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Reviews in American History 33.3 (2005) 455-463
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The Encyclopedia and Historical Imagination
Michael H. Ebner
An encyclopedia about New Jersey is neither an oxymoron nor a joke. The entry "Jersey jokes" is found on page 425 of this volume. The first sentence reads: "Among the fifty states, New Jersey is notorious as the object of humor." (A corresponding entry, "Image," cites then-governor Christi Todd Whitman's annual address to the legislature in 1995: "Nobody is laughing at New Jersey anymore" [pp. 401–2]). The entry for New Jersey Turnpike—lengthier than the one about jokes—includes a map identifying the exits as well as the twelve service areas (each named to honor a notable, including Clara Barton, Grover Cleveland, Vince Lombardi, Molly Pitcher, and Walt Whitman) (pp. 579–81). Readers will find other requisite entries: organized crime, Philip Roth, Frank Sinatra, and Bruce Springsteen (pp. 606–7; 706; 745; 766–7). An entry for the Sopranos was not included, but they make a cameo appearance folded into organized crime. But snide suspicions and condescension aside, the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, conceptually and substantively, is an admirable addition to a proliferating genre.
Place-defined historical encyclopedias—whether about regions, states, or cities—became quite the rage in the closing decades of the twentieth century. An encyclopedia devoted to the state of New York nears publication. The New Georgia Encyclopedia holds the distinction of only being available online. By my calculations, the trend for these compendiums took hold—of all places—in Cleveland. (The late David Van Tassel inspired the Cleveland volume, a dividend of his many years in the department of history at Case Western Reserve University). Next was Indianapolis. The Encyclopedia of New York City is celebrated not solely for luminous scholarship and comprehensive coverage. It is also a commercial achievement as the all-time, best-selling title ever released by Yale University Press, befitting its subject's sobriquet as world capital of capitalism. (We learn in the New Jersey editors' preface that New York City's encyclopedia inspired them [p. xi].) Gracious acknowledgment [End Page 455] amounts to a rare historical moment in an internecine inter-state rivalry between New Jersey and New York that stretches back to the seventeenth century and whose foremost by-product was Chief Justice John Marshall's landmark opinion in 1824 on federal jurisdiction over commerce in Gibbons vs. Ogden. The entry on this decision in the New York City volume fails to mention by name where and how New Jersey figured into this dispute. A much-revised and expanded second edition of the New York City volume is in the works, unquestionably hastened by the transformations stemming from the epochal events of 9/11. The Encyclopedia of Chicago appeared one year ago. Features include: a sumptuous physical design (comparable to the New York City volume); superlative, originally drawn maps; eighteen often free-wheeling, interpretive essays; a metropolitan scope encompassing nine counties (including two in northwest Indiana); splendid photographs, some published for the very first time; and an uncommon multi-institutional collaboration amongst the Newberry Library, Chicago Historical Society, and Northwestern University. Six months ago, a powerful online edition appeared that stands tall in its own right, exemplifying the nexus between traditional scholarship and the ever-expanding outer reaches of digital technology. A scaled-down city-defined encyclopedia, useful if not as comprehensive, also has been published for Los Angeles. There are numerous regional iterations as well (at least two for the South, several for the West, about-to-be-published volumes for New England, and another for the Midwest).1
Historical encyclopedias are neither entirely new nor unfamiliar. Many such volumes were assembled in the second half of the nineteenth century. Amateur writers, to whom we should be exceedingly grateful despite methodological lapses and circumscribed horizons, commonly compiled them: indeed, a century ahead, what...