U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Promise And Perils Of Transnational History—And The Consequences For U.S. Intellectual History

by Tim Lacy

The October 2008 issue of the American Historical Review indirectly helped coalesce my thinking on why “the transnational turn,” as one colleague termed it, might be a problem for the profession. While this particular AHR does not formally address global/transnational history, an article and a few reviews in the issue caused me to think about the promise and perils of this new direction in historiography. [1] Since I think the benefits of the “turn” are basically self-evident (i.e. more context, broader generalizations, larger potential audiences), I will concentrate here on potential detriments and problems. To bring together these concerns I will focus my thinking on U.S. intellectual history.

In the AHR issue, Van Gosse’s article, “‘As a Nation, The English Are Our Friends’: The Emergence of African American Politics in the British Atlantic World, 1772-1861,” stands out as a fine piece of transnational/global history.[2] Without delving too far into the essay’s details, it was Gosse’s citation of a Thomas Bender chapter from Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley, 2002) that called out to me. Gosse reminded the reader of Bender’s call for “a respatialization of historical narrative in a way that will liberate us from the enclosure of the nation.” [3] Gosse uses the quote as a starting point for asserting that various antebellum actors internationalized the slavery issue, particularly with regard to England. Gosse argued that we can’t understand the politics of antebellum slavery and abolitionism without a studied analysis of indirect English contributions, pressures, and power plays. The article is compelling. Beginning with David Walker’s pamphlet, Walker’s Appeal (1829-30), Gosse constructs the piece such that the topic feels like low-hanging fruit with regard to Bender’s call for transnational histories.

At the end of the piece, in AHR’s traditional author biography, we learn that Van Gosse is an Associate Professor of History at Franklin and Marshall College. In giving due credit for his essay, he noted: “Much of the work for this article was done during a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2000-01, and it moved to completion during a Fulbright lectureship at University College Cork in Ireland in 2005-06.” [4]

What can we learn from Gosse’s brief biography and the article? For a transnational study consisting “only” of the analysis of English and American figures, events, and works, it took Gosse at least five years to get his work published. My conservative 5-year estimate does not count the time between submission and AHR publication. Informal conversations with others reveal a general lag of about 1.5 years in the process of getting peer-reviewed journal articles into print. My rough estimate from Gosse’s footnotes concludes that only about 10 of his 105 notes involve sources available ~only~ in England. More than 90 percent of his notes reference publications attainable either in the U.S. or originating with U.S. publishers. And all of this was done within the context of the English language.

Without falsely over-generalizing from a single instance, what are some issues with regard to building a transnational study that we can point out from a cursory analysis of Gosse’s piece?

First, money is needed for study abroad. Two fellowships undergirded Gosse’s work. Of course a transnational study can probably be constructed with the aid of really solid Division I research library specializing in European (or other holdings). But what of archival research? Knowing what I do about the inconsistencies of archives and holdings in the U.S. from my own research, resources are needed to spend time abroad in the archives for extensive exploration.

This brings me to another issue: time. Gosse needed time—whether paid or simply excused leave—to get away from teaching (and probably administrative) responsibilities to research this piece. Gosse’s position as an associate professor provides him with a built-in mechanism for research leaves, I suspect. But what of independent and non-tenured historians? If they have the desire to construct transnational studies, when will they get the time to leave their jobs to engage in the necessary archival research? How will an assistant professor, moreover, receiving lower salaries and none of the leave benefits of tenure, acquire the time needed to properly research a transnational study? Does all of this mean that only senior, well-established, and financially secure historians can afford to build transnational narratives? Is this a third or fourth book for the rest of us?

