on Star Territory

August 2022

This summer, graduate students Max Laitman Chapnick (Boston University) and Allison Fulton (University of California Davis) spoke with Gordon Fraser, Lecturer and Presidential Fellow in American Studies at the University of Manchester about his recently published monograph
Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). Across chapters dealing with the history of establishment—and anti-establishment—science, Fraser tells the story of the American project to map space starting in the early Republic through the 19th century. Fraser focuses on printers interested in outer space; he highlights, among other texts, the archives of the U.S. military state, Cherokee and Black astronomy, and Hawaiian cosmology. While state and military institutions employed increasingly precise maps for the project of US imperialism, other vernacular and indigenous knowledges developed separate systems for mapping the universe.

During a delightful conversation about his research, Fraser also provided useful guidance on the academic job market, archival research trips, and teaching with primary-source documents. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Allison Fulton (AF): How and where did this book project begin?

Gordon Fraser (GF): The book project began with a really amorphous dissertation. I knew I was interested in the relationship between how people thought about the cosmos and 19th century nationalism, anti-slavery politics, and anti-Indian removal politics. And so I wrote this dissertation called “American Cosmologies,” that had a lot of ambition and very little shape. The book project itself was really all about honing that and trying to turn it into something that was a book rather than just lots of ideas.

Max Laitman Chapnick (MLC): That’s helpful for those of us who have amorphous dissertations. We noticed that many of the articles you published were not directly related to the book. We were wondering how you managed to write articles that weren’t related to the book while writing your dissertation.

GF: I went to the University of Connecticut and I arrived for my master's degree in 2008. The financial crisis was sort of unfolding at that point and the academic job market, which was terrible, collapsed at that moment. And so I looked at the people who were graduating with PhDs way ahead of me. There were only a few who managed to pull anything off at all and they published a lot. I got the message that I had to publish a lot. Looking back, I think I took some of the wrong messages because I think there are strategies for publication that aren't just numbers.

AF: If the strategy isn't numbers, could you talk a little bit more about what you would say your recommended strategy is?

GF: I would say if I was on a hiring committee, I would be looking at not just the number of publications, but the placement of those publications. So an article in J19, for instance, communicates a lot about your commitment to 19th century American scholarship. An article in another journal that's a little bit unrelated says you can publish, which is important because publication is what gets people tenure, but someone who's publishing in their field journals communicates to me that they know their field and that they know how to build a career in that field and build a network in that field.

AF: You were talking about how the dissertation was this huge document with a lot of different ideas that were kind of scattered. What helped you focus and narrow into the book argument?

GF: For me, it was methodology. My dissertation really didn't have a methodology. I claimed that it had; if you were to unlock it and read it, it would say, this is my methodology. But that's a lie. It was just things I was interested in or things I found that were neat. And when I transitioned to the book, I really decided on a methodology that was following printers. So I wasn't just interested in every 19th century person who had an idea about the universe. I was specifically interested in political projects organized around printing that tried to print and then circulate ideas about the universe.

MLC: I guess even more broadly than printers, there's a print history or a print culture methodology. We were curious how you arrived at the relationship between literal space and the representation of space.

GF: One of the things I stress when I talk to my students about writing is that you always, when you're designing a project, need a logic of selection. So you need to say here is how I define all the things that are in my project and all the things that are out of my project. So when someone raises their hand at the conference and asks that out of the blue question where they say, I read a memoir by a 19th century doctor who read Darwin one time, you can say, well, is that in my project or out of my project? Do I need that or not? And I didn't have that in the dissertation.

In terms of how figurative space maps onto literal space, I think the answer to that is just that as I was talking through all of these print projects, I realized that they were often quite literally mapping projects. Early 19th-century almanacs often have time and distance information in them so that you can take a trip to Baltimore or whatever it is. And so I realized that they were using outer space as in planets and stars to figure out space on earth and how to navigate it and how to measure it and divide it and control it. All of these cosmic projects were not just about the cosmos in the abstract, but they were actually about geopolitical power controlling space.

AF: It seemed to us that archival access was really necessary for you to complete this project. Could you walk us through how and when you accessed these archives over the course of the project and offer a few pieces of advice for grad students who are interested in pursuing archival research as part of their dissertation projects?

GF: So on my first major archival visit I got a library grant to go to the American Antiquarian Society. They're wonderful because they offer a fair number of these small library grants and they have housing. I think my advice for graduate students in getting those kinds of grants is apply early and often. I've been rejected for tons of them. In the application for the first one I got, I added a mention of one additional collection at the 11th hour that I was maybe interested in. It turned out that no one had looked at it yet. I didn't know that, but the library did and they had it on their list of things they were interested in. They wanted to bring someone who would look at that collection. And that's what got me over the line. It's dumb luck and it's not reproducible, but if you apply enough times, you get lucky once. And the reality is that the archives you get to go to when you're a grad student shape your work. I didn't get to visit some archives and probably the book is a different book because of that. But I think early in your career, your experience is just shaped by contingency in that way.

