Associate Professor of History, Columbia University.
Once, frustrated with a grant application, I turned to my roommate to complain that I could not possibly narrate in a thousand words how my"intellectual development" led me to my dissertation topic. I was living in France, in genteel poverty, convinced that I had just discovered that the Fifth Republic was the unintended consequence of a long-secret diplomatic crisis. But there had been a lot of false starts, digressions, and dead ends along the way. My friend sagely counseled that I should not be so literal-minded. After all, the night was young, and Paris beckoned. The readers did not expect introspection, even if their question appeared to demand it. The grant essay, he explained, was a"necessary fiction."
I've described my work many times since then, and I've often recalled that phrase. As historians, we are not supposed to traffic in fiction. And yet we can scarcely survive if our stories do not seem compelling, especially the stories we tell about ourselves. The topics we take up are often a matter of happenstance - in my case, the fact that my first graduate research seminar was on the end of empires, and I had just seen a film called The Battle of Algiers. But over the years, after countless grant applications, I learned to call my decision to study national liberation movements in North Africa"strategic." And rather than admit that I was as surprised as anyone at the way they foreshadowed contemporary" clashes of civilizations," I decided that, all along, I had been exploring the origins of the post-Cold War era.
Of course, many explorers discover things by accident, whether or not they admit it. When they return people want them to provide maps, and not send them on the same misadventures. But I wonder whether, as professors, we lead our students astray when we present our life's work as a series of"projects," as if our lives depended on them. Is it not our life stories that often lead us to a particular subject, and personal idiosyncrasies that make us feel passionate about it? Why then have we come to expect that even those applying to start a graduate program in history should already have a"project" of their own?
In my own case, I was almost finished with my book about the Algerian War for Independence before I realized why, all along, I had an abiding affinity for the rebels. I was interviewing one of them when he started to tell me about how he and his compatriots had learned from the history of Ireland's struggle against Britain. I recalled how, like many children of Irish immigrants, I had grown up listening to rebel songs and developed a romantic kind of nationalism, one that was uncomplicated by a deeper knowledge of the country and its history. If a student now came to me with a similar realization, I would be worried for them. But I have no doubt that my own inchoate and unacknowledged feelings helped me remain committed to pursuing my work wherever it led me - to Tunis, to Cairo, to Algiers - and making my readers care about it as much as I did.
These realizations seem self-evident in retrospect. But writing too many"necessary fictions" can make us forget our own life stories. When I set out to research my second book, a history of the population control movement, I was sure it was because it would help show how and why people divide the world between"us" and"them." By the time I was done with it, I could argue that international and nongovernmental organizations had taken up the unfinished work of empires and created new forms of unaccountable power - in this case, controlling populations rather than territory. But when I presented this conclusion to audiences people would ask me, unbelieving, why I was so passionate about population control. As the youngest of eight children, part of a generation Paul Ehrlich called The Population Bomb, it was obvious why I might feel a personal stake in this history, even if it took me years to realize it.
Perhaps there is already too much navel-gazing among the professoriate. Self-important professors sometimes forget that, if we have an audience beyond academia, it is not for our life stories - everybody's got one - it is because we claim to have something new and important to say. But for most of us, that is only because we have spent our lives thinking about it, driven in ways even we do not always understand. That is why those who would think to follow us really had better pursue their own passions.
By Matthew Connelly
(Reprinted electronically by permission of the publisher from the forthcoming title FATAL MISCONCEPTION: THE STRUGGLE TO CONTROL WORLD POPULATION by Matthew Connelly, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.) Matthew Connelly in"Fatal Misconception The Struggle to Control World Population"
About Matthew Connelly
Associate Professor, University of Iowa, August 2007-.
When you work on long-suppressed histories of violence and disenfranchisement, it can be off-putting to see them resurface as somebody's aspiration. I came to this realization very abruptly one October morning in 2003, as I sat down to rest beneath the clattering schedule board at Manhattan's Penn Station, unburdening myself of a half-dozen overflowing bags from The Strand-maybe you know this particular relief?-and opening up the Sunday New York Times. There, right on the front page, George W. Bush had an outbreak of historiography. Speaking before the Philippine legislature at the start of a six-nation trip through Southeast Asia, Bush invoked a peculiar Philippine-American past."America is proud of its part in the great story of the Filipino people," he proclaimed."Together our soldiers liberated the Philippines from colonial rule. Together we rescued the islands from invasion and occupation."
