Penguin Press Launches New American History Series

Mériam Belli, December 2003

Penguin Press, a unit of the Penguin Group (itself a division of the media conglomerate, Pearson plc), announced in mid-October the launch of a major new series—the "Penguin History of American Life." Will this projected 50-title line bring any benefits to scholarly history and shatter the reigning pessimism regarding academic publishing? A new American history venture by a major commercial publisher would seem good news—one that many historians may wish to see extended to their own fields. But the head of Penguin Press, star editor Ann Godoff, and the new series' editor, Scott Moyers, are certainly not venturing toward uncharted and commercially risky frontiers. As Robert Townsend reported in this October's Perspectives, books on the history of North America benefit from "a significant advantage" in trade value, within both the commercial and the academic sectors. Some fields are even more profitable—war in general, the Civil War in particular, the founding fathers, and so on. U.S. history sells . . . therefore, it is published. What then is new in the Penguin Press venture?

Alternative commercial outlet for academic books?

Even though, according to Townsend, history is, since 1996, "by one measure the only field where university presses produced more than 40 percent of all new titles," trade publishers nonetheless publish the majority of history books. To what extent then does Penguin Press offer an alternative—however limited—to university presses, which differs from other trade publishers, and sets a precedent in the commercial world for academic books? For one, there is the series' original approach to the editorial process. Penguin Press has appointed a 12-member board of renowned historians given editorial autonomy. They will be collectively defining the historiographical distribution of the series. Penguin Press will not invite submissions, said Moyers in an October 23 interview with Perspectives; board members have been given the authority to individually select authors—albeit provisionally—in their fields of specialization. Moyers noted, however, that the selection process was "open and transparent"—not only the composition of the board, but even the names of members who sponsored individual authors, are made public. Moyers also firmly pointed out that in the new series authors would be allowed to keep their autonomy and individuality vis-à-vis the editorial board and Penguin Press: The books are not commissioned per se, even though some board members are encouraging the notion of assigning synoptic works on specific topics deemed important to the board's overall vision of the series' chronological and thematic distribution. At the same time, and conversely, board members may choose authors because their current projects correspond to the board's editorial map—this actually seems to be the case in the selection of the first authors. In all circumstances, individually sponsored proposals are subject to unanimous vote for final collective approval.

The editorial board of historians—which is presided over by two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—aims, according to a Penguin Press mission statement, at "[creating] a collective portrait of America's history in fifty books that reflect the board's judgment as to the most important subjects and historians in their field." The choice of board members—Alan Brinkley, John Demos, Glenda Gilmore, Jill Lepore, David Levering Lewis, Patricia Limerick, Louis Menand, James McPherson, James Merrell, Garry Wills, and Gordon Wood (half of them, incidentally, are AHA members)—seems to have been directed by these historians' academic recognition, their high public profiles, and their marketability. Their areas of expertise mostly cover two poles of U.S. history: early colonial America and 20th-century U.S. history, while slightly overlooking the 19th century. All the board members are historians engaged already in steady relationships with trade publishers, with a solid foot set in public, crossover history. Many are prizewinning authors, and their credentials, said Moyers, will help Penguin Press sponsor and publicize the series. The strategy of Penguin Press seems to be the smart marriage of savvy brains with the worldwide marketing power of Penguin.

With this series, Penguin Press is presenting U.S. historians with the opportunity to reach out to wider audiences—both the general public and educational institutions—while promising scholars creative autonomy. The present selection of monographs indicates that Penguin Press' board is not likely to publish dissertation monographs, but Scott Moyers says that this possibility being at the board's discretion, can't be altogether ruled out. In the publishing world, there have been precedents of remarkable books directly coming out of dissertations. Nonetheless, the review process for the new series does not necessarily facilitate dissertation publishing. There won't be any "orthodox peer review," Moyers declared. Manuscript proposals alone will be submitted to the scrutiny of the whole board. Only the sponsoring member, added Moyers, will have the obligation of reviewing the finished manuscript. Although the concept of an editorial board for the series is a departure from usual practice in commercial publishing, the review process itself, says Moyers, is akin to that followed by other commercial publishers.

