Events History is Present

Q&A with the Foundry Series Speakers | Dr. Mark Summers


Mark Wahlgren Summers is Thomas D. Clark Professor of History at the University of Kentucky, Lexington. He is author of many books, including The Press Gang: Newspapers and Politics, 1865-1878; The Presidency in Political Cartoons, 1776-1976; and A Dangerous Stir: Fear, Paranoia, and the Making of Reconstruction. We asked him a few questions ahead of his January 18 Foundry Series lecture

ACWM – How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?

MS – I got interested in the topic for two reasons. First, as THE PRESS GANG should make pretty clear, the reporters and newspapers in the mid-1800s included some of the best sleuths and the most gossipy, irresponsible blatherskites to be found anywhere. Second, as my present ferreting into the late 1850s showed, they offered one key to the puzzle: how could northern Democrats have steeled themselves to do such outrageous things on behalf of the Slave Power, and justified their own behavior even to themselves?

ACWM – How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today? 

MS – The pertinence of newsmongering with no regard for the full truth and with one particular segment of the audience in mind in everything that gets told may well strike a familiar chord with people in the internet age, when people can pick and choose what kind and flavor of news to hear or see, and which to believe. In fact, it feels so up to date that it’s creepy.

ACWM – What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?

MS – It would be nice to find something I didn’t know before; every new note taken tells me that and some of it’s fun; my only surprise is that more editors didn’t have dead cats and overripe fruit tossed at them when they ventured out in public. But surprising… well, no matter how much fun it is, it doesn’t surprise me much any more. As Walter Brennan says in “Meet John Doe” when a paper is thrust his way, “I know the world’s been shaved by a drunken barber. I don’t have to read about it.”

ACWM – Did you discover anything interesting that you did not publish?

MS – Because I am still researching the late 1850s and early 1860s, nothing much about it has been published. Eventually, if I can write it up properly, it will be. But hints of the whole atmosphere around government-paid hirelings and partisan mudgunners you can find in a chapter of THE PLUNDERING GENERATION, from some thirty years ago, and in an article that I wrote about James Buchanan’s adventures with an untameable press.

ACWM – Are there any social media accounts that you follow, especially that relate to your work (its topic and/or your role as a historian)?

MS – As an extremely old-fashioned person, I can’t cite any social media sites I follow, because there aren’t any. I may be the last person in the world to not post on Facebook or Twitter, and one of the last two people to write letters by hand, stick them into envelopes and then put a stamp on the outside. The trouble with most sites offering information, at least for historical purposes, is how ephemeral they are. The entries you may have seen may look different two hours later, and, when they get mentioned in book footnotes, almost always can’t be found at all: the site has gone defunct. Even Wikipedia, which has tremendous value, is one of those places where a scholar would be crazy to go about quoting things. By the time anyone looks the quote up, it may not be there any more, or may well be modified. I am afraid that this is true of news sites, too. 

Dr. Summers will present a lecture and then join three members of the modern press for a panel discussion.
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