Jeffrey J. Pilz. The Life, Work and Times of George Henry Evans, Newspaperman, Activist and Reformer (1829-1849). New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. 286 pp. $109.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7734-7580-9.
Reviewed by Kimberley Mangun (University of Oregon)
Published on Jhistory (June, 2003)
The Life, Work and Times of George Henry Evans, Newspaperman, Activist and Reformer (1829-1849) joins a list of some 50 other Studies in American History published by The Edwin Mellen Press. The series began in 1988 with a book about Ronald Reagan's early years in radio, films, and television, and his role as president of the Screen Actors Guild. Since then, volumes have featured biographies of John Vanderlyn, an American portrait artist who lived from 1775-1852, and Walter Francis Dillingham, a Hawaiian entrepreneur and statesman who was born in 1875 and died in 1963. Studies also have focused on topics as diverse as Hawaii's territorial period from 1898-1959 and the Girls' Reform School of Iowa (1865-1899). Jeffrey J. Pilz's book about Evans and his efforts to improve the social, political, and economic prospects of working-class Americans during the mid-1800s is the 32nd book on the list. With the exception of the book about Reagan, most of the volumes in this series feature the "lesser knowns" in U.S. history. George Henry Evans certainly fits into this category. Although a few historians have written about his involvement in the labor movement or his involvement with land reform in the 1840s, Pilz notes that an "overall assessment of his contributions" is overdue.
Born in 1805 in England, Evans died in New Jersey, in debt, shortly before his 51st birthday. Yet in the years in between, he published several newspapers, advocated the rights of those he called the "useful classes," and waged a brief battle with Horace Greeley over land reform. As the preface notes, "Biographers typically take as their subjects men and women who have left a distinctive mark on their times. Much can be learned as well, however, from examining the lives of less heroic individuals deeply engaged in the issues of their day, but whom history appears to have passed by." While I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of John Howe, professor emeritus of history at the University of Minnesota, I have to wonder if occasionally good reasons explain why history has skipped over some people. For example, crucial primary documents may have been long since destroyed or lost, or they may never have existed in the first place.
And that is the first problem with Pilz's book. In order to bring a forgotten individual to life, primary documents such as journals, diaries, or letters are vital. Yet, Pilz admits that George Henry Evans left none of the traditional personal papers one would turn to when trying to re-create the "life and times" of an individual. Evans' childhood in England, for example, is covered in less than two pages; the story really begins in 1820, when 15-year-old Evans, his father, and brother sailed to New York. Further, no photographs of Evans--or even images of his newspapers--exist to give readers a better idea of the man and his work. The only clue we have to Evans' physical appearance is a one-sentence description buried in the epilogue: "George Henry Evans," writes Pilz, "was a man of medium height and regular features, with 'straight facial lines,' dark brown hair and 'wide soulful eyes which, with his large head and broad, expansive brow, gave him even as a youth a distinguished solemn look.'" Information about the "missing" childhood years, as well as insight into his motivations, goals, or inner conflicts as a publisher would have enhanced this biography and shed light on the man and the reasons why he pursued specific causes such as the New York Workingmen's Party or free land for actual settlers.
This book also could have benefited from some good editing. Although most new professors hope to turn their dissertations into books as soon as possible (the percentage who succeed is, of course, another question), few works can make that transition successfully without some retooling (Pilz graduated in 1998 from the University of Minnesota and is now teaching history at North Iowa Area Community College). I'm sorry to say that The Life, Work and Times of George Henry Evans is no exception. Punctuation errors (such as "1820's" and "a myriad of") can be found throughout the book, and he confuses possession (Evans') with plural (Evanses). These simple errors should not have made it into the dissertation, let alone the subsequent book. In addition, a good editor might have helped eliminate redundancies and clear up the confusing chronology. Evans started and stopped at least four publications within 16 years; an additional short-lived paper, the Radical, was replaced by the Working Man's Advocate, which merged with the Subterranean before Evans renamed the newspaper Young America!. Multiple names, coupled with the fact that Pilz isn't always clear about dates, made it difficult to follow the story. The chronology is further complicated by the fact that Pilz often jumps ahead-or reviewed past events-without putting things into a clear context. For example, on page 78, Pilz notes that Evans' papers were unsuccessful due to poor circulation and insufficient ad revenues. Among these was the short-lived Man, which lasted from early 1834 until July 1835. But, on page 103, Pilz launches into a discussion of Evans' "new daily," The Man, which was to replace another defunct paper, the Sentinel. I ended up making my own notes about publication names and dates so I could track Evans' career.
