A View from Albion

Readers of The Junto may not be familiar with the early American history scene in the UK. Hailing one from each side of the Atlantic but both working in Britain, Tom Cutterham and I have had to grapple with the problems and positives of working on the history of one continent while living on another. Here is a brief sketch of how the land lies on the other side.

Young Jack.jpg

Jack Pole (1922-2010)

In the UK, historians of early North America have their own fraternal body, the British Group of Early American Historians (BGEAH, pronounced, so we’re told, like “beggar”). Along with the British American Nineteenth Century Historians (BrANCH) and the Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS—which we think wins the acronym contest), the BGEAH falls under the vague umbrella of the British Association of American Studies (BAAS), and thence under the larger European Association of American Studies (EAAS). All these organisations hold annual conferences, and several publish their own journals.

In fear of leaving anyone out, we shall try to refrain from naming active UK historians of early America, unless they’re relevant in some particular way. We will however direct you to the list of Harmsworth Professors of American History at Oxford, an annual visiting appointment that reads like a who’s-who of early American historiography going right back through Oscar Handlin and Merrill Jensen to Rear Admiral Samuel Eliot Morrison. The Harmsworth serves as one continually renewed connection between the academic milieus on each side of the Atlantic. Last year, Harmsworth Professor Philip Morgan returned to the UK from Johns Hopkins, having started his career at Cambridge and University College-London. Morgan is an example of the transatlantic flow of early American graduate students and faculty that goes in both directions, including several of our own number on this blog.

In London and Oxford, two upcoming conferences unite US- and UK-based historians. In June, the inaugural Yale-Oxford Indigenous Studies Conference will take place at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute. The event—a collaboration between Ned Blackhawk (Yale) and Pekka Hämäläinen (Oxford)—will create a transatlantic conversation about issues that are generally discussed intra-continentally. Blackhawk and Hämäläinen are laying the foundation for a transatlantic network that will outlast this one conference by putting their students and scholars across Europe in contact. In July, the University of Notre Dame is packing its bags for another inaugural program, entitled “The Transnational Humanities.” The event’s participants include more than a dozen professors—of English Literature and British and American history—who will deliver plenary lectures, host archival and site visits, and provide feedback-intensive workshops to doctoral students from Notre Dame, Oxford, King’s College London, and Queen Mary University of London. The event, like the Oxford-Yale collaboration, is a trans-Atlantic project that encourages the transnational in graduate scholarship.

Logistically, working on American history in the UK is not easy. A return flight from the UK to the archive(s) will cost much more than a flight from Philly to New York; or even Los Angeles to New York. That means every hour of turning the pages or scanning microfilm is costing you a lot of money, and that you’re hoping for a low-risk, high-yield trip that will pull you through the next six or twelve months, at which point you may or may not be able to return. Perhaps for this and other reasons, methodological questions—what sources you used, how you used them, how they limited you—are the most common questions one receives when presenting their work to UK-based colleagues. Because we are so far away from most sources, we must interrogate more deeply why and how we used what we did. Conversely, we have an incredible source-based advantage here. We have the National Archives in London, with holdings that include millions of documents on early North America and the Caribbean that have enriched our understanding of questions deeply rooted in American history, yet with answers beyond its borders. We also have easier access to French and Dutch colonial document archives.

This considerable advantage creates one obvious point of focus for a British historiographical tradition–the role of the British Empire. That tradition is best embodied, perhaps, by a collaborative work, Jack Greene (from Illinois) and Jack Pole’s (from London) Colonial British America: Essays in the New History of the Early Modern Era (1984). As the Guardian’s obituary of Pole noted, he “anticipated,” along with Greene, “the modern interest in Atlantic history.” But any idea of a monolithic British tradition fades away if we take into account the wide variety of work being done by students and researchers here, or by Brits abroad in the US itself. With Pekka Hämäläinen having taken up Pole’s old job as Rhodes Professor of American History last October, we may begin to see a shift in perspective among new UK scholars of early American history–no longer looking to the Atlantic on our own shores, but to the Native empires of a much larger American continent.

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