Note: This is the 100th Top Young Historian HNN has profiled!
Assistant Professor of History and George C. Wiswell Jr. Research Fellow, Colby College
Historians should read cozy anecdotes with skepticism, but...well, when I was twelve, my family went to see Les Miserables at the Shubert Theater in Boston. I was swept away by the dramatic tale of hunger and poverty, redemption and rebellion. During the car ride home, I kept pestering my parents and my brother with all manner of questions. Why did so many people suffer? Were things really so bad in nineteenth-century France? Why hadn't the Revolution of 1789 made life better? A few years later, the quick collapse of the Soviet Empire-and the brutal repression of the democratic protests in China-made these historical questions seem all the more real and vital and living.
So, I went to college knowing I would major in history and thinking I would study revolutions. Because of the great professors I met at Cornell and then Brandeis, I came to focus on the American Revolution and its aftermath. Where did this revolution come from? What did it accomplish? How does it continue to shape, define, and diminish democracy in America? As a teacher and scholar, I try to use many different strands of analysis so that I can ask big questions and study enduring themes. My first book was a study of ambition in the post-Revolutionary age, especially among the rural households of New England; my new project is about vengeance and its ascent in American foreign policy and nationalism. (My wife, Holly, jokes that I'm writing a series about the seven deadly sins of the early United States. First ambition, now vengeance...) I'm also working on an edited collection of Tom Paine's work, which has allowed me to learn again about a thinker and radical I thought I knew.
In any case, corny as it sounds, I try to retain a childish enthusiasm for the study of the past. This is fairly easy to do, because I am more and more convinced that studying history is an ethical as well as intellectual journey. By revealing to us the whole sweep of the human drama, across huge swaths of space and time, and by enabling us to comprehend people unlike ourselves, history jars us out of a narrow, shallow self-regard. It can make us more humble and decent, more compassionate and curious. So I consider myself very lucky to be able to learn and teach and write history for a living.
By Jason M. Opal
One of these cultural shifts began in the United States during the late 1780s, after the narrow victory of the Federal Constitution over more localized hopes for the new states. With the creation of the"extended republic" came a widespread effort to uproot households and communities from their provincial identities and to align them with national judgments of self and success, value and virtue, public need and personal worth. While trying to turn a specific kind of ambition into an organizing principle of national life, this effort also took aim at alternate, more familiar, and typically more viable forms of aspiration for those living in a rural social order of laboring households and interdependent neighbors. More and less than a set of adaptations to market expansion and integration,"the installation of ambition" was a discernible project, a drawn-out campaign that entailed innovations in both the imaginative and discursive realm (how people thought and ideas operated) and the institutional and social terrain (how people were conditioned and resources deployed). It also occasioned a moral controversy that mostly ensued, not between social groups or political factions, but within communities, families, and individuals. This book offers a social history of that personal and cultural struggle-a story of restless sons and ambivalent fathers, resilient women and defeated men, bright-eyed reformers and hard-bitten neighbors.
The restless sons were the focal points of the changes and conflicts at hand, because they, more than their sisters, stood to inherit both the local properties that brought independence and the national society that promised (and demanded) something more. For this reason, young men predominate in the pages that follow. But how to study them? Who to investigate and who to leave out? Any attempt to generalize about the young men of the young republic will tend to exaggerate the appeal and momentum of the project to promote ambition. It will also miss the inner struggles that ambitious striving brought (and still brings). A resort to biography, on the other hand, would lose the collective sway and texture of the larger effort in the details of a single life. By way of both narrative design and methodological compromise, then, I have crafted this history of ambition around six young men who found that passion to be compelling, inspiring, or necessary in their lives, and who therefore sought to transcend a social world and personal identity built on independence. -- Jason M. Opal in"Beyond the Farm National Ambitions in Rural New England"
As it happened, Hitchcock may have been the perfect man for the delicate job. Contemporaries recall him as an affable gentleman who enjoyed creature comforts and social harmony. Having married into independent wealth, he had a talent for looking on the bright side of things and promoting the virtues espoused by his church, the First or Benevolent Congregational Society. Noting that religion was a blessing to"all nations of the world," its charter welcomed"any good man" to a fellowship based"not on the prejudice of party, but on the broad basis of Christian philanthropy." Ever since his settlement in 1783, Hitchcock had tried to heal the sectarian rifts that raged with special intensity in his adopted state. All of his public addresses during the 1780s stressed the virtues of denominational harmony, and at least two of them closed with his stated hope for a future in which"universal love smiles on all around." If anyone could please everyone, it was the Benevolent pastor.
