Interpreting the past, preparing for the future
Let’s be honest, historical research can be a pretty daunting task.
Scholars often have to deal with missing or incomplete primary sources, such as personal papers or letters. If they’re lucky, these documents have survived, leaving “fortunate” historians to slog—page after page, reel after reel, screen after screen—through years and even decades of correspondence.
And, then, there is the matter of decoding seriously awful handwriting.
“Greeley’s handwriting was notoriously bad,” says Professor Mitchell Snay of Horace Greeley, subject of his recently published Horace Greeley and the Politics of Reform in Nineteenth-Century America (Rowman & Littlefield). Researching within archived collections, Snay came across lines by librarians that said, “This is the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen.”
Few Americans today know Greeley’s name, yet his influence on everyday culture and society remains indelible. As founder and longtime editor of the influential New York Tribune newspaper, Greeley helped give rise to mass media in the United States, while also giving voice to a growing urban middle class. Along the way, Greeley championed numerous reforms, from abolitionism to vegetarianism.
Perhaps even more compellingly, Greeley became part of the fabric of contemporary American culture. He served as Henry David Thoreau’s literary editor in New York, got name-dropped in the novels of Mark Twain, and corresponded with Susan B. Anthony on women’s rights. Even Abraham Lincoln affectionately referred to Greeley as “Uncle Horace.”
“He truly embodied the hopes and contradictions of 19th century Americans, especially as they grappled with the two central issues of their time: the existence of slavery in a democratic society and the rise of industrial capitalism,” Snay said.
Snay, who came to Denison in 1986 and has written two previous books, first got the idea to write a Greeley biography in 2007.
“I noticed that there was no current biography of Greeley… I was hoping to write a short book for classroom use that wouldn’t take the rest of my life and would use Greeley’s life as a way to get at mid-19th-century America.”
But there were practical considerations for Snay as well. Most notably, the William Howard Doane Library owns a complete collection of the New York Tribune. A grateful Snay, in his words, “sings hurrahs” to the entire library staff for supporting his research, especially interim director Mary Prophet.
Snay currently teaches five courses in American history at Denison, including the first half of a general survey. His other classes break down roughly according to distinct periods in American history.
“I really like working with first year and second year students,” Snay said. “One of my joys is to get some of those kids to become history majors. And, when they do, I see them again and again. It’s very flattering, and it means a lot to me. And I like teaching the science kids who are discovering history.”
In his 26 years at the college, Snay has seen no decline in interest toward history. If anything, he feels, it’s been enjoying a bit of an upswing—even in a Twitter world.
“I’ve noticed that, both among students and the public, there really is a strong thirst for history. And it hasn’t abated. Look at the success of something like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. As I understand it, it’s now being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg…And look at the success of Ken Burns. Then you come across some of the gaffes made in the last few years of presidential debates, where some candidates got things really wrong. Hopefully, people paid attention and are thinking, ‘If we’re going to learn history, let’s do it right.’ ”
And, just as history continues to remain relevant, Snay has similar faith and optimism in the liberal arts more generally.
“Critical thinking, working with primary sources, having students evaluate evidence…these are all great skills. Anything that forces students to think. To synthesize material—which is what we do—it’s helpful in everything. In this changing job market, either you are going to have an almost technical kind of vocational training or else you take a liberal arts education. And you can do almost anything with that.”
Snay tells students that while they are here, they should focus on the present. “Your life is going to continue to change; your first job won’t be your last; and so just learn as much as you can. The best of our students are really interested and want to spend time learning. And they’re a pleasure to teach.”