The Question of Narrative

borgesdesmazieres2Should historians embrace the art of narrative, or treat it with more suspicion? In his review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton back in July, USIH’s Kurt Newman argued that “the book-length narrative” is not “the proper form for the presentation of a historical argument.” Narrative, he wrote, involves too much selection, too many authorial choices hidden from the reader. “Most importantly,” Newman suggested, “constructing a narrative is almost always tied up with some telos or end,” a teleology that serves as expression or conduit of ideology, pulling us towards the outcome we imagine fits. Narrative, in other words, is something more than reasoned argument. It enlists desire to shape the way we think. Continue reading

The Origins of the American Revolution: Politics and Politicized Societies

This is the fifth post in a weeklong roundtable about “The Origins of the American Revolution.” On Monday, Tom Cutterham kicked things off by exhorting historians to stop “separat[ing] economic from constitutional, imperial, political, or even intellectual causes of the revolution.” On Tuesday Jessica Parr raised questions about the convergence of religious and political rhetoric during the Revolution. Mark Boonshoft considered the importance of civil society and associationism, and yesterday Michael Hattem called for sharper attention to the periodization of the Revolution. In today’s post, Ken Owen argues for using politics as the lens with which to sharpen our focus on the disjunctures of the 1760s and 1770s. Tomorrow, the roundtable will conclude with a guest post from Jackie Reynoso.

7080030Revolutionary America was a politicized society. All of the most important conflicts of the American Revolution, from the Stamp Act through Independence to the ratification of the Constitution, were sharply divisive events which demanded citizens take sides. Even neutrals were compelled to give outward displays of support to either patriots or loyalists (often both!). There were very little chances to avoid conflict over such weighty issues—they would reshape and redefine friendships, families, and communities. Continue reading

The Origins of the American Revolution: Social Experience and Revolutionary Politics

This is the third post in our roundtable on the origins of the American Revolution. Tom Cutterham kicked things off on Monday with a post about Nick Bunker’s recent book and on Tuesday Jessica Parr wrote about religion and the American Revolution.

BCC Votes and ProceedingsThis roundtable grew out of a sense that the study of the Revolution’s origins or causes has been neglected of late. Which seems true enough. At the very least, historians have proven more comfortable talking in more amorphous ways about the “the coming of the Revolution” or “the making of revolutionary America.” I am certainly guilty of that. Yet there are, I think, compelling reasons for approaching the Revolution this way. Continue reading

The Origins of the American Revolution: A Roundtable

“The origins and causes of the Revolution remain the two least studied parts of the Revolution in the last thirty years.” So we suggested in these pages back in spring. Was that assessment correct? Where have historians got to in understanding the origins of the revolution; and where do we still need to go? All this week, members of The Junto will weigh in on the question of causes, in an effort to take stock. This is not intended as a definitive overview of current scholarship. Rather, we’ll be exploring our own idiosyncratic approaches to revolutionary origins, and to the recent scholarship that interests us. We invite you to join in the conversation!

Empire on the EdgeBeyond any new discoveries of evidence and perhaps new technological capacities, every new generation of historians has something unique to contribute to the study of the past—a consciousness of its own time and place. History is written on a tightrope between then and now. Even telling the same story again will always come out differently. Each time you walk the tightrope, there’s a slightly different view. In Nick Bunker’s recent trade book, An Empire on the Edge: How Britain Came to Fight America (Knopf, 2014), that slight shift of view comes from the economic crisis that took hold in 2008. At his most interesting, Bunker presents the revolution as a story of concatenating crises, how states try to deal with them, and how they are transformed in the attempt. The dominant context for Bunker’s account is not ideological or cultural. It’s what Sven Beckert would call “war capitalism”—the entwined processes of empire and commerce. Continue reading

A is for “Anthropocene”

Anthropocene wordleToday I want to pretend that I know how to read science journals, particularly a recent Nature article by scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin entitled “Defining the Anthropocene.”[1] Reading a summary about the article was provocation enough to read the article itself, which in turn sparked a more extended rumination about chronology, interdisciplinarity, and scholarly divides. Continue reading

The “Suddenness” of the “Alteration”: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2

As most, if not all, of our readers are aware, this past weekend was the “So Sudden an Alteration” conference hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society in commemoration of the 250th anniversary of the Stamp Act.[1] It was the second of three conferences dedicated to rebirthing Revolution studies, hence, the hashtag #RevReborn2. (NB: You can find the immense backchannel coverage of the conference Storified here: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3. You can also find Joseph Adelman’s interactive TAGSExplorer that chronicled the Twitter coverage). This post is not intended to be a standard Junto-type conference recap. Instead, I just want to offer some afterthoughts on the conference, specifically in light of the piece I wrote before the conference, entitled “Have Cultural Historians Lost the Revolution?” as well as numerous other pieces I have written about the historiography of the Revolution and the state of Revolution studies for the blog, particularly before the first #RevReborn conference back in 2013. Continue reading

No Politics, No Revolution

If there is a current orthodoxy among historians of the American Revolution, it is that the study of the Revolution has lost its focus. In their introduction to the Common-Place edition recapping the McNeil Center’s “The American Revolution Reborn” conference, Patrick Spero and Michael Zuckerman wrote of “a field that had grown stale” and that was “losing its verve, and worse, its center.” The call for papers for the forthcoming Massachusetts Historical Society conference effectively described the field as being stuck in a historiographical rut. There is a reason that study of the Revolution has lost its center. It has failed to concentrate its focus on politics. Continue reading