However unique he was for his geniality, though, Hitchcock was not a seminal interpreter of either Christian or Enlightenment morality. Even admiring members of the Benevolent Church recall that he was"seldom original" and"not profound" in the pulpit. Compared to the Rev. Samuel Hopkins of Newport, Rhode Island, among others, Hitchcock was a theological lightweight. And although he belonged to the Society of the Cincinnati and knew many of the leading lights of the infant republic, he had little influence in national politics. Hitchcock's significance derives instead from his earnest, even caricatured embrace of a moral and political identity that peaked during the 1780s; he is important for what he reflects rather than what he accomplished. Along with a wide range of public figures, this pastor considered"liberality" the indispensable quality for the people and institutions of a presumably enlightened age. He was determined both to be liberal and to spread liberal values, and never more so than during his July 4th, 1788 oration. -- Jason M. Opal in"Exciting Emulation: Academies and the Transformation of the Rural North, 1780s-1820s," Journal of American History, 91 (September 2004)"
About Jason M. Opal
No institution was more important than the academy. In Opal's best chapter, he demonstrates how the national elites' goals for the new republic spurred the proliferation of private academies around New England....
Democratic ambition rejected the classical fear that ambitious elites would threaten society. Instead, it redefined ambition as a healthy spur to self-improvement for all citizens. If today that drive has led to a materialistic, shallow, overly individualistic society, we cannot forget that in the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War it also liberated the human spirit. Let us thank Opal, therefore, for historicizing ambition and its public spiritedness in the past and hope with him that if ambition"worked differently in the past it might do so in the future" (p. 192). -- Johann Neem (Department of History, Western Washington University), H-SHEAR (August, 2008)
"Amazing professor - incredibly passionate and transfers the same passion to his students. A must at Colby - you have to take a class with this man, and take advantage of his open door office hours.... Super approachable and endlessly helpful."...
"He's the best professor I've ever had! I hate history and now I want to take another class with him."...
"He's the best professor I've ever had! I hate history and now I want to take another class with him."...
"I love the class. He is so passionate about the subject you can't help but be interested too! He is very helpful outside of class, too, and is a great prof. to just have a quality conversation with."...
"I love him. His classes are so interesting, and organized, he always has a very detailed syllabus, and he's a very helpful paper-grader. He also tastefully sprinkles his lectures with jokes, baseball analogies, and references to The Onion."...
"sooo engaging, really into the material, young enough to relate to the students."
"Prof Opal is a really great teacher and is really enthusiastic about the material. I am definitely going to take another class with him...."
"Really great lectures... good guy too... I'd take another class!" -- Anonymous Students
Assistant Professor of History at the University of Georgia, 2005-Present
While pursuing a Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 2000s I formed a band, The Atomic Harvesters, which we declared to be"Boston's Sexiest Lounge-Country Band." Merging the instrumentation of 1950s-60s urban jazz with the raw simplicity of rural country music from the same period, the Atomic Harvesters drew on diverse musical inspirations, ranging from Hank Williams, Sr. to Billie Holiday to the Modern Jazz Quartet and Merle Haggard. The intellectual inspiration for the band name and concept, however, drew directly on a passage in James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State.
