Ask An Americanist New Research

Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America – Q&A with Dr. Gordon Fraser

What sparked your interest in this particular area of research? 

When I entered graduate school, I knew I wanted to study a big question about how people come to develop their first principles: Who am I? What does my life mean? Many of these topics, from the rise of nationalism to the recurrence of religious revivals, have a big body of literature associated with them. But I found far fewer studies that looked at how changing ideas about the universe itself shaped the worldview of ordinary people. While scientists or ministers might have a settled pathway for coming to understand the universe and their place in it, other people will often draw on a mish-mash of science, religion, mysticism, superstition, or fabulism. They might study a little astronomy in school, read a newspaper article about extraterrestrials (there were a lot of those in the nineteenth century!), and mix in some religious belief. By the time they’re done, they’ll have a settled view of the universe — what it is and what it means — but that view will be idiosyncratic. 

I also realized that this was precisely what I had done. I liked astronomy when I was young. The first time I saw the Leonid meteor shower, which is coming up this November for people on both sides of the equator, it absolutely knocked me out. And yet I didn’t receive formal training as a scientist, and so my ideas about the universe tended to be a mix of things I’d seen, things I’d read, and mistaken ideas I’d probably gotten from movies and novels. And so, when I encountered nineteenth-century people speculating about outer space, I realized that they were following a pathway that was similar in a lot of ways to the pathway that I had followed. They’d developed a hodge-podge perspective on the universe that nonetheless shaped their first principles. 

Could you give us a short overview of Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America

Of course! Star Territory begins from the premise that the United States of America has been a space power since its founding. What I mean is that agents of the United States have since the beginning sought to use outer space as a practical means of extending US power. They trained military officers in astronomy and published navigational guides that depended upon star positions, for instance. But these agents of the US state also sought to use space as a way of making meaning out of the national project. Picture the American flag with its fifty white stars. The flag has stars on it because in 1777 the Continental Congress decided that the banner should represent the United States as a “new constellation” in the political universe. 

But the US story is only part of my account. From the country’s first Black surveyors, seamen, and publishers to the elected officials of the Cherokee Nation and Hawaiian resistance leaders, others in the nineteenth century offered very different accounts of the universe and their place within it. 

Ultimately, these accounts — the US story and other stories — made their way to ordinary people through printed texts: pamphlets, newspapers, textbooks, almanacs, and engraved illustrations. By studying those texts, I suggest, we can trace the competing ideas about the universe that unfolded across the nineteenth century.

Could you tell us a bit more about the source material that you used for the book?  

Star Territory is really a print history. Because I was interested in how people came to know about the universe in the nineteenth century, I tried to follow those sources that would reveal the transmission of new ideas about outer space. Often, new ideas travelled through printed texts, and by tracing those texts I made some interesting discoveries. The enslaved poet George Moses Horton (c. 1797-c. 1883), I came to realize, borrowed ideas about the solar system from a geography textbook written by Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826). But those ideas were transformed in Horton’s poetry and then published in Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper in the United States. By following the print history, in other words, I was able to follow the transmission and transformation of ideas about the cosmos.

Your book focuses on the nineteenth century. Was it always the plan to focus on this period? If so, why the nineteenth century? 

Today, we’re on the brink of a new space age. SpaceX is developing a rocket theoretically capable of bringing human beings to Mars. The United States, China, and other nations are developing “counter-space” technologies that can disrupt satellite networks. We could see human beings on the moon once again before the end of the current decade.

At a time like this, I think it’s important to think back to the first American space age. And I argue in Star Territory that the nineteenth century really was the first space age in the United States. According to one historian, the US government and private philanthropists spent as much in inflation adjusted dollars in measuring stars, planets, and asteroids as NASA currently spends on robotic interplanetary missions.

Space was important in the nineteenth century. But it wasn’t only important because of what it could do — enable the extension of US power, for instance. It was also important because of what it meant. It was a site of wonder and spirituality. Today, I think we need to consider how the multiple ways of understanding outer space — the scientific, the instrumental, the speculative, and the spiritual — function together to shape how people come to understand their relation to the cosmos. 

What was the biggest challenge you faced writing this book? 

I think that, like a lot of junior academics, I really struggled to keep a long, archival research project alive through job searches, grant applications, and moves. Over the course of writing this book, I lived in Connecticut, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and the United Kingdom. There were certainly a lot of theoretical and methodological challenges I encountered in writing the book. But those pale in comparison to the practical concerns: How do I keep my research organized? How do I find time to write when I’m planning new classes or planning a big move? A lot of other academics are wrestling with the same challenges, and I wish I had a good strategy for managing the chaos. Frankly, I don’t. Keep the faith and just keep typing — that’s really the only advice I have. 

What are you working on now? 

Provisionally, my next book project is going to be called Engineering Peace. In that project, I’m interested in how nineteenth-century Americans attempted to short-circuit the problems of war and peace with technology. Across the century, I track this fantasy: that a better gun, a better bomb, a better supply chain, or a better communications technology could usher in an era of permanent peace. But this project remains in very early stages, and so I imagine that it will change quite a bit before I’m ready to show a publisher.

Dr. Gordon Fraser is Lecturer and Presidential Fellow in American Studies, University of Manchester.

Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America is out now with UPenn Press: