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

Guest Post: MEAD: The Magazine of Early American Datasets

Today’s guest post comes from Andrew M. Schocket, Professor of History and American Culture Studies and Director of American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, and Billy G. Smith, the Michael P. Malone Professor of History, & Distinguished Professor of Letters and Science at Montana State University.

MEAD logoData. Before postmodernism, or environmental history, or the cultural turn, or the geographic turn, and even before the character on the old Star Trek series, historians began to gather and analyze quantitative evidence to understand the past. As computers became common during the 1970s and 1980s, scholars responded by painstakingly compiling and analyzing datasets, using that evidence to propose powerful new historical interpretations. Today, much of that information (as well as data compiled since) is in danger of disappearing. For that and other reasons, we have developed a website designed to preserve and share the datasets permanently (or at least until aliens destroy our planet). We appeal to all early American historians (not only the mature ones from earlier decades) to take the time both to preserve and to share their statistical evidence with present and future scholars. It will not only be a legacy to the profession but also will encourage historians to share their data more openly and to provide a foundation on which scholars can build. Continue reading

The Spy Who Came in from the Confederacy

1862_LON_14_1862_NPL_P385[SVC1]He was, at first, another young shadow hurrying through Westminster Hall. He carried flimsier credentials than most, papers hastily sent by a new nation called the Confederate States of America. It was November 1862, and, since spring, he had stretched expenses to accommodate the bare $750 granted to fund his secretive mission. Still, regular sightings of the worn, 29 year-old Swiss-American stranger, who had shipped to London via the fiery newsrooms of Richmond and Mobile, caused a flutter of concern among British peers. Within weeks, the constant American shadow near Parliament became a very real worry. “He is but a private gentleman, it is true,” one M.P. fretted, “yet he may leave his card at the Foreign Office, and possibly find his way upstairs.” Continue reading

Guest Post: Keeping the “Human” in the Humanities

Hannah Bailey is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where her research examines the interconnectivity between developing notions of race and the expansion of the African slave trade in the early modern French Atlantic. This is her second guest post at The Junto. Be sure and read her earlier post on French archives and entangled histories here

SAM_1925As someone who is also leaping into an entirely new historiography in preparation for dissertation writing, I could commiserate with Casey Schmitt’s brilliantly astute post on the costs and benefits of comparative projects. It can be terrifying to move from a historiography with which one is relatively comfortable to, as she puts it, “a [new] field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers.” I took one undergraduate class on West African history (which was a survey course that occurred five years ago), and yet my dissertation focuses heavily on early modern histories of West Africa and the Atlantic networks of knowledge (and ignorance) that shaped them. The body of exemplary secondary source material on West Africa is vast, and working with it for the first time is more than a little daunting. Continue reading

Big History: Weighing the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Comparative Project

Casey Schmitt is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law. This is her second guest post, following her first on the value of storytelling and the use of audiobook primary sources in the classroom here.

barbadosmapA little over a year ago, I switched research interests from the study of eighteenth-century contraband trade between Jamaica and Cartagena de Indias to a comparative study of the codification of slave law in the greater Caribbean. Admittedly not too drastic of a change, I was nonetheless daunted by moving from a historiography containing a select number of significant works to a field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers. Like any graduate student, I began working through the library stacks here at the College of William and Mary, seeking answers to what I thought would be easy questions: Were the legal regimes of European slave societies shaped by their interactions with other slave societies in the Caribbean? Were English slaveholding practices modeled off of successful Portuguese or Spanish examples? Why were there so many institutionalized efforts to codify slave law in the seventeenth century and did these separate legal dialogues unfold in conversation with one another? As you can probably guess, none of these questions have proven as easy to answer as I thought. Continue reading

The Documentary Record on Fire and Reading Intentionality

NewYorkCapitolFireRemains

On March 29, 1911, a fire tore through the New York State Capitol Building. From the third floor of the Assembly Library, where books and papers served as kindling, it shot up to the capitol’s iconic towers. By the early morning, much of the building was in ruins, and many of the books and manuscript papers housed within it reduced to melted ink and char.

Anyone who’s used the Papers of Sir William Johnson knows the fire well. Every other page is a reminder of the embers that destroyed letters, accounts, conference minutes. It’s also a reminder that the current documentary record has been shaped in ways that—while often times hidden away—were also bright and fiery and loud. Continue reading

Guest Post: Seneca Village Memory: The Problem of Forgetting

Today’s guest post comes from Alexander Manevitz (@historicities), a Ph.D. candidate in History at New York University.

