Baldblogger (BB): Can you discuss a bit of the history of writing The Way of Improvement Leads Home, in short the evolution of this project? What was your experience transforming the dissertation into a book? Any advice for those of us who are in the process of getting the dissertation manuscript-ready
John Fea (JF): The Way of Improvement Leads Home is not a revision of my doctoral dissertation. I wrote my dissertation on religion in the West Jersey colony. In that dissertation I had a chapter entitled “The Rural Enlightenment” which included a lot of material on Fithian. This was the best chapter of the dissertation so I shopped it around as an article and it was eventually published by the Journal of American History in 2003. I got a lot of feedback from that article thanks to the editor’s decision to use it for the “Teaching the JAH” feature. After the article was accepted, I decided to scrap plans to publish my dissertation and write The Way of Improvement Leads Home instead. There was much anxiety in this decision, but I knew that this was the book I wanted to write. So between 2003 and roughly 2006 I went to work on the book. I am thus not sure if I am the best person to give advice about turning a dissertation into a book. It seems to me that most dissertations will eventually find their way into print. This, of course, is no guarantee that people will read them or be able to afford them. Some young professors rush their first book into print because they want to beat the tenure clock. Or else they are so sick of the project that they just want to publish it and get on to something else. I fully understand the need to take this route. I am fortunate enough to teach at a place that values and supports scholarship, but does not require a book for tenure. As a result, I could take my time with the project and write the book I wanted to write. There was something quite liberating about this.
BB: What are some important things that modern readers can take from the life of Philip Vickers Fithian? Why does he matter for today?
JF: I try to speculate on this a bit in the conclusion of the book. For me, Philip’s story is an American one. He reminds us that Enlightenment cosmopolitanism always existed in compromise with local attachments. We Americans still pursue self-betterment through higher education. We travel around the globe and boast about our world citizenship. But we also long for the passions, love, and faith that bring meaning, in a transcendent way, to our lives. We are mobile people, but we also search for roots as part of our attempt to connect to particular pasts or places. We cherish unlimited progress even as we prepare ourselves for death. It seems to me that these tensions have always defined the American experience. In other words, many of us hope that our “way of improvement” will lead us “home.” Philip’s life has made me think about how I live my own life. When I started a blog [BB: and a Facebook group!] to help promote the book I realized that it was hard to separate Philip’s eighteenth-century story from my own convictions about life. Those familiar with my blog know that sometimes it is unclear when I am blogging about my own thoughts about place, cosmopolitanism, self-improvement, or ambition and when I am describing Philip’s story in The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I am not sure if this lack of detachment makes me a bad historian, but I just can’t ignore the fact that many of Philip’s convictions and struggles are also my own.
BB: Can you discuss the cover of the book?
JF: The cover is a colorized version of an 1800 black and white engraving of Fithian’s home town of Greenwich, New Jersey. I, and the folks at Penn Press, think it turned out pretty well.
BB: It has been a bit over a year since the publication of The Way of Improvement Leads Home. If you could revise or refine or rewrite parts of the book, what would you change (if anything)? You’ve traveled on the speaking/lecture circuit discussing your book. It is quite an achievement to write a scholarly book that non-scholars read with great interest; how has the book been received by non-academics?
JF: This is a tough question to answer. When I speak to popular audiences about the book I wish that the title was not so academic-sounding. I wish that I had written it more for the popular audiences that seem to be fascinated with Fithian’s life. They want to know more about his love affair (and love triangle!) with Betsy or his work as a chaplain with Washington’s army. They love hearing stories such as the one about how Fithian almost slept through Washington’s retreat at the Battle of Long Island or how a wild dog soiled his newly laundered clothes during his visit to the Susquehanna Valley. Yet I always remind myself that this is also an academic monograph—an attempt to prove myself as a historian. As I go around the region speaking about The Way of Improvement Leads Home I have become convinced that any future books I write will be written with a more popular audience in mind. I want my Mom and Dad—who are not college graduates or history buffs-- to enjoy my books. From now on I am going to save the scholarly stuff for journal articles and try to write books for general readers.
BB: What are your present and/or forthcoming projects?JF: I have a lot of half-baked projects going at the moment. I often have a hard time focusing on one project at a time. I tend to be intellectually curious about too many things at once. This summer I am working on completing a book titled, “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: An Historical Primer for Christians.” If everything goes well it will be out in January 2011 with Westminster/John Knox Press. Sometime next year Notre Dame University Press will publish Confessing History: Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. It is a collection of essays on faith and history that I am co-editing with Eric Miller and Jay Green. Contributors include Mark Schwehn, Wilfred McClay, Doug Sweeney, Tal Howard, Lendol Calder, Christopher Shannon, and Beth Barton-Schweiger. I also have six of nine chapters written on a book about the history and memory of a 1774 “tea party” in the town of Greenwich, NJ. Those of you who have read The Way of Improvement Leads Home know about Fithian’s involvement (or lack of involvement) in this event. I do not know if this project will ever see the light of day because I am still looking for a publisher, so if there are any acquisition editors out there please drop me an e-mail! My next big project, which I worked on during last year’s sabbatical and continue to work on, is tentatively entitled “A Presbyterian Rebellion: The American Revolution in the Mid-Atlantic.” This should keep me busy for a while.