Q&A with Stephen C. Taysom, author of Shakers, Mormons and Religious Worlds: conflicting visions, contested boundaries (part I)
Over the past two months, Matt Bowman and Steve Taysom have had an ongoing dialogue about Taysom’s new book, in part in response to your questions. Part I is below; part II will come Thursday.
1) Where did the idea for this dissertation come from? Why Shakers and Mormons? What sort of research did it take?
1. A: The initial idea that would eventually evolve into the dissertation first occurred to me in 1999, when I was in the master’s program in history at BYU. I was walking to the Wilkinson Center for a lunch with Donald Worster, the distinguished historian of the American West, who had been invited by the history department to come to campus. On the way, I thought that there might be some structural similarity between the “exodus” from Nauvoo and the “doctrinal exodus” that occurred as the church moved away from polygamy at the turn of the 20th century. I mentioned this idea to a well-respected historian who had worked on many Mormon topics over the years just before we sat down to eat. He was less than enthusiastic about the concept. In fact, I remember that he said it was a “stretch” to try and make such a comparison. Although that criticism stung, the idea never really went away and it kept nagging at me throughout the early years of my doctoral program. Eventually, the question was made more sophisticated and nuanced as my training in the methods and theory of various cultural studies disciplines became more complete. Ultimately, the original idea coupled with extensive immersion in theoretical literature and documentary sources led me to ask broader questions about the patterns that religious groups follow while relating to the broader culture of which the group is a part.
1.B: The decision to focus on Shakers and Mormons was influenced by a variety of factors, some intellectual and some practical. First, I was already reasonably familiar with the secondary literature pertaining to Mormon history, so it made a great deal of sense for me to build on that. Second, I was studying under Stephen Stein, who happens to be the world’s foremost expert on the Shakers, which made the choice to include that group in my study a reasonably easy one. Finally, I wanted a project that I could finish in a reasonable amount of time and without having to spend a fortune. So the location of primary source materials was very important. I was able to get access to the Mormon materials I needed through two visits to archives in Utah plus the “Selected Collections” dvds that the church released in 2002. The Herman B. Wells Library at Indiana University owned microform copies of all of the Shaker manuscripts from the Western Reserve Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the New York Public Library—all of the major collections of Shaker materials. So I was able to immerse myself in these wonderful, vast collections without having to travel the world, which was an important way to conserve two key resources: time and money.
1.C: The research was almost entirely textual. I read every document I could get my hands on, with an eye toward the basic questions of boundary maintenance with which I began the project. I relied very heavily on close readings of every sort of document that nineteenth-century Shaker and Mormons wrote or that others wrote about them: books, magazine articles, sermons, letters, journal entries, revelations, pamphlets, even instructional signs that used to hang in Shaker buildings. This was a project about words.
2) How different is the book from the dissertation? To what extent were the revisions driven by things you wanted to do, and to what extent were they driven by your publisher? How did you get a contract with Indiana?
2.A-B: The book certainly bears a resemblance to the dissertation. However, it has undergone substantive revision. Like nearly every dissertation in my field, this one was heavily, and overtly, theoretical in its first incarnation. Much of the theory, particularly the semiotic theory, faced one of three fates: it was translated into non-academic language, submerged in the footnotes, or excised completely. Beyond those changes, I spent a good deal of time refining my argument. Finally, I completed additional research that helped to better contextualize in American Christian culture the Mormon and Shaker activities that I was detailing. Most of the changes were suggested by the anonymous manuscript reviewers, the series editors, and my project editor. In almost every case I agreed with the suggestions, and the subsequent changes made the work stronger. I adopted a very open and flexible attitude with respect to the manuscript, so it was not particularly difficult to accept the suggestions offered to me.
2.C: Every one working on a dissertation will inevitably end up presenting portions of it at academic conferences. I did this on a number of occasions, and in the process I attracted the interest of representatives of various publishers. This is also quite common. I filed these contacts away, until I had finished the dissertation. At that point, I began considering where to begin as far as submission of the manuscript was concerned. Indiana University Press was a natural choice for me because they publish a series called Religion in North America which is one the most respected series in the field of American religion. It is edited by my dissertation director, Stephen Stein, and Catherine Albanese. Stein encouraged me to submit it, while making it clear that my connections with him would not lend me any leverage. So I chose to submit to IU Press and after about 18 months I ended up with a contract.
3) 18 months? How normal or abnormal is that? What advice would you offer for young PhDs looking to make contact with presses?
I think it is on the longer side of what one might expect. The length of time from submission to contract depends upon a great deal of variables. In most cases, manuscripts submitted to university presses will be read first by the sponsoring editor who then decides if the work merits consideration by outside reviewers. These reviewers are typically given several months to complete the assessment of the work. Then the sponsoring editor collates these reviews and makes a decision about rejecting the work, asking the author to make changes and resubmit, or submitting it to the members of the press’s faculty representatives for approval of a contract. In my case, the series editors also weighed in on the manuscript at an early stage. My book was initially returned with substantive suggestions for revisions which took me about 9 months to complete and then the revised manuscript went back to the external reviewers.
Editors are always looking for new projects. My advice is actually very simple: determine which presses in your field are the best (and bear in mind that this isn’t always obvious) and then check out their websites. Almost all of them will have instructions about how to submit a manuscript or a proposal (some presses only want a sampling of your work at first) as well as lists of editors and their areas of acquisition. If you know someone who has published with a particular press, ask them about potential contacts. Send an email to the sponsoring editor and introduce yourself and your work. Ask the editor about potential interest in your project. Editors are looking for new projects, so most of them don’t mind being contacted by prospective authors.
4) Much of our navel gazing at the JI has to do with place of Mormon studies in the academy. Has your work on this project created any opinions about that? Have people been more interested in the Mormons, the Shakers, or your theoretical argument about boundary maintenance?
The study of Mormonism, which I suppose is more or less what we mean by “Mormon Studies” appears to be increasing its profile in the world of academic publishing. Institutionally, the situation is different, and I don’t expect that will change much. Very few academics are hired as experts on Mormonism so scholars tend to study Mormonism as part of a larger intellectual matrix and I think that will continue to be the case. On the question of the distribution of interest in the book’s various subjects, I would have to say that interest in the Mormon side and the theoretical side is about equal. Fewer people are interested in the Shaker dimension, although my guess is that once they read the book this may be the part that they like the most.