the protective tariff and Nullification; slavery and the Abolition movement; and Indian removal.
By the time the story reached the year 1845, I felt I had finally tied up as many of the loose ends as I could. Yet, the manuscript had swelled in size over the past five years, and I realized that, if it were ever to be published, I would have to cut it ruthlessly. So I did–again, and again, and again. Finally, still over 400 pages in length, this “slimmed down” version appeared between covers.
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While trying to keep my attention focused on cutting and editing the work that became Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities, I had an idea that ultimately produced a third book. Over the years, I had written a number of articles on Georgia history for professional journals, and I began to consider the possibility of gathering them into a single book.
Obviously, I was not a noted historian, so few people would probably want to spend money on a collection of my historical essays. Yet, I thought that at least some Georgia historians, friends, and family members, might be interested in such a compilation.
So, this became the organizing principle of In Pursuit of Dead Georgians. I opened the collection with an overview of my career, placed in the context of “contingency” (i.e., what I like to think the Rolling Stones meant when they sang that “you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need”). Thereafter, the volume included revised versions of my previously published essays in Georgia history, each introduced by a paragraph or two placing it in the context of my career.
In some cases, I updated information in the essays; in others, I corrected errors, either mine or those of the editors of the journals that had published the original articles. The format also enabled me to combine three essays on John Wereat, and two on Georgia United States Senator James Gunn, into unified biographical accounts of each man.
Several other chapters included essays published for the first time. I included the first chapter in my doctoral dissertation, which the University of Delaware Press had decided covered a topic “too well known” to be included in the book version (largely because a few of my scholarly acquaintances and I had published articles on political factionalism in Revolutionary Georgia during the Bicentennial celebration). Some chapters had been the basis for talks at historical meetings or other public events; others were byproducts of research on Rancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities; and a couple originated in the blog I had launched upon my retirement from Westminster, “Retired But Not Shy: Doing History After Leaving the Classroom.” And, as an epilogue, I presented a thoroughly revised piece on Howell Cobb and the Compromise of 1850, originally prepared for an Emory class in the history of the Old South, carrying the story of political party development in Georgia to the mid-1850s.
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Perhaps, for some of you, the question remains: Why spend all the time and effort writing and publishing these volumes?
I never intended any of these publications to be money-making ventures. I earned no royalties for Politics on the Periphery, a situation I don’t expect will change with the more recent volumes. And that’s OK, because I am, after all, “retired but not shy”!
I come back to the lessons instilled in me by those Emory professors about the importance of publishing. Not, mind you, “publish or perish,” which was definitely not a concern on the prep school level. Rather, the message was, publish to “keep your hand in your field of study”; and to hone your craft as a writer, thus showing potential employers that you “had what it takes” to translate graduate training in History into something useful.
Finally, I also seem to have had some sort of inner drive that pushed me to write history in myriad forms, regardless of whether those efforts would ever see the light of day. Genetics? Fate? Plain, dumb luck? You decide. . . .