On page 272, Scott refers to Davis Meltzer's artistic rendering of the"farm of the future" in the February 1970 issue of National Geographic magazine. In the image, two men operate a semi-autonomous farm of enormous scale from a glass-topped dome equipped with a supercomputer. Beef cattle are arrayed in what seems to be a" cattle condo," architecturally not unlike Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Guggenheim Museum, except that cattle munching on antibiotic-laced feedstuffs fill the places of tourists and art critics. The farmer seated at the supercomputer operates an atomic-powered harvester, processing a grain field of near-infinite size into the foodstuffs of a consumer-driven economy. Meltzer's image channels modernist Charles Scheeler's paintings, in which individual workers are dwarfed by the machines that surround them in techno-pastoralist landscapes. Meltzer's imagery borders on the surreal, yet evokes a very realistic world in which the Jeffersonian vision of independent farmers working the land with simple tools has been subsumed by the technocracy of late-twentieth-century capitalism.
Meltzer's image provided the inspiration for my band's name, as well as the title of one of our instrumentals,"Cattle Condo." James Scott's critique of high modernist agriculture, meanwhile, laid a cornerstone for my ongoing intellectual interest in the technology, political economy, social realities, and political culture of rural Americans living in a world of industrial agriculture, hypercapitalist consumerism, and profound antistatism-a world that I described in my first book, Trucking Country: The Road to America's Wal-Mart Economy.
Meltzer's 1970 imagining of the"farm of the future" and Jim Scott's critique of high modernism focused on the vast material, political, and ideological gulfs separating urbanites from rural residents in the modern era. I sought in Trucking Country, by contrast, to show how the wrenching transformations of rural life in the mid- twentieth century were deeply intertwined with broader transformations in U.S. politics, economic realities, cultural beliefs, and social experiences. By thus contextualizing the historical experiences of rural Americans- even those country-music-lovin' neopopulist truckers who self-identified as members of Richard Nixon's"Silent Majority"-I demonstrated how rural workers helped to construct, from the 1930s through the 1970s, the economic realities and ideologies of neoliberalism that permeated the entire nation by the 1980s. These rural independent truckers, working in a world of industrial agribusiness, suburban supermarkets, and high modernist agricultural policymakers, found themselves with few choices other than to accept a"Wal-Mart economy"-decades before Wal-Mart became one of the world's largest and most powerful corporations.
I no longer have time to play much guitar, and the members of the Atomic Harvesters have spread to the four corners of the world. My fascination with the"farm of the future" and the rural people of the past, however, continues to drive my research-particularly as I work on my second book,"Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the American Century." There are far more country music songs about trucks than there are about supermarkets, so I unfortunately will not be integrating my musical interests and my historical research as tightly as I did in my first book. Unless, of course, I revive the Atomic Harvesters and write a couple of lounge-country tunes about U.S. supermarkets being airlifted into Yugoslavia, Italy, and Latin America in the 1950s and 1960s. If anyone knows of a rhyme for"Yugoslavia," I'm all ears.
By Shane Hamilton
About Shane Hamilton
Howard Professor of Humanities & Western Civilization, University of Kansas
Area of Research: Cultural history of gender, sexuality and the body, modern European intellectual and cultural history, modern France
Education: Ph.D., History, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1994
Major Publications: Forth is the author of Masculinity in the Modern West: Gender, Civilization and the Body (Palgrave, 2008), The Dreyfus Affair and the Crisis of French Manhood (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004; paperback 2006), and Zarathustra in Paris: The Nietzsche Vogue in France, 1891-1918 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2001).
He has also co-edited Sexuality at the Fin de Siècle: The Makings of a"Central Problem" (University of Delaware Press, 2008), French Masculinities: History, Culture and Politics (Palgrave, 2007), Cultures of the Abdomen: Diet, Digestion and Fat in the Modern World (Palgrave, 2005), and Body Parts: Critical Explorations in Corporeality (Lexington, 2005).