AF: When you went to the archives, did you have a good process for keeping track of the information?

GF: My first visit, I was not organized at all. I got some things out of it. I actually discovered a poem by John Rollin Ridge that had never been republished, that was just lying in one of the pages of an undigitized newspaper. So I got things out of it, but I was entirely unsystematic and I would've gotten a lot more if I'd known what I was doing.

The visit that felt like I actually knew what I was doing was my first two-week visit to the National Archives to work on chapter four of the book. I'd already gotten my first job as an Assistant Professor. My approach was to say I won't make all the connections I need to make while I’m here. So I’m going to photograph every piece of paper I see and catalog them in Google Drive folders by date and author. And I'm going read them as I go, but I'm going to assume that I make no good connections. And then when I leave I will have basically digitized the entire collection. It's a physically exhausting experience, like my neck ached at the end of every day. And I could feel my computer creaking as I would upload things to Google Drive and then delete them from the hard drive. But the result is I still have the entire collection of letters from the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac office in the 19th century. So if I ever have to go back, I have every letter incoming and outgoing from that office.

AF: Photos are the name of the game!

GF: Photos and good labels because you'll need to cite. There are things you don't know that you will need two or three years later. And you'll say, that's the letter and you'll need to be able to cite it.

MLC: So this is a style question: One thing I noticed in your book is there are actually very few engagements with other critics in the main text explicitly. For example, there’s one paragraph in the Banneker chapter where you narrate Britt Rusert’s argument, but you only mention her name in the footnotes.

GF: And I don't do it in articles, this approach where I'm burying my contemporaries in footnotes. In articles I surface them, I talk about them, and I name them. But I was trying to imagine the reader of this book. One of my primary readers is a 19th-century Americanist who would do exactly what you did: read the paragraph and say, “Is he talking about Britt Rusert?” And then you look at the footnote and it's like, yes, of course I'm talking about Britt Rusert. But there are other readers for the book who will be coming at it because they're interested in 19th-century astronomy. Penn Press advertised to military historians, which is not a community that I imagine myself talking to, but actually in some ways it makes sense. A lot of those people really don't need to get into the weeds of C19 scholars and what they've been talking about..

MLC: It doesn't seem like you're arguing with other scholars. You weave them in without saying “they say, I say,” as we teach in first-year writing.

GF: When you're a graduate student, you've been trained to argue with critics. That's how you differentiate yourself. The problem is when you actually encounter scholars in your field, they are serious people who spend years working on something. And they come to fairly considered arguments, which I often find myself very much in agreement with. And so I don't have an easy way to say–it feels peevish in some ways to say–I read Black Prometheus and I think he's wrong about everything. No, of course I don't. I actually think it's a wonderful book.

So often what I'm really doing is just positioning myself, vis-a-vis other scholars, right? I'm working in the vein of these other scholars. I'm working with a different archive. I'm interested in slightly different questions. I'm hoping that I'm answering these other questions. I'm telling a story and the story I'm telling fits into this network of other stories that have been told by scholars in my field.

But if you start with the archive, I think it's easier to figure out your position vis-a-vis other scholars, and to be kind of generous with other scholars. If you start with the scholars, you have no place to go but disagreement.

AF: I was wondering if you could just elaborate on this concept of the print persona and if you saw these persona being established or created in any other of the printed texts that you're working on.

GF: I think in Banneker’s case it's interesting because his print persona is so very, very different from the real person to the extent that we can access the real person. It was a Philadelphia engraver who had to think up what he imagined a Black astronomer would look like and he makes him younger, he makes him thinner and he dresses him like a Quaker, when Banneker isn't a Quaker. And so there's this sense that because Banneker himself is inaccessible, printers are just creating this myth around Banneker.

MLC: Especially in Banneker, his persona (to use Allison's word) is created by the printers. People will assume that he wrote something because it's printed in an Almanac that has his name on it, but he didn't actually write it. And so he's sort of being given agency, even though he doesn't really have it. I was wondering if you could say more about that.

GF: I was really only focused on the print circulation of Banneker’s writing. And what struck me was that the print circulation is almost entirely out of his hands. And so on the one hand, he becomes this very important figure in later years–and this is Britt Rusert’s point–who shapes Black ideas about science because these Black intellectuals and Black scientists are reaching back looking for a precursor and they find Benjamin Banneker. In his time, what's happening is he's selling the ephemeris, the actual map of the stars and where the stars will be. White people are taking that, reprinting it and then adding all kinds of crazy stuff: pictures of him, poems, weird recipes in some cases, predictions that the third president of the United States will die. And so that's not Banneker being agentic, that's just a bunch of white people in business saying weird stuff about Benjamin Banneker in print. I don't think that negates the fact that he becomes very, very important to Black intellectuals later.

A Peep at the Moon. This wallpaper fragment, taken from a home in Nantucket, features a group of astronomers gazing at the moon’s surface, discovering a land of palm trees, volcanoes, and inhabitants not unlike those of Polynesia. Ink on paper, 14 × 30 inches. Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association.

MLC: In Chapter Four: The National Almanac in Peace and War and Chapter Five: Hawaiian Cosmography in Print there is an argument that traditional science is predictive, therefore it sort of de-vitalizes or is somehow more disconnected. But it seems to me that part of the point of predictive science is its ability to fail, right? It's actually a feature because that's how science works. I totally agree that these Almanacs–the Navy ones–are a tool of the state and colonialism and that's bad. But I'm struggling to see how the epistemology of prediction is therefore part of the state.

GF: I actually wouldn't even go so far as to say that the Navy Almanacs are necessarily bad. I mean, they reduced deaths at sea, for instance. And I'm against people dying at sea. So you end up with these ways in which everything is entangled, you know, the tool that keeps sailors alive and keeps the shipping industry running and keeps food traveling to people–those tools also are weaponized and they're also used to kill.

I think Maria Mitchell has a great answer for you. She writes this essay about Milton of all people and about Milton's ideas about the cosmos. In that essay, she makes the argument that a good scientist is able to do three things simultaneously and she says that most scientists can't do all three because they're actually different modes of thought. She thinks that you must be able to look at the natural world and make meaning from it. You then need to be able to step back from the natural world and develop predictive theories based on precise measurement that will enable you to predict what will happen in the natural world. And then you need to be able to think like a poet and to imagine things that might be or should be. And she says most scientists can't do all three. I maybe would even add a fourth thing, which is to think about how scientific work is implicated in lots of domains of human affairs.

I think if I want my book to do anything, it's to urge people to step back for a moment and to think about how the predictive or instrumental work is bound up in political projects that the scientists themselves may not necessarily endorse.

AF: We wanted to close by asking you about pedagogy. We’re interested to hear about how you teach something like an almanac versus a traditional novel, or if you teach texts via print culture methods in your classrooms.

GF: I do try to teach my students the methods that I use in my own writing. I try to organize classes around archives. Right now, I'm teaching a class on Uncle Tom's Cabin, but we're looking at all of the spinoffs from that novel. So we're looking at the silent films and the plays and the Vaudeville shows and the poetry and the newspaper responses. What I try to do is get students to narrow their archival focus and draw that line, that logic of selection, around their archive and say, here's what's in my archive that I'm interested in studying and here's what's outside.

What I hope students get out of my classes is that they can look at physical or digital archives and can define the scope of their own inquiry. Then they can think about how their interests and their discoveries map onto a scholarly world of people who are also interested in whatever it is. My end goal is that students do the kind of work that I do professionally and that they get a sense even if they never do this again of what it is that a literary scholar or a cultural historian actually does.

AF: Do you teach with a lot of digital archival materials that aren't traditional novels, like, does this format of the Uncle Tom class kind of carry through other courses that you teach?

GF: I try to organize classes and assignments around digital archives that are pretty accessible and that students can do different projects with. In the class I'm doing currently, we're working with Stephen Railton’s Uncle Tom's Cabin and American culture, which is this wonderful archive that he put together of every time anyone’s ever mentioned Uncle Tom’s Cabin: he's got dinner plates, he's got playing cards.

And for instance, when I teach Walt Whitman, there's a scholar who has identified the lecture detailed in “When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" that Whitman was probably at. It's a lecture that was probably at the US Naval observatory. When I talk about that poem, I want to bring in that this was very possibly a real lecture. He's not making it up. It really was boring, and here's what we know about it. And it was that predictive astronomy that Whitman hated so much. So when I do this kind of work, I'm always trying to bring in context and to give students a sense of the texture of the place and the texture of that life and that experience.

Gordon Fraser is a lecturer and presidential fellow in American Studies at the University of Manchester, and he is the author of Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). He has published in journals such as PMLA, American Quarterly, and J19, among others, and he is a past winner of the William Riley Parker Prize and the 1921 Award in American Literature. He has also written for The Washington Post, Lapham's Quarterly, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.