An Author’s View of a Regional Press
By Michael Doyle
Syracuse University Press has an encyclopedic grasp of the region it holds so dear. It’s the literal truth; you can look it up. Or, better yet, you can buy it. The Encyclopedia of New York State spans 1,921 pages and captures it all, from the Adirondacks to the Tappan Zee Bridge and beyond. Each entry is a doorway, one New York curiosity opening to another.
But here’s the thing. The publication of that colossus in 2005 did not initiate nor exhaust the Syracuse University Press’s commitment to the Empire State. Instead, it was but another blossom of that which was planted with the Press’s founding in 1943.
Consider this: The same university press that still offers decades-old but still-fresh fiction by Walter D. Edmonds, he of In the Hands of the Senecas fame, published in the fall of 2018 Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquian Peoples of the Adirondacks by Melissa Otis. See what I mean? Season after season comes the regional harvest, new generations arising.
By my rough count, the Syracuse University Press’s catalog offers upwards of 100 New York state and regional titles, of every tang and texture. There are histories, biographies and memoirs. There are novels, essays and field guides. There’s New York poetry, for Pete’s sake, and a slice of Upstate cuisine.
Two of the New York-related titles are my own, so I can testify to Syracuse University Press’s regional devotion. In 2004, the Press published my first book, The Forestport Breaks: A Nineteenth-Century Conspiracy Along the Black River Canal. Of late, it occurs to me that the book illuminates how a locality grows ever-larger under a microscope, revealing new depths in a ‘see the world in a grain of sand’ kind of way. This is what a university press’s regional line can do: It starts with a tight focus and deepens, and deepens more, until all those grains resolve themselves into the big picture, the beach itself.
So it was with The Forestport Breaks, which begins with a forsaken town of 1,500 souls and then expands into what a 19th century lawman called “the most damnable conspiracy in the history of our state.” A book like this also illustrates how a region imprints itself on a university press, and vice versa. Inside Forestport’s former Hotel Doyle, now a frolicsome bar called Scooter’s, we held, hands down, the zaniest book-signing in the history of university press book-signings. Autographs may fade; such memories endure.
One thing leading to another, Syracuse University Press this year published my new book, another regionally-rooted work entitled The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community and the Crusade for Public Morality. It shows, again, how a university press committed to a particular locale can sink new wells where strangers see only worked-over rock. The 19th-century, ‘free-love’ Oneida Community in Upstate New York has been much written about; what more might be said? The editors, though, empowered my peculiar slant, a deep dive into the life and times of the zealous minister, a much-published college professor, no less, who fought Oneida. It’s a very granular look, indeed.
Unlike Tip O’Neill’s aphorism about politics, all university press publishing is not local. Syracuse University Press, for one, balances its New York state offerings with specializations in Irish Studies and Middle East Studies, among other topics. It’s the region, though, that bears the press, and it’s the region that the press so artfully represents.