Driving the Dissertation

OhioRiverFor the past several days, I’ve been on the road, driving highways and back streets of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Weeks before, with an invitation to an Alabama wedding, and a school year (and orals) finally behind me, I realized I had the perfect opportunity for a road trip. And being the impossibly hip grad student that I am, I also decided I’d be driving my dissertation.

Part of my research entails recovering the mid-eighteenth-century transportation and communication paths that cut across and radiated out from Ohio Valley. While I’ve studied maps, charts, letters, and travel accounts, I’d never traveled on or along those waterways, roads, or footpaths—even the well-known routes of Braddock’s and Forbes Roads.

So as best I could—over a few days, and with a good-natured classmate who, quite fairly, didn’t necessarily share all my enthusiasm for the mighty Ohio—I was going to drive part of it. A couple days out from the wedding I set out from New Haven and cut south towards Pennsylvania. From Harrisburg, I headed west, jumping on and off I-76 and route 30—part of what was once Forbes Road—through the trail junction of Bedford until I finally reached Pittsburgh. From there, I cut down through Pennsylvania into West Virginia, darting back and forth across the Monongahela and along the spine of hills, before heading west again, stumbling onto the Ohio in Huntington. The river and I parted ways one more time, until I reached Louisville and the falls. From there I headed south to Alabama, and now, a couple days later, I’m finally working my way back northeast again.

What is the importance of understanding the landscape of the dissertation? And even more, the physical movement across that landscape?

The spatial turn and resurgence of historical geography, bolstered by the ever-increasing popularity of communication (and consequently) transportation networks, offer some hopeful answers. I know that when it came time to dig into my project, I found myself still engrossed in Hulbert’s early twentieth-century ode to the Historic Highways of America, but also extremely excited by the very recent work—such as Jon Parmenter’s The Edge of the Woods and David Preston’s The Texture of Contact—which again brought space and physical paths back to the fore of the study of colonial frontiers. And recent methodological innovations in the discipline, beyond just the orbit of early American history, have been instrumental to conceptualizing my own work.

Driving these routes is certainly not the same thing as using GIS to map historical movement or studying imperial maps for their cultural and political subtext. But can the personal experience of tracing these geographies and pathways add anything to those methodologies?

It’s nothing new to see the site of your research and to walk the nearby streets or grounds. And I would echo those who have already (and convincingly) argued there’s something centrally important to understanding firsthand how historical actors experienced a place in all its constitutive elements. Yet I think we need to try and experience not only a place, but also the movement between places—to know just as intimately the roads and paths and rivers and lakes navigated and traversed to the heart of your research.

But what’s an early Americanist to do when they’re 250 years late to the game? What’s the benefit of traveling to these places, and near (or on, when I’m lucky) those historic paths? For one, I’m certainly nowhere near recreating the full experience—my Subaru is a good bit faster and thankfully more comfortable than the eighteenth-century alternatives. And those routes—and the landscapes along them—have changed dramatically over the past centuries. Worse still, many paths are gone or frustratingly hard to find. What I would do for something like those seemingly ubiquitous “Civil War Trails” signs.

I think the gain is partly intuitive—I want to understand, as best I can, what it feels like to head toward the Ohio from the Great Lakes above, and to approach the valley from across the breadth of Pennsylvania, and to snake my way towards Pittsburgh from a corner of Virginia. Even with the present-day limitations (or advantages), I think one can’t help but gain at least some better perspective on how traveling predecessors experienced such vastly different pathways. (And—particularly in the British case—I think it helps one understand why individuals and states were so intent on bettering the transportation links to the edges of empire).

However, is there something else to be gained? I think so, even if I’m still unsure what that is. I’d love to know whether others have tried something similar, and what their own experiences have been. What I do know is that at some point this fall I’ll be back on the roads, heading first from the southeast, trying to trace Braddock’s Road, the Kittanning Trail, and Washington’s 1753 journey, heading then along the upper Ohio, and finally driving north to Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and Lake Ontario. Then, as the weather cools—like those travelers, messengers, traders, and soldiers—I’ll hunker down. But perhaps a little more comfortably, with the radiant heat of the archives.

8 responses

  1. I’m a big believer in seeing and experiencing history as much as possible. My understanding of many revolutionary events has been mightily enhanced by travel. I knew, for example, the Fort Wilson incident occurred pretty close to the Pennsylvania State House; I never realized how close until I was wandering the streets of Philadelphia. A trip to Bethlehem, PA really helped me understand the process and progress of the Fries Rebellion.

