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The Independent Historical Society {1}
    by Walter Muir Whitehill (Volume 22: Page 198)

Four years ago, when it was announced that I was I to undertake a study of independent historical societies for the Council on Library Resources, the late Carl L. Lokke of the National Archives wrote me suggesting that I include the activities of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. This pleasant and welcome communication, which gave me my first knowledge of the organization, concluded:

"For your study you will have to draw the line somewhere. When you draw it, I hope the Norwegian-American Historical Association will land within it."

A letter of inquiry soon brought me full information, including a copy of Dean Blegen and Professor Bjork’s A Review and a Challenge describing the aims of the association. This brochure, admirable in tone and impressive in content, combined with the list of publications, immediately convinced me of the soundness of Lokke’s advice. Thus, on April 1, 1960, my wife and I paid a visit to the association’s quarters in the library of St. Olaf College at Northfield. Of this day, I noted in my journal:

"Professor Lloyd Hustvedt, Secretary of the Society, showed [199] us their remarkable publications, well edited, well printed studies of the highest scholarly seriousness, printed out of receipts of membership dues and the free work of various people who have too many other things to do. Hustvedt was a sensitive, learned and delightful man — one of the finest we have met, as was his association. Unfortunately he had a class to teach, but Professor Theodore Jorgenson and Dr. and Mrs. Clarence Clausen took us to lunch in a charming Norwegian restaurant, oddly hidden under a bowling alley, where we had wall-eyed pike, the best fish we have encountered in our travels, and much good talk. At two we regretfully left our amiable Norwegians and drove back to Minneapolis."

While traveling through three quarters of the fifty states in the course of my study, I have encountered a gratifying number of people who pursue learning, cultivate the arts, enjoy good conversation, food, and drink, and cherish the features of building and scene that differentiate their community from the next. But I have remembered that day in Northfield with such particular pleasure that I am especially happy to have been invited to return to Minnesota for this triennial meeting, at which I have been able to enlarge my acquaintance among my fellow members of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

When the association’s last directory was published, there were thirteen members in my state of Massachusetts. The names of eleven, including Anderson, Eklund, Halvorson, and Larson, have a clear ethnic reason for being numbered among those interested in Norwegian-American history. The other two names — my own and that of the library of the Boston Athenæum, whose affairs I direct — indicate solely disinterested respect and admiration for sound historical research and writing without any consideration of family or geographical ties.

I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, fifty-seven years ago. Every ancestor of mine that I have heard of came out of England, Scotland, or Wales, most of them before the [200] American Revolution. In the first two thirds of my life, I instinctively headed east, rather than west. Thus, while I was quite at home in Spain, France, and the British Isles, I was forty years old before I reached Chicago, and got there then only because I was in naval uniform and under orders. In recent years I have been making up for that ignorance as rapidly as I can. I cite it, with shame, solely to reinforce my status as a disinterested observer.

It would be pointless, particularly after a good dinner catered by Ludvig Roed, whose restaurant in Northfield I remember with such pleasure, for me to attempt to summarize the accomplishments of the Norwegian-American Historical Association over the past thirty-eight years. They speak for themselves, and with particular clarity to those of you who have devoted your time, effort, and money to make them possible. In my recently published book, Independent Historical Societies: An Enquiry into Their Research and Publication Functions and Their Financial Future, I devoted five pages to an account of this association.

I shall summarize, without benefit of supporting detail, which is already familiar to you, the principal comments that I make in those pages. First, "The association has from the beginning made it clear ‘that quality rather than quantity was to be the yardstick for measuring the worth of publications.’ ‘While adhering to that standard, it has, nevertheless, with limited resources issued a truly phenomenal number of books." I point out that the continuous presence of able historians upon its board of editors "has assured a high standard of scholarship by men trained in the writing of history, careful selection of materials, and scrupulous care in editing," but that "the professional standards of the editors have not led to narrowly specialized interests. On the contrary Dr. Blegen in 1930 insisted the association should strike the ‘note of tolerance and breadth of interest.’"

