The Appendix is a new online journal collecting documents, stories, and analyses that might otherwise slip away. Its first issue begins with the introduction of a primary source for consideration by its readership, the somewhat astounding “Prophecy of Benjamin, The Anti-Christ,” recorded in San Francisco in 1866. The journal’s articles so far include a hefty exploration of modern apocalyptic thought among Mayan Pentecostals in Guatemala, a murderous history from 1835 presented as a serialized Q&A, and a poem centered on the missingness of Amelia Earhart. All are startlingly engaging, and the accompanying blog ranges as widely.
The site’s submission guidelines seek an “empathetic and exploring sensibility” and invite those well outside the academy to contribute “essays and articles based on archival research; reported non-fiction about memory and the past; book reviews; historical fiction, poetry and comics; image portfolios” and more. The frame around these approaches to history is notable as well: the journal’s footnotes, citations, and asides are presented via inline “supernotes” that collapse and expand, offering supplemental images, details, and warnings.
We recently spoke with the editorial and creative team behind the journal about their choices and motivations, and what we can expect to see as their project comes of age.
Introduce us to The Appendix, please.
Ben: The Appendix grew out of our collective frustration with the ways that academic publishing forces historians and other academics to elide many of the most interesting aspects of their research. For instance, the word “I” is virtually forbidden from formal history writing; as a result, a lot of experiences that can only be expressed in subjective terms, like the tactile sensations of handling a certain document, or the emotions it evokes, tend to get left out. Likewise, the peer review process tends to homogenize writing styles, removing digressions or stylistic experimentation. So the original idea that motivated us when we were formulating The Appendix was to create a forum for the sort of stuff that gets cut from academic history writing, but at the same time to push back against the notion that “popular” history has to be dumbed down. We were also looking to engage with people who weren’t historians, but who were still interested in archives and stories about the past, like non-fiction and creative writers, visual artists, and journalists.
Brian: I came to my history training through a slightly longer break from the academy during which I worked as a freelance web developer, ran a record label, and managed a couple rock bands, among other things, and, over the course of my PhD training, I’ve continued work in some of those fields, particularly in web development. The Appendix for me presented an opportunity to apply those DIY and entrepreneurial experiences to my interest in a field that does not traditionally operate according to those principles. I’m excited about the potential to bring some of the goals of our editorial and historiographical approach—inclusiveness, transparency, rigor, openness—into our operational and technical practice, and vice versa.
The Appendix is an online journal. What makes it a journal and not…something else?
Chris: It was going to be a ’zine first! That was nearly four years ago. And then we sobered up and got buried in our real work in history grad school, where we all met. When we came back to the idea last summer, it had changed. In order to get ourselves to commit, and devote the time to the project that it deserved, we thought that it couldn’t really be anything less ambitious than a journal built around a very big message: scholarly and popular history need to come together, and this is one way to do it. We wanted something that had a life and narrative of its own: a journal whose primary mode is the internet, and whose most ideal form is A) a downloadable quarterly journal and B) “supernote”-heavy online articles, where we’re trying to push the boundaries of what archive-based narrative history can do. In presentation and delivery we were very much inspired by the excellent historical and literary journals of the mid-twentieth century and the thinking that’s gathering around publications like Contents. We would love to have a print edition as well, but we’re a little ways off, financially, from making that happen.
Ben: At various points I remember talking about calling it a “magazine” or a “quarterly” or (very early on) a ’zine. I don’t personally think that there is an important distinction between any of those terms with regard to our fundamental mission. I think we picked “journal” mainly because it made it more clear that this was going to be rigorous and something we and others are putting a lot of time into. However we decided to keep “new” in our subtitle in part to broadcast that we aren’t aspiring to be a traditional academic journal, but something more original.
Felipe: The journal format allows us to produce carefully curated and themed issues. It gives the opportunity to create a unit we would hope someone might sit down and read from the beginning to end, laying down on their favorite hammock. Yet The Appendix is not only the journal—it also has a blog and an active presence in social media where we often share content of a variety of lengths and formats aimed at varied audiences. This is key to our mission of creating a bridge between academic and popular audiences—and I don’t mean this solely as a one-way street, where academic research is made accessible to a popular audience. Academic historians could also learn something from the broader range of people that work with or are interested in history. These should not be separate worlds. They should live in a continuum.
We’re thinking a lot about archives in this issue of Contents, and it strikes me that a lot of what you’re doing at The Appendix is a kind of gravedigging—or a DJ’s crate-digging, pulling out the interesting bits missed by traditional papers or books.
Felipe: A major impetus behind The Appendix is to answer a question often asked of historians at a bar: “So, you are a historian. What does that mean? What do you do?” So we hope that by bringing features like “Open Source” and “Field Notes” we can answer that question, showing what archival work is like, and how history is written.
Ben: One of our main concerns going forward is to highlight non-traditional archives. We have an article forthcoming on the tattoos of Santa Muerte devotees as “ambulatory archives,” and are currently fielding potential future articles on things like a collection of forged crystal skulls and the ways that walking around a city like Houston can be likened to exploring a living archive. I don’t think any of this is necessarily new or unique to The Appendix though—I think most historians have thought about what they do in terms of gravedigging or similar ideas like resurrection or “ventriloquism.” I think we’re trying to highlight the weirdness of that process of trying to inhabit the mental universe of a stranger who might have died dozens or hundreds of years ago.
Chris: That’s interesting, because we’ve just been writing about how far we can go with our historical “resurrecting.” The web is remarkably good at taking “weird, interesting, lost bits” and turning them into new things, without context—or blowing them up to be even weirder than they are. We’ve been thinking of ourselves as a place for the other “nine-tenths” of history, but presented with the sort of context, narrative, and presentation that suggests that these “lost bits” are strange, but also deeply human parts of history. We’re always looking for odd new sources and the best way to get them up on the web—but we’re trying not to lose the stories behind them, the textures in which we found them. So in a way, we’re not just trying to get the grave’s contents up onto The Appendix—but the grave itself as well.