Integrating new history into the worldwide marketplace

Titanic publisher Penguin—of which "Penguin Press" is a recently created division—calls to mind, for some of us, quality, inexpensive, paperback, canonical, and conservative history books, novels, and essays, geared toward a "know-your-classics" adult public and a "basic-101-college-requirements" younger audience. Even if Penguin (soft cover) and Penguin Press (hard cover) are distinct entities, the mental association between the two is quite ineluctable. Justifiably, Penguin Press strongly claims its independence from the mother ship, and is now asserting its vanguard spirit with the "Penguin History of American Life." The educational market is vast, and Penguin Press seems to be carving its niche by taking into account that "new history" has entered its 20s . . . and mainstream historiography, and is ready to venture onto the big marketplace. Even textbooks, one of the most timorous historiographical genres, have been recently making efforts to integrate gender, race, and subaltern issues. High-school and college teachers could certainly use quality, cheap, up-to-date monographs—in addition to, or indeed instead of, textbooks—whose inviting prose would encourage reading (unlike too many scholarly monographs) while meeting scholarly criteria. That's where Penguin Press comes in. Moyers said it was not his intention to bridge educational gaps, but he wants interdisciplinarity, theoretical and methodological hip-ness, and enjoyable prose, which thus makes his "History of American Life," a perfect contestant for a worldwide "new American history" market perfectly adapted to the classroom.

Savvy brains and marketing power

Penguin Press' choice of board members can be the best clue to the series' identity. They're not quite "new historians" in the methodological sense of the term, yet they are "fresh" historians who possess the ability to combine scholarly with communicative skills. Some have a talent for narrative coupled to thematic trendiness; some have demonstrated an avant-gardist spirit in the past, while others have a more traditional, wide-audience public appeal; and, finally, some are historical monuments. The team is sound and solid, and quite impressive; the sole discordant note is that only three (two early American and one race and gender) female historians are on board.

The four authors chosen so far—James T. Campbell (Brown Univ.), Karl Jacoby (Brown Univ.), Stephen Kantrowitz (Univ. of Wisconsin), and Lawrence W. Levine (George Mason Univ.)—by board members could herald a promising series. Through its "peek preview" (the titles publicly released), Penguin Press undoubtedly telegraphs its intentions to provide a large panorama of American history, seen from original angles, and with a sociocultural slant: the four books commissioned so far cover early colonial (African American and Native American), 19th century (racial politics), and 20th century (1930s, cultural) history. Leaving aside Berkeley University Professor Emeritus Lawrence Levine, all these authors share a common profile: they have published successful first books in university presses. Campbell's book (Songs of Zion, 1995), a prizewinner, was re-edited in 1998. He is offering to the series Middle Passages, "a history of African Americans' contacts with Africa from the American Revolution to the present." Jacoby, whose first book was released in paperback (Crime Against Nature, 2001), is submitting Shadows at Dawn, a study of the "collision of Mexican, Anglo, and tribal cultures," and their differing history telling of the worst American massacres of Indians at Camp Grant. Kantrowitz (Reconstruction of White Supremacy, 2000; an OAH prizewinner) is preparing a book for Penguin Press on the "struggle against racial injustice in the North" from the mid-19th to the late 19th century through the prism of Bostonian radical abolitionists. Lawrence Levine—author of Highbrow/Lowbrow, Black Culture and Black Consciousness, and The Opening of the American Mind—is offering Culture in Crisis, a cultural history of the Great Depression, which will take care of the 20th-century pole of the series.

Even though Penguin Press' mission statement could mislead one into thinking that the series is primarily oriented toward educational institutions, Moyers has been adamant about the fact that the series aims at the widest audience possible—Penguin Press will be using regular commercial channels. If successful though, the series could respond to certain teaching needs for undergraduate courses—the books will conveniently have both hardcover editions (Penguin Press) and paperback ones (Penguin). Although it is still too early to make definite estimates, Moyers hopes "the first book in the series [will] be ready for publication by fall 2005." It will be interesting to see the results of Penguin Press' experiment—and its impact—on other commercial publishers' editorial strategies. Whether or not the publisher will be able to popularize "new history" for the big marketplace, while maintaining its provocative edge, also remains to be seen.

—Mériam Belli, history PhD student at Georgetown University, is a research associate for the Research Division of the AHA.