I then quote the following statement of subjects for possible investigation from Dr. Blegen’s report at the triennial meeting [201] of 1930: "We are interested in ski runners who have brought northern sports into American vogue. We are interested in men and women who have pioneered on America’s far-flung frontiers — and in their children and children’s children. We are interested in the work of businessmen, professional men, artisans, laborers. We are interested in sailors who have gone down to the sea in ships, in soldiers who have followed the flag, in politics and parties and leaders, conservative, liberal, or radical. We are interested in the church and every denomination. We are interested in those who have not been identified with the church or have been hostile to it. We are interested in music, art, literature, the press, periodicals, scholarship. We are interested in the organizations that have been active among the Norwegian Americans. We are interested in schools and colleges, their principles, methods, teachers and achievements. We are interested in the tangled problems involved in the adjustment of people to the new environment. History must lift the curtain on a thousand varied activities, on men and women of all classes, on people in every section, helping us to understand the onward march of human forces, with all their baffling interrelationships. Our interest in the human contingent that followed the trails of Cleng Peerson and Ole Rynning, that came out of the rock-bound land of the North and sought its destiny in the New World, is one with an interest in this American civilization of which we are a part and into the building of which have gone the varied cultural impulses of peoples drawn from all parts of the world, impulses modified by the contact of these peoples with one another, given new directions by the forces of the American environment, and working themselves out on the loom of time, one generation after another, with adaptation and conservation both playing into the weave."

Dean Blegen was exemplifying what J. Frank Dobie of Texas had in mind when he declared, "Among the qualities that any good regional writer has in common with other good writers of all places and times is intellectual integrity. . . . [202] Nothing is too provincial for the regional writer, but he cannot be provincial-minded toward it."

In my account, after summarizing the forty-three substantial books published by the association in less than that many years, I observed, "Admiration for the variety of subject, the quality of research, editing, and book production involved in this remarkable series can only be exceeded by amazement that so much has been accomplished with such limited financial resources." And I concluded: "Professor Franklin D. Scott of Northwestern University described the Norwegian-American Historical Association as ‘a prototype for other groups who would search the past to gain understanding of themselves, and of the America they have helped to build.’ Its importance, however, goes beyond the emigrant groups, for the intelligent, generous, and single-minded devotion of those who have created and maintained it should serve as an inspiration to any society concerned with any aspect of American history. It is a model of what scholars with a plan can accomplish."

My admiration for the accomplishments of your society is all the greater because of my experience with three other groups of "scholars with a plan." In 1940, at the Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, I, with a small group of like-minded friends, began to lay plans for the publication of the American Neptune: A Quarterly Journal of Maritime History, which is now in its twenty-third volume. Six years later, when I migrated to the Boston Athenæum after my war service, I became honorary secretary, for the United States, of the Hakluyt Society, which had been founded in London just a century before, in 1846. In 1947 I became one of the editors of the New England Quarterly: A Historical Review of New England Life and Letters, then beginning its twentieth volume, and now in its thirty-sixth. These groups have much in common with the Norwegian-American Historical Association, for all are strictly noncommercial enterprises in which scholars, who have many other things to do, work [203] cheerfully without compensation to produce publications, with no other financial support than a relatively small body of subscribers.

In a volume published in 1946 to commemorate the centenary of the Hakluyt Society, the late Edward Lynam, then its president, wrote: "In the hundred years of its existence the Society has published a hundred and ninety-three serial volumes and thirty-three extra volumes, which, though prepared voluntarily and in their spare time by editors of divers professions, historians, geographers, sailors, soldiers, archivists and explorers, have not, I venture to say, been without importance in the promotion of knowledge nor interest for a large circle of readers."

The society was formed in December, 1846, "for the purpose of printing, for distribution among the members, the most rare and valuable voyages, travels, and geographical records, from an early period of exploratory enterprise to the circumnavigation of Dampier." For an annual fee of one guinea, each subscriber received without further charge a copy of every work produced by the society within the year subscribed for. In 1847 appeared The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins, Knt. in His Voyage into the South Sea in 1593 and Richard Henry Major’s Select Letters of Christopher Columbus. In 1848, volumes on Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake were distributed. And so, year after year, for more than a century, two well-edited volumes, bound in light blue, were sent to members in return for the modest guinea. Within the past decade the Hakluyt Society has taken cognizance of the passage of time and the change in the value of money by increasing its subscription from one to two guineas. Nevertheless, two volumes for two guineas is a remarkable bargain these days. Today most commodities cost more than double what they did when Queen Victoria was the age Elizabeth II is now. The latest, and two hundred and twenty-first, volume in the regular series — Professor E. G. R. Taylor’s edition of A Regiment for the Sea, written by the [204] sixteenth-century Graves end gunner, William Bourne — reached me only the other day. {2}

The secret of this longevity and of this continuous performance over more than a century is, quite simply, devotion to learning, lack of premises, and lack of overhead. The Hakluyt Society maintains its headquarters in its officers’ hats. From its beginning it has been served by members of the staffs of the British Museum and of the Royal Geographical Society, working in their spare time from disinterested love of learning. Richard Henry Major, keeper of maps in the British Museum, was secretary of the society from 1849 to 1858. R. A. Skelton, superintendent of the British Museum map room, holds that post today. Since 1872 the council of the Hakluyt Society has held its meetings in the council room of the Royal Geographical Society. Thus, with editing done without charge, all receipts from subscriptions go into the printing and distribution of this remarkable series of volumes.