Forth has written numerous scholarly articles and book chapters, including"Surviving our Paradoxes? Masculinity, Modernity, and the Body," Culture, Society and Masculinities, 1, no. 1 (Spring 2009);"Manhood Incorporated: Diet and the Embodiment of 'Civilized' Masculinity," Men and Masculinities (2009);"The Novelization of the Dreyfus Affair: Women and Sensation in Fin-de-Siècle France," in Victorian Crime, Madness, and Sensation, edited by Andrew Maunder and Grace Moore (London: Ashgate, 2004), 163-178;"Neurasthenia and Manhood in Fin-de-Siècle France," in Cultures of Neurasthenia from Beard to the First World War, Marijke Gijswijt-Hofstra and Roy Porter, eds. (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001), 329-361; and"Bodies of Christ: Gender, Jewishness, and Religious Imagery in the Dreyfus Affair." History Workshop Journal, 48 (Autumn 1999): 18-38.
He is currently writing a book entitled Flab: A Cultural History of Obesity, which is under contract with Reaktion Books (UK). Awards: Forth is the recipient of numerous research grants and fellowships, including:
Keeler Intra-University Professorship from the University of Kansas (2010);
Two Discovery Grants from the Australian Research Council (2006);
Two small grants from the Australian Research Council (1999, 2000);
Five faculty research grants from the Australian National University (1998-2004);
Travel grant from the Wellcome Trust for the History of Medicine (2001);
Three faculty research grants from the University of Memphis (1995-97);
Camargo Foundation Fellowship (1993);
Younger Scholars Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1987).
While teaching in Australia Forth also won a Carrick Institute Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning ["For Developing Innovative and Effective Multimedia Techniques for the Research-Driven Teaching of European and American Cultural History"] (2006) and a Vice Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching from the Australian National University (2006).
Editorial Advisory Board, Men and Masculinities;
Editorial Board, Culture, Society and Masculinities.
When I was in fifth grade my teacher announced to the class that I would grow up to be a historian. Not that I took this very seriously: I just happened to know who Patrick Henry was, and was pretty sure that, whatever a historian did, it must be pretty boring. In fact it was not until tenth grade that the idea of an academic life began to hold any kind of appeal for me. This was not because of what I learned in any high school history class, but from stumbling upon a tattered copy of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment in my English class. My teacher said I could have the book"as long as you read it." I did and it changed my life, generating an interest in the history of ideas that led me to literature, philosophy and social theory. I found each of these fields fascinating, but apparently so hemmed in by disciplinary conventions that focusing on any one of them seemed tantamount to bidding farewell to the others. When I began my university work I settled on history because it seemed like an open intellectual space in which to examine virtually anything pertaining to human society so long as it happened in the past. Ultimately what attracted me to history was its sense of openness and possibility, apparently limited only by the questions one brought to it. I'm not sure what my fifth grade teacher would have to say about this, but it seems she was right after all.
My specific interest in the cultural history of gender, sexuality and the body was sparked during my final semester of graduate school and has never ceased to inform my work. Feeling the need to make sure I had read"everything" on my period before submitting my dissertation on the first French reception of Nietzsche's work, I happened upon Bram Dijkstra's Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture (1986), and quickly became enthralled. Dijkstra's rich analysis of how depictions of women in art and literature were informed by developments in biology, psychology, medicine and social theory - and how many of these representations seemed like compensations for a spectrum of male anxieties - completely changed my view of intellectual and cultural history. I became sensitive to how gendered language is often used to describe social and political phenomena, and reflected on the numerous instances in my dissertation where I had treated such language uncritically. A closer focus on how various groups described Nietzsche and his followers in gendered terms seemed worth pursuing, and while it was impractical to recast the dissertation at that late date, I developed this theme more fully when revising the text for publication. Thanks to these new insights the end result, Zarathustra in Paris: The Nietzsche Vogue in France, 1891-1918, provided a more complex perspective on the dynamics of cultural reception and intellectual politics, and a springboard for much of my subsequent work.