Although a language barrier was presumably no problem for Gosse in the abovementioned article, when a study of non-English-speaking nations is at hand this can be a significant hurdle. First, there is the training—normally counted in years—to become fluent in just the written form another language. As such, this might mean no oral histories for one’s studies—not without significant work, anyway. And then there are degrees of difficulty: the Latin languages (French, Spanish, and Italian) might be easier for native English interpreters than learning Japanese, Hindi, or Arabic. There are dialect difficulties. Finally, for historians, there might be the biggest inhibitor of all: the historic development of a language. Learning the present form a foreign language is certainly possible if sometimes difficult, but what of the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth century variations depending, from an Americanist’s perspective, on what period the transnational study involves?

Training an Americanist, for instance, to become transnational in his or her work habits would then cause history departments to discriminate, in hiring and tenure decisions, not only on analytical skills and storytelling ability in one’s native tongue, but also an ability tell (or read) a story in another. Of course this is already done for any given department’s Europeanists. But are departmental evaluators of Americanist applications prepared, either now or in the near future, to meet this important demand with regard to “the transnational turn”? Are history departments prepared to front the cost needed to get both their budding Europeanists and Americanists overseas? Are departments also prepared, in an environment of increasing transparency with regard to doctoral completion times, to be up front with students about the length of time needed to see a transnational doctoral study to fruition?

Let me add to these reflections with some personal background information. Outside of a course or two covering immigration issues and history, my graduate program did not formally train me to think globally or transnationally about U.S. history. My minor field covered European history, but those studies were not done with an eye toward transnational analysis with regard to the United States.

To be sure, a few well-established members of my department were exploring transnational views of various U.S. history subtopics. Harold Platt wrote a comparative urban environmental history involving Manchester and Chicago. That work, titled Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago, was published in 2005 to nice reviews.[5] My dissertation director, Lewis Erenberg, recently completed a study of the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling bouts from the 1930s that is clearly a part of the transnational genre. Titled The Greatest Fight of Our Generation and published in 2007, that work has also been the recipient of generally positive reviews.[6] Indeed, Thomas Zeiler of the University of Colorado reviewed Erenberg’s book in this very issue of AHR.[7]

Zeiler’s review, however, reveals why I wasn’t trained on the subject—as well as some of the difficulties for all of us, intellectual historians and otherwise, in becoming legitimate transnational/global historians. Zeiler faulted Erenberg for not building his story “on rich archival holdings but through periodicals (German and English) and scrapbooks.” Zeiler instead cites, for sports historians at least, Barbara Keys’s Globalizing Sport as the “standard of both the multi-archival possibilities and the sophisticated treatment of transnationalism in sports history.” Compared to Keys, Erenberg was clearly “less versed on the transnational turn.” [8]

I haven’t spoken to my mentor about this review. But to me the piece reveals why one might not want to hazard a professional foray into transnational history. Despite the fact that Erenberg, a well-established scholar, worked in German-language resources, as well as consulted with German scholars during a fellowship that took him to Germany a few years ago, Zeiler indirectly faulted Erenberg’s book for not measuring up to Keys’s standard on the subject—a book that was published one year after Erenberg’s. The lesson I take from this is that the “transnational turn” is new enough that your work will possibly be considered out of date before it is complete. In addition to the monetary, time, and intellectual barriers cited above, why would a young scholar risk her or his big shot at a first job or book on a field where the standards are currently under development? For my part, I’m glad I didn’t.

How does all of this apply to U.S. intellectual history? Well, many of the hazards above correlate directly: developing standards, archival research barriers, time to project completion, language barriers (direct and historical), monetary limitations, etc. In fact, these problems fed into my thinking when, almost two years ago in January 2007, I called for a more limited and do-able approach for young and developing scholars by focusing on “U.S. intellectual history” rather than the broader, more erudite “intellectual history.” My concerns were practical, not philosophical. My intent was not to advocate for a parochial, nationalist, or enclosed view of U.S. intellectual history. There most certainly were no conservative political motivations behind my call. I received some private e-mail correspondence last year relaying that concern.

