The Brooklyn-based publisher Melville House has a history of intervening in politics, whether it’s the politics of its industry or the national scene, over and above most of its independent peers. Take, for example, its storied MobyLives! blog, which reports on the absurd ins-and-outs of broader publishing. Or think of last year’s publication of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality. Or look to their intrepid takeover of the the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture in late 2014. When Diane Feinstein elected not to release the report first to big publishers — a standard and probably illegal procedure — Melville House editors took it upon themselves to edit and publish the enormous book in a matter of days.
This month — the third in a year with more than 2,000 gun deaths — Melville House will publish Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, a book by Smithsonian Fellow Peter Manseau that looks at the history of American gun violence through reports from old newspapers. Manseau introduced the project, viz. #gunfail, for the New Yorker in March of 2013:
The power of #gunfail (and, when its victims are not children, its black humor) is found in its predictability: today or tomorrow, sure as a cartoon time bomb, there is bound to be another bang. Yet its haunting quality is not merely a matter of the sad certainty of fatal accidents stretching far into the future. It’s also about our collective past. We have been failing with guns for so long, there ought to be a way to hashtag history. If we could, a narrative would emerge of a nation that fancies itself created and sustained by guns but that, in fact, sees its people culled by them with unnerving frequency.
To this end, Manseau’s book “collects and annotates a wide-ranging assortment” of old newspaper stories about gun violence, and it’s from these stories that it takes its title; they were known as “melancholy accidents” in days of yore. Here’s an example of one such accident taken from the Melville House website (and a 1739 news item):
August 2, 1739
Philadelphia. We have an Account of a melancholy Accident that happened on Thursday last in the Evening, in Burlington County, near Anchocas; viz: Two Neighbours going out to hunt Deer, unknown to each other, one of them, named James Sherron, passing through a bushy Place, the other observing something to move among the Bushes, and supposing it to be a Deer, fired at him, and the bullet entered his Breast and out his Back, but he run three or four Paces and fell down dead, the other perceiving to run made after it, where he found, to his great Surprize, the said Sherron dead. It is also remarkable that this said Sherron was shot at by the same Person twice before and badly wounded, but through Mercy escaped with his Life.
The American Weekly Mercury; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Still, Melville House wouldn’t be Melville House if they didn’t find a crazy way to publicize the book (another way of saying “intervening in the political order on the book’s behalf”). This go-round, they’ve selected a number of these old, American stories of gun violence and put them in a fake, old-timey newspaper that they’re sending to gun-drunk politicians, like Ted Cruz. And they’ve vowed to bombard NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre with stories of gun violence each day until the book’s publication on March 22. That’s publishing, I think, as a political art.