In terms of its narrative logic, my history of the Stanford “canon wars” and their significance in subsequent debates about American higher education currently manifests a sort of triple-quadrilateral structure: four chapters, four different groups of historical actors, four different arenas of discourse. This structure was not something I consciously planned. In fact, to be honest, this was not something I even perceived as an organizing scheme until two days before I was to defend my work. As I said on Twitter, “I’m very excited to have finally discovered the organizing logic of my dissertation. This might come in handy at my defense.” (It did.)
Now while arriving at this ex post facto sense of coherence and order was a bit frustrating (as in, “Oh for pity’s sake — I’m the one who wrote this damn thing and I’m literally the last person to understand how it actually works!”), my guess is that this is not all that uncommon of an experience. In fact, I think that may be how writing history usually works: we are making order out of chaos, but the order of our order is only fully visible in retrospect.
The best way to illustrate what I mean is to tell a story – and this story comes from Herodotus, “the father of history.”
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, both history, as a discipline, and agency—as a concept so central to the premises that inform the discipline—are well embedded within western humanist tradition. As such they are also products of the same romantic impulses that constructed the human subject as a central—perhaps the most central—trope in western imagination. Indeed, it is no coincidence that the modern discipline of history has its roots in the German romanticism of Johann Gottfried Herder and Johann Gottlieb Fichte, which shrouded both individuals and nations with a romantic aura in touch with the sublime.
Such romantic impulses, I would like to argue in today’s post, are still with us and still inspire a stronger commitment than warranted to the paradigm of agency in American history over the last several decades. Consider for example the following passage from the preface to Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll: “[m]any years of studying the astonishing effort of black people to live decently as human beings even in slavery has convinced me that no theoretical advance suggested in their experience could ever deserve as much attention as that demanded by their demonstration of the beauty and power of the human spirit under conditions of extreme oppression.”(1) Invoking the sublimity of the human spirit, Genovese explicitly contends that focusing on the agency of black people under slavery deserves more attention than the agency of the people who enslaved and subjugated them or the suffering that went along with the work regimen and violence intrinsic to slavery.
Editor’s note: It’s my great pleasure to announce that Sara Georgini will be joining us for for a four-post extended guest-blogging gig starting with this post. She’ll be posting every other Monday. Sara is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Boston University, and assistant editor of the Adams Papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society, an editorial project that has published nearly 50 scholarly editions of the personal and public papers written, accumulated, and preserved by President John Adams and his family. Her dissertation, “Household Gods: Creating Adams Family Religion, 1583-1927,” is a history of faith and doubt in one American family, charting the cosmopolitan Christianity that the Adamses developed while acting as transnational agents of American politics and culture. She is a founding contributor to The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History. You can hear some of Sara’s thoughts about public history and historical editing here and here. The following post is based on a paper she gave at this year’s S-USIH Conference. Please join me in welcoming her to the blog! — Ben Alpers
Nearly once a month, researchers contact the Adams Papers editors with a routine query: “I think I’m related to John Adams, and is there a way for you to check?” We check them all, starting with the printed genealogical tables of presidential families. Then we turn to the Adamses’ own family research, and review six decades’ worth of reference files. There, knee-deep in the glebe lands of Puritan England, I glimpsed the Cold War origins story of historical editing, and the public rise of modern American interest in the founders’ intellectual genealogy. (more…)
As with everything else going on in the new today, historians should think about the protesters on campuses from Missouri to Yale in historical context. Most notably, we as historians should begin to think about the world in which most of these protesters grew up. Shaped by 9/11, the War in Iraq, the aftermath of Katrina, the 2007-2008 economic crash, and the election of Barack Obama, these students have a world view profoundly different from earlier generations of activists, especially those of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Such a comparison is understandable, but we shouldn’t limit our historical imagination to automatically comparing today to the 1960s. It is similar to, say, comparisons between Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin made when Between the World and Me was released—understandable, but needing nuance to reveal anything new or profound about either writer. The same is true of the desire to compare the current campus activism with the Civil Rights Movement of the past.
Recently, a fellow historian posted a query on Twitter asking for reading suggestions on the history of the newspaper in America from (roughly) the Early Republic to the Cold War, and a few of us offered some suggestions. As it happens, I’m also working on the history of the newspaper as “the emblematic medium of modernity,” though I’m looking at the period from (roughly) the Cold War to the War on Terror, and I too could use some further reading suggestions.
So I thought it might be helpful to post here the bare beginnings of a bibliography and then invite readers to add titles that might prove useful for historians looking at the significance of the newspaper for any period of American intellectual history. (more…)
This past week has been deeply depressing. It started with the horrific Paris attacks, the response to which in this country largely consisted of calls from a number of prominent politicians to shut our doors to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Despite not having the power to do so, twenty-six governors announced that they would close their states to such refugees. The House of Representatives then quickly passed a bill that would severely limit the number of refugees coming into the country.
Among the few political bright spots in this dreary week were the swift and eloquent responses to the xenophobic calls to shut out Syrian refugees. Numerous commentators pointed out that Syrian refugees posed no significant threat and that building further barriers to their entry would be doing ISIS’s work for it. Before the House had even acted, the President had promised to veto any bill that put further restrictions on refugees coming to the United States.
But one aspect of this pushback has bothered me: the use of the word “un-American” to describe xenophobes who call to exclude Syrian refugees. (more…)