On the contrary, philosophically it is always more desirable to construct histories that, as Bender wrote, “liberate us from the enclosure of the nation.” There is no way that a well-constructed, comprehensive, and relevant transnational study will not be superior to one that only addresses English-language and national concerns about subjects like John Dewey, Pragmatism, Transcendentalism, American Enlightenment figures, etc. Transnational histories force historians of more limited means to at least acknowledge comparative similarities and differences. We should always take a peek abroad if we can’t research and write a full-blown transnational study.

Practically speaking, however, it seems to me that “U.S. intellectual historians” cannot risk being full-fledged “intellectual historians” until the former are better established in the field. The difference between the two probably rests on economic class rather than intellectual potential. More funding enables ability through good training and time allowances.

My hope then is that better-established, transnational intellectual historians will not look down on the work of those limited to a U.S. intellectual history focus. I do not know empirically whether this is currently the case, but I know anecdotally that the sentiment is out there. Until “the transnational turn” is better established, moreover, the national/international split addressed here will be an ongoing concern.


Acknowledgements: While this piece is solely my own, I want to thank Julian Nemeth and Andrew Hartman for comments and suggestions.

[1] Vol. 113, no. 4.

[2] pp. 1003-28.

[3] p. 1005n4.

[4] p. 1028.

[5] Harold Platt, Shock Cities: The Environmental Transformation and Reform of Manchester and Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005). John C. Teaford’s review in the Journal of American History (Vol. 93, no. 1, June 2006, ) was positive. See here for more.

[6] Lewis Erenberg, The Greatest Fight of Our Generation: Louis vs. Schmeling (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005). Gerald Early reviewed Erenberg’s book quite favorably in the Chicago Tribune.

[7] Thomas W. Zeiler review of Lewis Erenberg’s , AHR 115, no. 4 (October 2008): 1187-88.

[8] Ibid., 1187.

8 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. it seems to me that histories of slavery have long been in practice, if not in name, ‘transnational.’

    I am a little surprised that Gosse is able to discuss black american politics in an atlantic context while mentioning Haiti only once. The properly Atlantic and imperial dynamics of british abolitionism have hardly gone unnoticed. Thomas Holt’s work, for instance, is in large measure intellectual history (in fact, it is the kind of work that makes intellectual history look obsolete). One of the aspects of african-american intellectual history that makes it so fascinating is that it has always been trans(or anti)national.

    There is no question that the project of transnational history presents enormous practical difficulties, and I think a number of scholars have suggested that it is, by nature, something available only to a limited number of practitioners. problematic indeed.

    but is it really such a radical idea? as i said, it seems to me that for some time it has been an option (any imperial history (US included), the field of Atlantic history, the slave trade makes no sense except outside the nation-state…)–and finally, surely intellectual history, dealing as it so often does with elite agents and their ideas (highly portable and perishable commodities, those), generally disdains national boundaries? perhaps this reaction of mine indicates mostly that i have not been formed as a US intellectual historian?

  2. While I see the obvious necessity for trans-national history, and am getting interested in some transnational topics myself, I see a couple of problems on the horizon. In the first place, almost all high profile job ads in my field (German history) say that they want someone with a transnational focus, effectively closing off those jobs to 90% of the scholars out there. While transnationalism is hot now, it wasn’t when I started grad school, and so scholars who were lucky or opportunistic in their choice of topic are going to benefit inordinately. (I also love the fact that many schools who have a transnational focus as a requirement don’t have anyone on their faculty who qualifies!)

    Second, scholarly “turns” tend to distort scholarship in unproductive ways. After the “turn” has been announced, all that came before gets suddenly antiquated, and new work that follows the turn gets boosted, regardless of its merit. (I call this the “add Foucault and stir” school of history, which was enabled by a fetishization of the linguistic turn.) I hope we can make room for more trans-national scholarship without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  3. Eric: I absolutely agree that there are several subtopics in U.S. history where the transnational component is essential. You can’t study politics, war, slavery, or Victorian culture without thinking beyond the national boundaries of each period. Because of this, “the transnational turn” is not radical. I suppose it’s even slightly redundant in that those who should be thinking transnationally are probably already doing so. I’d have to read Bender’s original essay to learn about his ideas for expansion. But intellectual history is definitely one area where care must be exercised. That’s why we need to know what influential intellectuals in U.S. history were reading or hearing or seeing (i.e. books, articles, lectures, TV, film). We also need to understand their travels—in a detailed way—and circles of friends (their cafe societies, if you will).