The New England Quarterly, some eighty-odd years later, began publication with as strong intellectual and as meager financial resources as the Hakluyt Society. Its founding editors were Samuel Eliot Morison, Arthur M. Schlesinger, and Kenneth Ballard Murdock of Harvard, and Stanley T. Williams of Yale. In the first number, published in January, 1928, the editors stated:

"The New England Quarterly has been founded for the benefit of those who are interested in the history of civilization in New England; and in the hope of making them more numerous. Its pages will be hospitable to every sort of article, short note, or document, on the past of New England and on the migration of New England ideas, people, and institutions, — excluding articles that are purely local, antiquarian or genealogical. These exceptions are made in no disparaging sense, but because periodicals already exist for these fields. . . .

"We hope that it may serve not only to bring readers and writers together, but to stimulate the culture of a field that [205] hardly knows the blade of a plow. There are plenty of New England historians — some think too many — but the history of New England is an abandoned farm, whose sons are writing the history of California, Mexico, Nebraska, Italy, Spain, and the Far East. How many an eager investigator who hoped to write the history of some New England states, has been stalled around 1850 or 1870 by the thick underbrush in the wood-lot! Try, if you will, to find anything in print (that was worth printing) about the racial changes in New England during the last three-quarters of a century, the literature that followed the Augustan age, the political history of any New England state, the religious changes since the Civil War, the ebb and flow between city and country, or the tides of economic progress and decline."

The resources of this quarterly were five-dollar subscriptions, supplemented by gifts from a small number of friends of the editors; the staff was a volunteer managing editor, Lawrence Shaw Mayo, assistant dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. After two years Mayo was succeeded by Stewart Mitchell, editor of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who stayed at the helm until 1937, when Milton Ellis of the University of Maine became managing editor. For the past nineteen years the post has been held by Herbert Brown, professor of English at Bowdoin College. Thus the center of operations of the Quarterly has moved from Cambridge to Boston to Orono, and then to Brunswick, Maine, relying always upon an overworked volunteer managing editor.

The five-dollar subscription was reduced to four in 1921, when a dollar really mattered. In 1952 the rate again became five dollars, and now it stands at $6.50, a modest sum when an organization has less than a thousand subscribers. In 1944, most of the friends whose annual gifts made the difference between near solvency and bankruptcy had died, and the Colonial Society of Massachusetts came to the rescue with an annual subsidy, which now amounts to about $3,500.

The American Neptune is another scholarly venture of [206] faith. In February, 1939, the Peabody Museum Marine Associates was organized at the Peabody Museum of Salem. This group consisted of men interested in various aspects of maritime history who agreed, without formal organization of any kind and without the ceremonies of electing officers or bickering over bylaws, to meet at the museum on the fourth Monday of each month to hear a paper and discuss matters of mutual interest. From this group evolved the notion of establishing a quarterly journal of maritime history, as an American counterpart of the Mariner’s Mirror, published in England by the Society for Nautical Research. The founding editors, besides myself, were M. V. Brewington, a Philadelphia banker; Howard I. Chapelle, a naval architect; and Lincoln Colcord of Searsport, Maine. To this group were shortly added Professor Samuel Eliot Morison of Harvard and Vernon D. Tate of the National Archives, as well as a sizable editorial advisory board that included representatives of various regions, interests, and institutions. A decade later I noted that only four of the forty members of the Neptune advisory board were engaged in college teaching of American history, and that only about half of the group had any formal connection with learned institutions. The remainder were naval officers, sailors, shipping men, printers, lawyers, model builders, brass founders, and the like — amateurs as historians who, nevertheless, maintained highly professional standards in their research and in their writing.