By Christopher E. Forth
About Christopher E. Forth
He is one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He is clearly very knowledgeable on the subject. His lectures are informative. If you enjoy the material, he is great, and I could not recommend him more." -- Anonymous Students
Assistant Professor, East Asian Languages and Cultures, Columbia University, July 2002-present.
Area of Research: Late imperial and modern Chinese history with a particular focus on the history of emotions and gender, law and media, as well as consumer culture, science, and urban society, issues of historiography and critical theory in the study of East Asia
Education: Ph.D., Chinese History, University of California, Los Angeles, December 2001.
Major Publications: Lean is the author of Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China, (University of California Press, April 2007), which is a study of how a high-profile crime of female passion helped give rise to the moral and political authority of"public sympathy" in Republican-era China. The book was awarded the American Historical Association's 2007 John K. Fairbank prize for an outstanding book in modern East Asian history. She is currently working on Global Soap, Local Desires: Transnational Circuits of Science and Commerce in Modern China, which is a study of the global circuits of science and commerce that introduced modern soap to China.
Lean is the author of scholarly journal articles and book chapters in both English and Chinese including:
"Daode xunjie yu meiti xiaoying: Shi Jianqiao'an yu sanshi niandai Zhongguo dushi dazhong wenhua" [Moral Exhortation and Media Sensation: the Case of Shi Jianqiao and Urban Mass Culture in 1930s China]. In Wenhua qimeng yu zhishi shengchan [Cultural Enlightenment and Knowledge Production]. Ed. Chia-ling Mei, 213-232. Taipei: Maitian Publishing, 2006;"Shenpan zhong de ganqing yinsu: ji 1935-36 nian xiju xing de shenpan - Shi Jianqiao qi'an" [Emotions on Trial: Courtroom Drama and Urban Spectacle in the 1935-36 Case of Shi Jianqiao]." Zhongguo Xueshu (China Scholarship) 6.2 (2005): 206-231;"Liu Jinggui Qingsha'an: sanshi niandai Beiping de dazhong wenhua yu meiti chaozuo" [Love with a Vengeance: Media Sensation in Republican Era Beiping]. Beijing: Urban Culture and Historical Memory. Eds. Chen Pingyuan and David Wang, 269-84. Beijing: Beijing University Press, 2005;"The Making of a Public: Emotions and Media Sensation in 1930s China." Twentieth Century China 29.2 (April 2004): 39-61; Gongde huo sichou? Yijiu sanshi niandai Zhongguo"qing" de guozu zhengzhi [Public Virtue or Private Revenge? Female Qing and the Chinese Nation]. Public and Private: Individual and Collective Bodies in Modern Chinese History. Eds. Huang Kewu and Chang Che-chia, 223-53. Taibei: Institute of Modern History, 2000;"Reflections on Theory, Gender and the Psyche in the Study of Chinese History." Funü lishi yanjiu fukan [Research on Women in Modern Chinese History] 6 (August 1998): 141-173;"The Modern Elixir: Medicine as a Consumer Item in the Early Twentieth-Century Press." UCLA Historical Journal 15 (1995): 65-92.
Awards: Lean is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
2007 John K. Fairbank Book Prize (awarded by the American Historical Association) for Public Passions: the Trial of Shi Jianqiao and the Rise of Popular Sympathy in Republican China (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, April 2007).
ACLS/Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship for Junior Faculty, 2004-2005;
An Wang Postdoctoral Fellowship, Fairbank Center for East Asian Research, Harvard University, 2004-2005;
School of Historical Studies, Institute for Advanced Study, Mellow Fellowship in East Asian Studies, Fall 2004 (Declined);
University of California, Berkeley's Center for Chinese Studies Post-doctoral Fellowship, 2004-2005 (Alternate);
UCLA History Department Dissertation Writing Fellowship, 2000-2001;
Paula Stone Dissertation Fellowship (Center for Study ofWomen, UCLA), 2000-2001;
Herma and Celia Wise Fellowship (UCLA), 2000-2001;
ICFOG Pre-Dissertation Fellowship (UCLA), 1999-2000;
American Council for Learned Societies-Committee on Scholarly Communication with China (ACLS-CSCC), Dissertation Research Grant, 2/1999-12/1999;
Fulbright IIE, Dissertation Research Grant, 9/1998-2/1999;
Eugene Cota-Robles Four-year Fellowship, University of California, Office of the President, 1992-1994, 1995-1997.