    WHB: The job market is certainly another issue. Like you, transnational stuff wasn’t hot when I started graduate school. It’s one thing for topics in the field to have their “turn,” and another for hiring committees to type up calls and hire based on those turns.

    – TL

  4. Great post TL. I love the issues you raise. I will miss seeing you at the AHA.

    Have you and your colleagues in U.S. intellectual history thought carefully about the impact that digital history will have on your field? Just imagine what will be possible when Google Books provides an API through subscription to your local campus library in the near future. I expect that text mining will allow us to find new patterns in printed sources that we never noticed before.

  5. Tim: Very thoughtful post. My graduate training included a good deal of “comparative” history, which is not the same as “transnational.” Regarding the imperative to “liberate” ourselves from the nation, it is worth noting that the nation itself, within transnational flows of thought and commerce, has often been a site in which progressives have fought for more democratic distribution of wealth, etc. So while we should definitely be thinking about how what we study spans national boundaries, there are also good reasons to study how subjects play out in specific national settings.

  6. Sterling: I don’t know if I can speak for my colleagues here, but I’ve thought some about digital history research. What concerns me is how class differences among historians affect research. I’ll probably post on this at H&E in the near future. But I’ve noticed that some folks who blog cite subscription print sources (i.e. CHE, New Yorker) while others cite online sources exclusively. I fear that two mutually-exclusive conversations develop that are based on what writers can afford in terms of research. This dichotomy exists with regard to non-professional historical writing more than not. When it comes to writing articles on historical subjects, all of us primarily go to the archives and the library—in my opinion. So digital history issues tend to affect non-peer-reviewed output by professionals more than other kinds of writing.

    Toby: On how subjects play out in national settings, my thinking exactly. Transnational research involves audience considerations. Are we writing for two or more audiences, depending on the ~extent~ of our transnational work, or are we using transnational research to improve writing for U.S. audiences? Both are valid endeavors, but most certainly affect training, expenditures, etc. Our transnational work for U.S. audiences will likely not require as much non-U.S. research. For U.S. intellectual history, “transnational research” usually means a thorough understanding of books and articles written outside the U.S.—meaning the author’s biography, contextual production questions, publishing houses, intended audience, etc. But those things were, or should’ve been, always on the radar for an intellectual historian. – TL

  7. I’m not sure what to make of this CFP in light of my post—or my post in light of the CFP. Here’s a noteworthy CFP excerpt:

    For some critics, however, “transnational” is a controversial word. It could mean very different things to scholars in different fields, and it is probably futile to seek to contain its proliferating meanings. It has a tangled history with “globalization” and is easily associated with
    (U.S.-based) multi-corporation economic system. Moreover, it has been pointed out that academic transnationalism, often funded by government and businesses, especially in the U.S., more often than not serves their purposes. If this is the case, it is to be doubted whether transnational discourses could dismantle nationalist ideologies. If transnationalism offers a new paradigm, it also fuels new controversies.

    I hadn’t though about the semantic confusion between globalization and transnationalism. Nor had I realized that transnationalism studies might be funded by gov’t and business for non-academic purposes. I’m not surprised, however, in light of “free market” initiatives such as NATO.

    But it hadn’t occurred to me that there might be skepticism about the transnationalism project as potentially promoted by U.S. scholars. So, will it succeed if promoted by, say, Chilean scholars?! Just kidding. – TL

  8. My last comment (12/01/08, 3:36 pm), third paragraph, end of the second sentence should’ve ended as follows: “…in light of ‘free market’ initiatives such as NAFTA” (not NATO). …There’s nothing like catching your mistakes almost 4 months later. – TL

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