Tuesday, November 8, 2011

“Ireland, America, and the Worlds of Mathew Carey”

A conference sponsored by 
The McNeil Center for Early American Studies,
The Library Company of Philadelphia,
the Program in Early American Economy and Society,
and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries

The first half of the Mathew Carey conference kicked off last week, bringing scholars from Ireland and the United States together to discuss the many facets of Carey’s life. Reversing the arc of Carey’s own life, the conference will move from Philadelphia to Trinity College Dublin next week. Carey made the reverse journey at the age of 24 to escape British officials after his seditious Volunteer’s Journal caught their attention. In his Autobiography, Carey reports he made the journey disguised “in female dress,” in which he “must have cut a very gawkey [sic] figure.”

In his welcoming remarks, Jim Green, librarian at the Library Company and the foremost expert on Carey, asked the audience to consider whether Carey was a founder. Green pointed out that Carey certainly shared one quality with the founders: ever enigmatic, Carey is as hard to pin down as Jefferson, Franklin, etc. on the questions that faced the new nation. Borrowing from Roslyn Remer’s insight in Printers and Men of Capital, Green observed the tension that those who have worked on Carey have noted—a tension between cooperation and competition—reflects the paradox of the book trade itself in the period. Green concluded by describing Carey in the parlance of his time, as a man of incredible passion who had mixed success in regulating those passions.

The conference picked up the next morning at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies with Maurice Bric’s plenary address. Bric posed a question that remained on the table for the rest of the conference: What were Carey’s Irish influences?  How did Carey’s experience in Ireland shape his understanding of American politics and culture?  Bric asked this question in relation to Carey’s The Urgent Necessity of an Immediate Repeal of the Whole Penal Code (1781), which, as one panelist observed, became the urtext of the conference. Bric identified “oligarchy” as Carey’s primary concern in the pamphlet and looked at how Carey targeted oligarchy in the American context, specifically in his exchanges with William Cobbett. In the lengthy discussion that followed Bric’s presentation, the question of Carey’s stance on race was raised, and this question also percolated throughout the rest of the conference. Carey held contradictory positions on the status of African Americans in the new republic, and one wonders if his understanding of himself as a racialized subject in colonial Ireland influenced his perspectives and actions in Philadelphia.

The panels that followed were as varied as the career of a ceaseless scribbler of nearly 50 years. Topics such as politics, economics, religion, and print culture reflected the fact that Carey, to borrow a description from Samuel Blodget, was like “the proboscis of a noble elephant,” surveying the landscape all around him.

And there is so much more fun to come!  The Carey conference will pick up in Dublin next week. The Dublin conference is being organized by academics from the Centre for Irish-Scottish and Comparative Studies, Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin, and the University of Aberdeen, and coordinated through the Trinity Long Room Hub in association with the National Library of Ireland.

Molly O’Hagan Hardy
Mellon Writing Fellow, Southwestern University
2010 LCP American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Fellow

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