Formerly Assistant Professor, History Department, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, July 2001-June 2002.
My first book, Public Passions, historicizes the political uses of emotions. It explores a 1935-36 cause célèbre, the trial of Shi Jianqiao (a woman who assassinated a warlord to avenge her father's death), to show how"public sympathy" (tongqing) for the female assassin gained unprecedented moral and political authority in early twentieth century China. The affair generated sensation and stirred passions precisely because it effectively mediated much larger social anxieties, including debate over proper gender norms, questions of legal reform versus vigilante justice, and concerns with attempts by the Nationalist (Guomindang) government to expand its authoritarian rule. In its ability to skewer politicians, cast doubt on official narratives, and enable serious exploration of social and gender issues, the sentiment-based public that arose in the case came, I argue, to exhibit qualities that much of the critical theory on political participation conventionally associates with"rational" publics.
In the course of writing this history of emotions, I found myself reflecting upon my own passions. There is no doubt that in writing Public Passions, I was informed by a range of sentiments. I had an unmistakable admiration for the"heroine" at the center of story; I was driven by a desire to recoup her"agency," as well as the agency of China itself, too often depicted in historiography as a passive agent in the face of modernization wrought by the West. My penchant for cultural history was pivotal, and to be sure, I am easily smitten by romantic, even exotic, stories and narratives that shape the lives of humans in the past. Yet, a large part of being a historian lies precisely in reining in such passions so as to engage in rigorous analysis. As historians, we are taught to establish a critical distance with our object of study by faithfully interpreting our texts and materials, by carefully considering context, and by inquiring into the conditions that shaped historical agency and events in the past. Dispassionate analysis is the goal.
Thus, by definition, my passionate commitment to unraveling and probing this event in the Chinese past had now become a methodological challenge of the present. Indeed, if you think about the relationship between passions and history writing, things become quite complicated. The tension between subjective passions and critical objectivity was implicitly at the heart of some of the thorny theoretical and methodological debates that consumed academia in the 1990s during my graduate student days. Post-structuralism levied a serious critique of objectivity and empiricism. For many historians, this critique led to a reconsideration of some of the fundamentals of our discipline, which rest on the assumption that we are able to retrieve through empirical fact the objective truth regarding the past. Many were forced to think seriously about how our subjectivity and passions come into play when writing history. Questions swirled about how best to handle the need for dispassionate analysis in historical inquiry while recognizing our subjective perspectives as historically-situated subjects.
I do not profess that the writing of a history of passions has resolved this vexing issue for me. Yet, what has been made clear to me is that passions inevitably inform the endeavor of history writing and thus, matter in writing history. Passionate curiosities, for example, can help animate stories of yesteryear. Emotional investment in one's historical topic can sustain what is a long, often grueling, process in writing and researching about that past. Thus, while unbridled passions certainly risk obfuscating the"objectivity" we historians should constantly strive to achieve, I want to take seriously something that I suggest in my book, namely, that passions are not necessarily mutually exclusive from critical inquiry, and under certain conditions, might even enable it. In other words, historians should add to their disciplinary tool kit the ability to acknowledge their passions and interests, and reflect seriously on how they shape our ways of knowing events of an earlier age. Only by doing so are we better equipped to take a step back, when necessary, and create the needed critical distance crucial for good history writing, all without sacrificing the affective element of the endeavor that often makes it all possible and indeed, worthwhile.
By Eugenia Lean
About Eugenia Lean