In 1940 the Carnegie Corporation of New York made a grant of $1,500 for the cost of a prospectus and of the printing of a first number. Editors and contributors have always been unpaid participants. The Peabody Museum of Salem amiably provides some clerical and bookkeeping assistance, and so — for several years when I was editor — did the Office of Naval Records and Library of the Department of the Navy, and the Boston Athenæum. Otherwise, the Neptune has been supported entirely by income from subscriptions — originally five dollars, now ten dollars a year. The journal has appeared quarterly since January, 1941, in issues of 80 to 96 pages, [207] liberally illustrated in collotype. Thanks to the services given by its editors, and the helpfulness of its printer — the Anthoensen Press of Portland, Maine, which has extended credit in lean periods — the American Neptune has survived for more than two decades as a self-supporting scholarly journal. Its nose has always remained above water but it has, at times, seemed in peril of drowning, for during and since the war printing costs have spiraled, and there are never quite enough subscribers for comfort. Recruits for the subscription list, which seldom exceeds a thousand, have to be obtained chiefly by word-of-mouth and personal contact. Indeed, with a journal so specialized the cost of any conventional publicity would be self-defeating.

As I reflect upon your association, upon the Hakluyt Society, and upon the two quarterlies I have long worked with, the similarity of their problems, and of their strengths, becomes clear. First, their publications depend completely upon scholars who care too much for history to count their time or worry about royalties. Second, all lean upon a friendly institution whose direct or indirect support makes the difference between success and failure. Without St. Olaf College, the British Museum, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Peabody Museum of Salem, the achievements of these societies would be nearly impossible. Third, their standards are so high and their fields so specialized that little help is to be had from commercial publishers or distributors that are geared to large-scale operations.

On this third point I offer several reflections. For these groups, it does not pay to advertise. To bring results, advertisements must be widely spread and constantly repeated, and the cost of this is beyond the means of such modest enterprises. Several years ago two friendly commercial publishers in the maritime field permitted the American Neptune to circularize their large mailing lists. A hundred new subscriptions resulted, but the expense of circularization exactly equaled the first year’s revenue from them. At the same time a devoted subscriber wrote personal letters to thirty friends, [208] using his own paper and postage, and scared up twenty-five new subscriptions, at no expense to the Neptune. Such friends are the surest means of spreading the word. In 1946 the Hakluyt Society, in an effort to enlarge its membership and (by increasing the size of its editions) to lower the unit cost of volumes, appointed a group of honorary secretaries overseas, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. By occasionally printing, on a spare page of the American Neptune, an announcement that the Hakluyt Society welcomed new members, I had reasonable success in turning some up in unexpected quarters. Scholarly publishing organizations can, I think, help one another along considerably by such methods. It is essential that they do, for one of the great tragedies of the present is the difficulty of getting good books and journals into the hands of those who want and need them. Once a book is printed by your association or by the Hakluyt Society, the authors and editors who saw it through the press have little leisure to devise ways of promoting its sales. Usually they have a new book to do. In my travels throughout the United States I have been struck by the need of some co-operative means of distributing the good publications that roost on the shelves of historical societies, museums, and libraries. This need you recognize all too well, for your News Letter of December, 1958, included an inventory of books on hand, with the comment:

"If the retail price of the above inventory be used, the stock totals over $39,000. . . . Because a free copy is always given to each new member, no accurate estimate can ever be reached. However, the inventory does suggest several things. First, our books should be out among the people, not on our shelves.

"Second, the income from the sale of these books would go to finance future publications, and to pay for second and third printings of some books, should the demand be great enough."

The annual preparation of a co-operative catalogue, [209] modeled in simplified form on the joint listings of university press books, of the current stocks of a few dozen historical societies, libraries, and museums, would, if sent by each to its own mailing list, offer a means of getting such books distributed at small cost to the participating institutions. I hope that such an experiment may be tried in the near future, for I can think of no more economical way of getting good books out among the people, where they belong.

In reading Professor Qualey’s tribute to your devoted editor of thirty-five years’ service, in the last volume of Norwegian-American Studies, I was struck by the injunction given Dean Blegen by O. E. Rølvaag: "Only the best is good enough." It has been a delight to me to come to know an association that has striven so successfully to maintain that ideal. I was grateful to Carl L. Lokke for having first directed me to Northfield, where I found like-minded friends, and I am even more grateful to them for having given me this opportunity to enlarge that friendship by taking part in this triennial meeting.


<1> An address presented at the triennial meeting of the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Minneapolis, May 11, 1968. Ed.

<2> E. G. R. Taylor, ed., William Bourne, A Regiment for the Sea and Other Writings on Navigation (Cambridge, 1963).

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