Bush's move here was familiar enough to any student of U. S. imperial history-writing: to smother into oblivion a brutal and protracted U. S. war against the Philippine Revolution (1899-1902) and 47 years of formal U. S. colonial rule by sandwiching them between two would-be liberatory bookends, the war against Spain (1898) and the war against Japan (1941-5). But if Bush's strategy was recognizable, the use of this usable past was new: sanitized in this way, the Philippine-American past could help sanction a new imperial future in the shape of a global"war on terror." Invoking José Rizal, the Philippines' national martyr, at one moment, and Saddam Hussein in another, Bush hailed the universality of"freedom" (at least in its neo-conservative variety) and the need for nations to"earn" it in battle against"grave and gathering danger." The historical success of the Philippine-American experiment in gun-point democratization vindicated the ongoing Iraq invasion, a project in which, in a neat symmetry, Philippine troops and medics now participated. In turn, the sinister invocation of Saddam's"mass graves" and"torture rooms" contributed to a century's work erasing those once operated by conquering U. S. troops in the Philippines itself.
What were the historian's responsibilities at such a moment? The question had not presented itself so urgently when I set out in the mid-1990s to investigate the racial politics of early 20th century Philippine-American colonialism. Indeed, my chosen dissertation topic had earned me some gentle ribbing from grad-school colleagues: in a post-Cold War world, what was this particular past going to be useful for? At the same time, though, pioneering intellectual currents, crossed with ongoing U. S. interventions, were making U. S. imperial power more visible-and more richly legible-to a wider range of scholars than ever before: to American Studies scholars urged to build empire into their"domestic" critiques by scholars like Amy Kaplan; to diplomatic historians, guided towards cultural analysis by historians like Emily Rosenberg; to cultural historians inspired to see the politics of difference, and particularly structures of race and gender, through lenses provided by colonial and post-colonial studies. It was a fascinating crossroads of influences to set up shop at.
The question I found myself asking was how, in the early 20th century, at a moment when racial imaginaries saturated global politics, including U. S. international politics, Americans had come to terms with colonial rule over Filipinos, a people with whom they had had virtually no prior experience. Given my training in U. S. history, my initial hypothesis was predictably"Americanist": that U. S. colonial officials, merchants, missionaries and journalists had"exported" prior racial understandings (of African-Americans, Native Americans and Asian-Americans, in particular) to comprehend the Philippines and its peoples. This interpretation, I now recognize, conveniently aligned the past I was studying with patterns that my largely nation-bound education had prepared me to recognize and, perhaps unconsciously, with the established job categories I imagined myself applying for. If Americans simply witnessed the"same difference" in the Philippines, it demonstrated that U. S. empire could be comprehended without intellectually departing from the conventional canons of U. S. historical understanding. Entirely legible within"national" terms, the world could be"annexed" to U. S. categories without fundamentally challenging them.
But the deeper I dove into the archival boxes, the less the world appeared to organize itself in this way. Far from tracking the seamless incorporation of the Philippines into older frameworks, I confronted profound arguments-among and between divergent groups of Americans and Filipinos-over the racial character of the Philippine population and the relevance of this question to matters of power and sovereignty. I witnessed new, imperial racial formations emerging from the specific, historical dynamics of colonial conquest and rule. As Americans engaged in heated debate amongst themselves-were Filipinos uniformly"savages" and in need of permanent, violent suppression, as the U. S. military held, or backward" children" in need of disciplinary"tutelage," as civilian officials and missionaries believed-collaborating Filipino elites came to play a decisive role in framing the racial terms of Philippine-American colonial state-building. The result of this charged and uneven dialogue was a racial state whose principal dividing line was an essentially religious one, separating Hispanicized Catholics from"non-Christian" animists and Muslims. As I attempted to trace this race-making process across national histories, it became clear to me that it could not simply be"annexed": embedded in both U. S. and Philippine pasts, it required me to find a way to narrate a history between them. It was going to involve learning Philippine history, with the help of a rich historiography and patient colleagues. And it was going to require paying careful attention to the varied and paradoxical ways that, as the U. S. rose as a world power in the 20th century, it became increasingly subject to the constraints and mandates of a global history. This would be the goal, however incompletely realized, of my first book.