Detail from Egbert Viele’s 1856 topographical survey of the area to become Central Park, which shows some of the buildings and gardens of Seneca Village just before its destruction. When I started my doctoral program, “memory studies” struck me as more of a trend than a field. Something everyone talked about doing but couldn’t really define. After all, isn’t all history sort of a study of memories and how they’re made and used? Well, as with all things trendy, I was late to the party.[1] My first year of graduate school, I read Michele-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past and David Blight’s Race and Reunion within a few weeks of one another, and I realized how wrong I’d been, and my interest has only grown from there.[2] I have since turned to questions of memory and amnesia in my own scholarship.

My work focuses on Seneca Village, a once-vibrant community in upper Manhattan where community activism and urban development collided when the city evicted the residents to clear land for Central Park in 1857. Despite its significant role in the development of African-American social activism in the early republic and its place in relation to one of the young nation’s largest urban development projects, Seneca Village has been almost entirely forgotten in popular and scholarly memory.[3]

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Guest Post: The Decline of Barbers? Or, the Risks and Rewards of Quantitative Analysis

Today’s guest post is authored by Sean Trainor, a historian of the early American republic with an interest in the intersection of labor, popular culture, and the body. He is a PhD candidate in History and Women’s Studies and Pennsylvania State University, where his dissertation examines the history of men’s grooming in the urban United States between the turn of the nineteenth century and the American Civil War.

Trainor_Barber ChartA few weeks ago, I finished compiling a database, long in the works, containing the names and addresses of all of the barbers in the cities of Boston, Cincinnati, and New Orleans between 1800 and 1860. Thrilling, I know, but the project has broader implications for historians interested in the intersection of quantitative and cultural history which, if you’ll bear with a brief exposition, I’ll discuss below.

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Sinews of Power and Those Power Forgot

A Call to the Most Bland and Boring Pieces of Paper You’ve Ever Skipped Over in the Archives

VouchersReceipts

Vouchers! Receipts! Bills of exchange!

The paperwork of empire, particularly that of credit and finance, is probably not what gets most of us up in the morning. In the archives, we skip over the dull sections of the finding aids—warrants, no thanks!—and instead dive into correspondence and maps and bound volumes and clippings. The more adventurous of us might even call up account books—but those individual receipts? They’re lucky if we ever take them out of the box.

And why would we? Unless we live in a world of down-and-dirty finance or economics or material culture, they seem not only besides the point, but, even more, incredibly hollow. What do we get from reading a quick statement that someone was eventually paid for delivering a barrel of pickled cabbage in 1760? Especially when we can read in frantic detail the correspondence about how that barrel fell into the Mohawk River, burst open, got hauled back onto a bateau, arrived at Fort Stanwix, was re-opened, reeked, was declared unfit for consumption, continued to reek, was declared fit for consumption, reeked some more, ordered northward to Oswego, reeked still, and finally was delivered to a garrison comprised mostly of Germans who (our correspondents assumed) would think they’d been gifted sauerkraut.[1]

It’s the correspondence, we might argue, that gives us actors and action. In it, even a barrel—brown, wooden, boring—becomes something dynamic.

But who delivered that barrel? How long did it take him? Where did he begin his trip? Was he a merchant contractor, a militia man, a professional sled driver? And what did he get out of a journey, in the dead of winter, through the type of paralyzing cold you can only feel in upstate New York, with barrels of spoiled pickled cabbage?

Exceedingly important questions like these suddenly make the boring, bland, bureaucratic paperwork appear just a little (a very little?) more interesting. Continue reading

Are We All Book Historians Now?

Tomorrow at the Library Company of Philadelphia, I’ll be participating in a special edition of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies’ Friday seminar reflecting on five years of the Mellon Early American Literature and Material Texts Initiative. The Initiative began in 2009 as an effort to get early Americanists taking a material-texts approach to their research to step out of their respective fields and into a general conversation about the methods, theory, and potential of that approach. Over the course of five years, the initiative has provided funding for ten dissertation fellows to be in residency at the McNeil Center and make use of the tremendous resources of the Library Company and other area archives. In addition, the Initiative has contributed funding to conferences and sponsored a workshop each summer bringing together both junior and senior scholars to discuss their work and the trajectories of material-texts research. For Friday’s seminar, four former material-text fellows will discuss short selections of our current work and how our experiences in the Initiative have affected it.  Continue reading