Another problem, in my opinion, is the focus of the book. Based on the title, I expected to review a text about journalism history. After all, Evans published The Working Man's Advocate from 1829-1836, Young America! from about 1845-1848, and The Man from 1834-1835, among others. Yet, his work as a publisher is secondary to his labor and political campaigns in New York during the 1830s and 1840s. While nothing is wrong with this approach, Pilz tries to tell two stories: Evans' publishing career, and his political life and times, and is unable to blend the two successfully. For example, after discussing Evans' appointment as editor of the New York Workingmen's Party newspaper in 1829, Pilz devotes the next sixty pages to the party's internal struggles and conflicts before returning to a discussion of the newspaper, the constant problem of finances and delinquent subscribers, and troubles with agents who pocketed the money or failed to deliver the papers. I suspect that the dissertation (much more appropriately named "Bread Cast Upon the Waters": The Efforts of George Henry Evans to Reform His America) was retitled to make the book marketable to a wider audience. For those who study labor politics and land reform issues during this time period, you may find the book of interest. For those who are more interested in the ways in which groups and individuals used alternative media to advocate for social reform, you'll probably be as disappointed as I was.
That points to another gap in Pilz's study: He does not consult any secondary literature on alternative media, such as Lauren Kessler's oft-cited book, The Dissident Press, or the much more recent Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America, by Rodger Streitmatter. To talk about the various publications that Evans produced without acknowledging the reasons why he believed it important or necessary to turn to publishing is an oversight. Were his views-or the views of the Workingmen's Party-excluded from the mainstream press? Did Evans believe so passionately in his causes that he was inspired to publish his own papers in order to promote his views? In addition, Kessler and Streitmatter note that financial difficulties plagued publishers and their alternative papers. Pilz could have enhanced his discussion of Evans' constant subscription woes by drawing on Voices of Revolution and The Dissident Press and their descriptions of determined editors and publishers who worked against great odds to champion their causes. (Numerous other sources, such as News for All, by Thomas C. Leonard, also discuss the general problem of deadbeat readers during the 19th century.)
As it is, Pilz paints a picture of a very bitter Evans who both cajoled and threatened his readers to pay their subscriptions. Although Pilz cites works by a few of the better-known scholars, such as Frank Luther Mott, Dan Schiller, and Michael Schudson, his bibliography is clearly skewed toward history in general, and labor history specifically, which also problematizes the focus of Jeffrey Pilz' book.
Ultimately, historical works depend on the author's ability to tell a good story and present compelling evidence in a readable format. I kept waiting--hoping--for Pilz to engage me with his prose. But, I never completely cared for Evans as an individual, nor did his career seem significant enough for a book-length treatment. Even Pilz admits throughout the volume that the reformer failed to make much of an impact on people. For example, Pilz writes that by 1846, "Failure had begun to haunt Evans at every turn and within a year his influence would scarcely be felt. A year later he would be powerless and on the verge of retirement, and a year after that he would be nearly forgotten." Similar comments can be found throughout The Life, Work and Times of George Henry Evans. Pilz concludes his book with the following comment: "That he was neither a great nor a successful man does not diminish the value of his ideas and his work as tools with which to gain insight into his world. That he was true, well-disposed and uncompromising--that he was a good man--is reason enough to grant those ideas attention." Unfortunately, I am not so sure.
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Kimberley Mangun. Review of Pilz, Jeffrey J., The Life, Work and Times of George Henry Evans, Newspaperman, Activist and Reformer (1829-1849).
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