On the site, you write that you’re looking for writers who have, among other things, “a suspicion of both jargon and traditional narratives.” Can you say a little more about that undercurrent of suspicion toward narrative?
Ben: It’s more a suspicion of the concept of historical narratives as a thing that becomes “perfected” via study and then remain fixed and unchanging. Few practicing historians would argue for this interpretation of narrative, but many popular histories do, implicitly, by depicting historical actors as if they were following pre-laid railroad tracks (or, to update the metaphor a bit, as if they were characters in a Japanese RPG). We want to reach out to a popular audience, but to avoid acting like the past is a straightforward jaunt from point A to point B rather than what it actually is: a hugely complex knot that everyone unravels in different ways.
Chris: Right, it’s not a suspicion of narrative in general. Narrative is immensely powerful. Storytelling is immensely powerful. As historians, writers, and editors we’re very committed to narrative, and to playing with it. We need to figure out new ways to tell stories about the past for two reasons, though, which is where our suspicions lie. Like Ben said, we think we still need to struggle against the comforting “traditional narratives” of popular history that do so well in the U.S. marketplace. Looking at the top twenty Amazon history bestsellers this morning, there are sixteen books about Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy, America’s “exciting” wars abroad, and the “real Downton Abbey.” This is despite all the work historians have done since the 1960s, trying to tell stories not of wars, not of the elite, not of presidents, but of non-elite women, workers, scientists, Indians, slaves, and colonialism.
Unfortunately, those sorts of stories have done less well in the marketplace. One reason, possibly, is the way those stories have been told, using the same dry third person omniscient narrator—free of emotion—that historians have been using since the late nineteenth century. This is the other “traditional narrative” we’re suspicious of. We think that if we start pushing the edges of how we tell these stories about the other nine-tenths of history, using narrative techniques borrowed from journalism, from memoir, from fiction, then those stories will be more able to find readers, blowing Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln out of the water. This isn’t a pipe dream; it’s heartening to see that the number one book on Amazon’s history list right now is Carolyn Maull McKinstry’s While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement. Readers crave the directness of memoir, the immediacy of emotion, and here’s a book about one of the hardest moments in US history. This is why we’re bringing so much out of the archives in The Appendix, why we’re having historians write in the first person occasionally, why we’re encouraging our writers to get downright experimental. We’re optimistic. As the president of the American Historical Association recently said, in a barnstormer speech we’ve done some thinking about, storytelling is the foundation of our field, but there are always new stories, and ways to tell them.
You’re about halfway through your first issue, so it’s early days, but as editors and publishers, what have you learned so far that you hadn’t expected?
Ben: The first thing I would have to mention is all the new information I’ve learned from contributors’ articles. As far as lessons learned in the editorial process, there have definitely been challenges relating to working as a team rather than an individual. History is very much a profession for self-motivated people who enjoy solitary labor, whereas editing a journal and website is inherently collaborative. Speaking from a design and illustration standpoint, I’ve learned an awful lot about Photoshop and its various frustrations! That side of things has been fun for me, but also challenging as I grapple with the various ways that the web puts constraints on design ideas, while simultaneously allowing things that wouldn’t have occurred to someone, like me, who comes at this from a visual arts and painting background.
Chris: I could talk about what we learned about production during the crazy two weeks before we launched the first issue, but that’s pretty common, I’d think. More interesting, I think, is what we’re having to juggle by having contributors from such diverse backgrounds: academia, journalism, creative writing, fine arts. Each have their own timescales for producing work, and each have their own internal schedules that we need to work around. And each have differing needs for editorial guidance.
Brian: I think one of the more interesting areas in which we’re learning things has been tracking reader responses to different kinds of content, of course, but also the life-cycle of content online. We have these two major categories of “blog” content and “issue” content and within maintain a few different editorial and disciplinary outlooks. All of these approaches remain important to us in this middle ground into which we’re trying to bring different groups of history writers and audiences, but I think we’re getting a feel for what sort of content will create deep responses in a small community of already-interested readers, what sort of content will become popular quickly among a largely new audience, and so on. It might be the more obvious move to select for one of these audiences, but I hope we’ll be able to use this understanding to continue to try to overlap different groups of creators and readers in the future.
About Benjamin Breen
Benjamin Breen is an editor and co-
founder of The Appendix and a PhD candidate in history at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is writing a dissertation on the origins of the global drug trade. He is currently a fellow at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, RI. His personal blog is Res Obscura, which is also his handle on twitter.
About Felipe Fernandes Cruz
Felipe Fernandes Cruz is an editor and co-founder of The Appendix and was born and raised in São Paulo. He has now lived in the United States for 12 years, and is currently based out of Austin, TX where he is finishing a PhD in History. His specialties are in Latin American history and the history of science and technology.
About Christopher Heaney
Christopher Heaney is an editor and co-founder of The Appendix and a PhD candidate in Latin American history at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, and the New Yorker, and he is the author of Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu. He lives in Lima, Peru where he is on an IIE-Mellon fellowship to study the history of graverobbing in the Americas. You can find him on Twitter.
About Brian Jones
Brian Jones is the publisher and a co-
founder of The Appendix and a PhD candidate in history at University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the role of sailors on sixteenth-century Spanish exploratory voyages in constructing the world’s oceans as a globalized space. In addition to pursuing his dissertation, he works as a web developer and splits his time between Austin, TX and Columbus, OH. On Twitter he is @jonesbp.