By Katheryn Viens, Research
To most MHS members, the Massachusetts Historical Review is the annual publication that appears in their mailboxes every autumn, with a glossy, colorful cover and intriguing historical content. Few members know its rich history or visualize its exciting prospects for the future. As we typeset the forthcoming issue and develop essays for future volumes, this seems a good time to reflect on the MHR’s heritage and legacy.
In 1859, the members of the MHS decided to launch a new publication. Since 1792, the year after the Society’s founding, members had been “multiplying the copies” of items in the archives by issuing Collections volumes. Now, as the country approached a civil war, Boston was growing dramatically, from a town of fewer than 20,000 in 1790 to a city of almost 180,000. The Society’s collection, too, had ballooned with the 1857 acquisition of the more than 4,600 volumes in the library of Thomas Dowse. The men who made up the Society now represented a wider range of interests, and they decided to apply the best practices of corporate business to the conduct of the MHS.
A new publication would document the Society’s “proceedings” and include an annual report. It would contain transcripts of the lectures that members offered when they gathered for meetings. A commitment to publish these talks could have resulted in a series of dry volumes—but what a roster of historians would appear in the pages of the Proceedings! Over nearly 140 years, until 1998, the deep leather chairs, madeira, and slanting sunlight of the Society’s afternoon meetings yielded the wisdom of Henry Adams, Oscar and Lillian Handlin, Edmund Morgan, and Bernard Bailyn, to name just a handful of the illustrious historians represented in the Proceedings’ pages.
Enter the 1990s. Computers and the internet transformed the way in which the MHS related to the outside world. Alongside our expanding research programs, including fellowships, conferences, and seminars, the Proceedings came to feel constrained. The MHS made the decision to end its publication and invite the wider possibilities of an annual journal that would accept outside submissions and, in its design, serve as an ambassador of the Society’s vibrant mission. The Massachusetts Historical Review was born.
Two decades later, the MHR features scholarship on all historical periods, from across the country and overseas. This takes the form of essays, photo-essays, historical documents, and review articles authored by both eminent scholars and those new to the field. There have been themed issues and a recent special issue on the occasion of the Society’s 225th anniversary, “Massachusetts and the Origins of American Historical Thought.” The forthcoming issue will include essays on the Harlem Renaissance artist Cloyd Lee Boykin, who taught in Boston, colonial Massachusetts Governor Thomas Pownall, and the 1975 Edelin manslaughter trial. Essays demonstrate the influence of Massachusetts across the nation and around the world.
As with the Proceedings, the Research Department acquires and develops the content for the MHR, while the Publications Department handles the copyediting, design, and indexing. Throughout this process, the MHS staff maintains a commitment to scholarly excellence. They send each essay to at least two peer reviewers in a “double-blind” process, and the editors and authors work together to revise and edit the contributions.
Now available online (as are the Proceedings), the MHR has a wider reach than ever before. It takes its place comfortably among a range of professional journals in major research libraries. And it offers a pleasant read in a comfy chair on a quiet afternoon, perhaps alongside a little glass of good madeira.