But was my version of the U. S. imperial past obliged to answer George W. Bush's? Historical training and years of scouring archives had made me-and continue to make me-suspicious of streamlined historical analogies and genealogies, even those that hope to connect a critical past to a contemporary politics that I support. Faced with the journalist's question to historians-isn't the past you study just like the present I'm writing about on deadline?-one becomes painfully aware of the price of shaving history's ragged eccentricies down to"precedents,""parallels" and, perhaps most dangerously,"lessons." The Vietnam War, for example, had allowed the Philippine-American War to resurface in historical debate in the 1970s and 1980s and, in important ways, the earlier war would never again sink as far in the wells of American forgetting. But during both the Vietnam War and its aftermath, the search for analogies constrained as much as it enabled this scholarship, on both the right and left. In the face of the vast egotism of the present, the persistent but periodical assertion of a history's"relevance" ultimately serves to deny it its own"weight." Tethered to"exceptional" moments in the present, such histories are built to vanish.
As I revised my book and, in the post-9/11 period, became involved in the anti-war movement on my campus, and as Bush undertook his own effort at past-making, the question took shape with rising immediacy. What was I to do with McKinley's and Roosevelt's exceptionalist war waged in the name of" civilization"? With American publics learning their Southeast Asian cultural and religious anthropology by military means? How was I to make sense of extreme, racialized brutality by U. S. forces, including late-Victorian versions of"water-boarding"? How to read a refusal of Filipino self-government on the malleable grounds of intractable, racial-cultural failings, and a Philippine"nation-building" project characterized by an endless regress of"benchmarks"? How, ultimately, was I to interpret a denial of"empire" predicated on an occupation's permanently temporary character?
Inevitably, struggles over the neo-imperial present were raising certain elements of the past into sharper relief for me. And I wanted my work, in whatever miniscule way, to contribute to those struggles. But I did not want to surrender to them or their terms, either. My answer-a highly imperfect one, worked out more in the practice of writing than as a set principle-was to acknowledge but also to resist the force of the present, to write both playfully and darkly in a critical counterpoint between past and present. This meant acknowledging the often eerie resemblances that I observed, but-backing away from rigid analogy or direct lineage-also respecting the history's infinite distinctiveness. After all, it is from that limitless idiosyncrasy, the puzzling pasts that frustrate both the historian's standard frames of reference and the journalist's eternal present, that vital possibilities can emerge.
By Paul A. Kramer
About Paul A. Kramer
Kramer's supple and nuanced argument is transnational in scope, yet always keenly attuned to national variations and contexts. Provocative and deeply researched, Blood of Government makes a major contribution to the scholarship of U.S. imperialism. -- Stuart L. Bernath Book Prize (SHAFR)
Associate Professor and Graduate Coordinator Department of History, University of Toronto
I too considered sharing my first experiences at the magnificent Eiffel-style French national library in Paris, at a time when it still hired someone to wake readers up from their slumber, and when it featured a special section known as"hell" - the repository for racy books. In the end, it seemed incompatible with my new role as"young historian," given that several generations of truly young researchers have now been working at the ultra-modern, concrete Bibliothèque nationale. Instead, I have decided to recount aspects of my trips to Madagascar, a country that has twice captured my attention, once in a study on the impact of the Vichy regime there, and more recently for a history of its main spa, Antsirabe.
Antsirabe is many places wrapped in one. The city boasts several industries, including a beer plant, textile works, and naturally, a mineral-water bottling facility. But it is also a sleepy bourgeois town, developed by the French around the turn of the twentieth century to remind the colonizers of home. Villas still bear romantic French titles, such as flower names, or the more vacation-oriented"mon repos." The grand Hôtel terminus, also known as the Hôtel des thermes, has aged. Still evoking on its exterior Antsirabe's ambitions of grandeur, it was renovated on the interior, no doubt in the seventies, with the latest appointments and goldenish carpeting. The train station sits atop a disproportionately wide boulevard, along which the colonizers were once pulled in rickshaws. How, I wondered after weeks working through dossiers on the spa in Madagascar's national archives, how would the town look today, and how had the Malagasy come to view this quintessentially colonial site long after independence? More importantly for my hydrotherapy project, how if at all, had the spa's function and image changed?