    Conversely, I feel like I don’t have as much of a handle on certain other events where I’ve not had the same ability to tread the ground of my historical subjects. Like you, though, I’m not quite sure why. I think the best explanation is that we’re trying to recreate the unfamiliar in writing history, and that necessarily involves leaps of imagination and a keen sense of contingency. The closer we can move from an unknown to a known environment, the easier it is for us to fill in those gaps.

  2. My main comment is that reading you talk about your travel to do research (and recalling Rachel’s discussion of her peregrinations in the Chronicle a few years ago) makes me quite envious. Most of my travel involved I-95 between Baltimore and Philadelphia … and it always seemed to rain. I also know of at least one senior faculty member who advised their students to pick a dissertation topic based on where you get to go do research (and did so herself for a book project).

    More seriously, you’re quite right, and I’d even expand your point to think holistically about the sensory experience of doing history overall. I’ve often found myself thinking in the same ways as you on trips (whether for research or not). What did people 250 years ago think about these spaces? What did they look like? In many ways for me, it’s analogous to the experience inside the archives with the documents themselves.

  3. When I researched my dissertation and first monograph, Along the Maysville Road, I made at least four dozen round trips along my road, taking in all of the historic sites, landscapes, and local cultures along the way. In a state park, I found several hundred feet of the original dirt path that had been spared being paved over multiple times. And there I could imagine the difficulty of travel, the immersion in nature, and the ruggedness of the route. Yes, the landscapes have changed dramatically, and I would concede that, given there were no large trees along that old buffalo trace, that the landscape along that brief stretch of road had been altered as well. But still, the path was there, and it had not been altered, graded, or paved. As historians, we don’t go in search of evidence in or on the ground, as do the anthropologists. But I do believe that engaging the landscapes of our research provides something more substantial–inspiration. Bon voyage! And I look forward to reading your dissertation one day.–Craig

  4. Wonderful engagement. At some point of any academic project, I seem to cover the textual landscape, much like you do. Based on informal conversations, I suspect most scholars do the same. The interesting point is how rarely these on-site travels enter the study.

  5. My dissertation topic, luckily enough, was a space where some parts hadn’t changed substantially since its opening 100+ years ago — the New York City subway. I loved being able to use the phenomenological experience of that space as one more tool for thinking about it. I’d love to hear more about how this influences your study and your argument.

  6. I’m a twentieth century person but just to add my two cents…I started my research on the civil rights movement in Louisville about six months after moving here. I biked and drove the neighborhoods where participants lived and where the action happened. It was a very interesting way to get to know my new home.

  7. Thanks for the thoughts here, Alyssa! One of my closest undergraduate professors, David L. Holmes, had a legendary assignment for his two courses in American religious history: form a group, find a car, chart the old roads of Virginia, use them to visit historic churches and courthouses and country stores and crossroads towns, and then write about it. Students who had attended W&M in the late 1960s and the 70s still write to him with their memories of the project.

    I think the reason for the assignment’s wild popularity (despite its quirkiness and its near irrelevance to the courses’ content) was that it heightened people’s sensitivity to the traces of history still around them. Many of these students weren’t history majors, but they learned strategies for looking past the neon billboards, office parks, and interstates, and focusing instead on the ways they could connect to the history they were studying: detect the old building, locate the old road, get off the highway and smell the 18th-c. rafters.

    My point here (which I think I share with Thomas Hallock) is that “driving the dissertation” should inform not only our research and our thinking–but also our presentation and our writing. It makes the past seem more accessible to that ever-elusive broader audience. (Scott Nelson accomplishes something along these lines–and to marvelous effect, I think–in the opening pages of *Steel Drivin’ Man.*)

  8. Brava Alyssa! I took the great Parkman as my exemplar, a man who declared that he had literally walked every step of Monacalm and Wolfe. As a borderlands historian (and a Turnerian) I went on the belief that geography, space, and the natural environment exert and exerted considerable force in the unfolding of history. On my many drives from Detroit to Quebec I discovered invaluable pieces of knowledge like the fact that the St. Lawrence flows northeast to the Atlantic making inland land routes (as well as batteau which could be sailed and paddled) to the Great Lakes of central importance. This “obvious” fact frankly (and perhaps I should not admit it!) did not become obvious until I got to the actual river itself. These physical encounters, even if anachronistic, enabled me to ask better more specific and thus revealing questions about the past.


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