In the colonial era, my files showed, Antsirabe was considered a panacea against the island's ills: malaria and other tropical diseases. The spa's waters were analyzed at length by French and even Norwegian scientists, who posited its resemblance to other waters known for their malaria-fighting virtues: Vichy's. Thus, colonials and colonized had thronged to the spa to seek both preventative and post-contraction cures against malaria. As I entered the spa building for the first time, I pondered postcolonial ruptures and continuities. For one thing, the spa had emerged as a more egalitarian site. Gone, obviously, were the divides between baths for Europeans and Malagasy. But gone too was the colonial specialization. A bilingual sign on the wall announced as follows the spa's curative coverage:"liver disease, gastric ailments, diabetes, colitis, respiratory diseases, rheumatism, dermatological, psychological and gynecological ills, sterility, low and high blood pressure." What had happened? For one thing, Madagascar's mainstream medical establishment is suffering, medical and social coverage are virtually unknown. Relatively inexpensive hydrotherapy has therefore been drawing Malagasy patients in droves. But might this also speak to pre and post-colonial continuities-to the Malagasy recovering precolonial water practices? This question led me to wade into deeper currents-and to explore precolonial uses of the waters, which in turn, profoundly marked my approach to Curing the Colonizers.
There were nonetheless many evident carry-overs from colonial times. For one thing, Antsirabe's sparkling mineral water is still known and sold as"Rano-Visy," meaning"Vichy water" in Malagasy. That connection remains strong. So too does the idea of Antsirabe as a small replica of France, one where local elites have replaced the old colonial ones. On a more recent trip to Madagascar in 2005, I shared a taxi in the capital Antananarivo with a Chinese businessman involved in textiles- a lucrative and increasingly common relocation since the passing in 2000 of the US African Growth and Opportunity Act. This globalization moment was soon followed by a colonial allusion. My interlocutor raved about a recent weekend in Antsirabe-the closest he would ever get to France, he assured me. Antsirabe, the"France clone" that I was studying, was displaying an enduring afterlife.
By Eric T. Jennings
About Eric T. Jennings
Associate Professor of History, University of Washington, September 2004 to present,
Core Faculty, Africa and Diaspora Studies, September 2003 to present,
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Women Studies, Fall 2000 to present,
Affiliate Faculty, Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, Fall 2002 to present.
Like virtually all historians, I have rehearsed repeatedly the intellectual forces that brought me to my first book, which was also my dissertation: the oversights in the historiography, the theoretical developments that informed my contribution to the field, the sources that deserved new analysis. What I have often wondered about, though, were the personal motivations for writing a dissertation and then a book on enslaved women's resistance. Did I, as a young, black woman, identify with black women who were enslaved more than a century ago? Did I, so often charged with being unnaturally defiant, need to cathect that identification on resistance, and not subjugation? As I mature into an experienced teacher who has seen many of my students compelled to identify with the variety of characters we study, I find myself having the courage to admit that the answer to these questions is"yes."
That this is a difficult admission needs no lengthy explanation. Professional historians know that"the past is another country," as our historicist forefathers (sic) wrote to explain their breaking away from the generally acontextual, moralistic narratives that preceded them. Identification is but a way of obfuscating difference, a romantic fantasy of a sameness that does not exist. I have come to believe this basic tenet of our profession as much as anyone. But not, perhaps, as much as some.
From my students I have learned to give identification some credit. While their feelings of association with slaves, slaveholders, poor white southerners, abolitionists and others are often confusing and painful, students' sense of connection with and investment in them is a powerful motivation for the hard work required to leap into the minds, lives and worlds of people who lived so far apart from us. For me, identification was precisely the spur that got me asking questions, even if I had to learn to dis-identify in order to hear properly the answers for what they were: the words of others.
Students' sense of the connection between themselves and this country's slave past is also right. That is,"the past is another country" is not exactly an accurate descriptor of the U.S.'s relationship to its slave past, or to any aspect of its past. The American economy, culture and politics were all shaped (some have argued they were made) by the institution of slavery. The same is true for the many past lives and lands consumed in the making of today's United States. Where is the line dividing the country of the past from this one? When students see, for example, their high school experiences in the educational institutions available to freedpeople in the late nineteenth century, are they narcissistically shoe-horning the whole world into their own? Perhaps a bit. But I have come to think that they are also appreciating the organic nature of the life of a country. That (somewhat ahistorically self-centered) sense of connection is one I now embrace as a potentially radical first step, as it was for me, towards re-envisioning the U.S. as constituted in and still living with the legacy of, its histories of exploitation and subjugation-and resistance.
By Stephanie M. H. Camp
In violation of slaveholders' orders and the state's laws, though, enslaved people left the quarters; again and again enslaved people ran away and created other kinds of spaces that gave them room and time for their families, for rest from work, and for amusement; on occasion, women moved forbidden objects into their quarters to worrisome effect. In short, enslaved people created a 'rival geography'-alternative ways of knowing and using southern space that conflicted with planters' ideals and demands." -- Stephanie M. H. Camp in"Closer to Freedom Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South"
About Stephanie M. H. Camp
Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo Director and Librarian, John Carter Brown Library (July 2006 to present)
I have often wondered if it's healthy to spend so much time living in the past. Is it not a little bit creepy to stalk people who lived so long ago, peering through windows into their private lives, extrapolating enormous conclusions about conditions we cannot possibly experience?
Of course, that has never stopped me for a second from doing all of those things. Nor you - for while else would you interrupt a perfectly productive day to read a gossipy anecdote about a random historian? Thank God HNN came along when it did to provide this long-overdue professional service.
For me, the past was always there, even in childhood, beckoning in the most subtle and alluring ways. It may have started with baseball cards. I remember learning that older ones were more valuable, so perhaps it was merely an economic calculation, but I don't think so. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that the older cards were exotic; nothing was odder in Nixon-era America, with all of its facial hair, than to see those crewcuts peering out from a piece of cardboard printed two decades earlier. What civilization could have produced them?
Because I grew up in Providence, a city overflowing with the detritus of the Industrial Revolution, there were old things everywhere - old libraries, old diners, old people. It was wonderful, and I haunted thrift shops and Salvation Armies looking for outdated items to read, wear, or listen to. One day I came across Elvis Presley's"I Forgot to Remember to Forget" (25¢) - perhaps an early signpost on the way to a history career?
In such an environment, liking history seemed a foregone conclusion. There is a rule in New England that all grade schools are required to take field trips to Plimoth Plantation and Sturbridge Village, where reenactors speak in fake English accents about crop rotation. In spite of that, I found the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries fascinating, and began what I suppose was my own form of reenactment, studying US history in school, college and beyond. Over time, I gradually began to like the 19th and 20th centuries too, and I now find myself in the frustrating position of finding everything that has ever happened to be of interest.
For that reason, it is satisfying to now be the director of a research institution, responding to eternally new and different requests from a global community of scholars. The JCB is unusually comprehensive in its scope, covering the entire hemisphere from Columbus to about 1825, so there is no shortage of topics to think about. While I'm glad to be back in my hometown, I'm also grateful that I was able to work at different times in completely different environments, including a huge university (Harvard), a tiny college (Washington College) and a place that was not either (the Clinton White House). But that's quite a long anecdote in itself. Perhaps I'll save that one for HNN's feature on Old Historians - I'm getting close to eligibility.
By Ted Widmer
John O'Sullivan discovered this pretended destiny, and then discovered more slowly the harsher destiny he had also ushered in. How could it be otherwise? No one of his generation had more invested in the outcome, and few paid as high a price for destiny's manifestation. But for all his bombast and backsliding, his early idealism still holds out the possibility of something better for"the Great Nation of Futurity," always just a little bit ahead of the present tense. It is difficult, then as now, to separate"America" from the United States, and one generation from another. Yet it is still exciting to strive for"new history," as O'Sullivan did in 1837, and countless others have done since, knowing they will end up as old history when all is said and done. Edward L. Widmer in"Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City"
He deserves to be reconnected to that future - to us. Not falsely praised - he would not want that. Well, all right, he would. Rather, Van Buren's life should be honestly reexamined for the truths of his own time and ours. A grand total of six American communities were named after him, presumably during his brief moment in the sun, in Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, and Ohio [ck Iowa, Michigan, Tenn.]. Their combined population adds up to about 10,000 people, far more than have ever read a book about him. After all that he lived through, he deserves more. Perhaps this profile will begin the process of explaining him more fully, expanding upon the effort he began alongside the Adriatic, with the sirens singing their entreaties, and Clio whispering in his ear. - Edward L. Widmer in"Martin Van Buren"
About Ted Widmer