History Is Not Science

Over at Slate last week, our Junto colleague Eric Herschthal reviewed some of the latest popular histories of revolutionary America, including two new studies of the years around 1776 by Richard Beeman and Joseph Ellis. Eric takes a very critical view of the analytical stance of the books–arguing that they are too in thrall to outdated and invalidated historical techniques; focusing too much on elites and ‘leadership’ at the expense of more recent trends in scholarship, such as the new emphasis on those who stayed (or tried to stay) neutral during the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the most provocative part of the review is this statement:

“If you bought a popular book on science, one that came with a similar sheen of intellectual prestige, and learned that it essentially ignored years’ worth of scholarship, you’d demand your money back. Why should history be any different?”

To me, the answer seems self-evident. Continue reading

Digital Workflow for Historians

So much has changed  in the last few decades, particularly in terms of digitization, in the ways historians access materials, the level and ease of access to those materials, and the methods of delivery for the work that comes from that access. But access is not the only thing that has changed. Working in the digital realm offers historians new tools with which to approach their task, the core of which remains unaffected by these developments. On that theme, I thought I would talk a little bit about my workflow and the tools that I use which allow the work to flow (sorry, couldn’t help myself). Continue reading

Old-Fashioned Index Cards

Index cards

A dissertation’s worth of index cards, a draft, and comments from my adviser

When I was in Philadelphia recently to present a paper at the McNeil Center, I also enjoyed the opportunity to meet undergraduate students who were working on research papers as part of the MCEAS Undergraduate Research Workshop. I was asked to talk about my research methods—how I go about finding sources, how I organize them, and how I pull them together into (sometimes) coherent prose. In doing so, I outed myself as a very old-fashioned researcher, indeed. Continue reading

Promised Land


“Saint Louis in 1846”
Henry Lewis

This week, The Junto spoke with Lea VanderVelde, the Josephine R. Witte Professor of Law at the University of Iowa College of Law, a Guggenheim Fellow in Constitutional Studies, and principal investigator of the Law of the Antebellum Frontier project, which “seeks to digitally analyze the legal and economic mechanisms at work on the American frontier in the early 1800s.” She kindly took our questions on her work-in-progress, and why digital research transforms the early American legal history of how the West was run. Continue reading

Pulling a “Butler”: Reflections on “Historiographical Heresy: A Conference on the Legacy of Jon Butler”

Jon ButlerLast saturday, I woke up at an ungodly hour (especially for a weekend!) in order to make the 2 1/2 hour drive down to New Haven in time for the start of “Historiographical Heresy: A Conference on the Legacy of Jon Butler” (program here). The brainchild of James Bennett and Amy Koehlinger, and spearheaded on the ground by Kathryn Lofton, the one-day event commemorated the retirement of one of American religious history’s major figures. All participants were in some way students of Butler–some claimed him as their dissertation adviser, others as one of their committee members, and at least one as just an informal advisor; it was stated that this was more of a “family reunion” than a conference. Though I have zero attachment to Yale and no direct connection to Butler (besides being strongly influenced by his writing), I was warmly welcomed as an outsider and thoroughly enjoyed both the stimulating papers and discussions as well as the comraderie. Continue reading

“The Empire of Romance”: Some Notes on Novels in an Extensive Republic

woman-reading-FragonardThe current issue of the Journal of the Early Republic includes Andrew Cayton’s SHEAR presidential address on the novel’s place in the postrevolutionary Atlantic world: “The Authority of the Imagination in an Age of Wonder.” The essay makes a case for the usefulness of period novels to early-republic historians. Cayton gives us three reasons novels are useful as historical sources:

  1. “The people we study paid attention to them.” Novels were significant parts of people’s lives, and they illuminate “the shifting structure of discourse and discourse communities” in early-nineteenth-century America.
  2. “They challenge our preoccupation with categories.” Novels were experiments in defining and redefining people.
  3. Novels reveal that many people conceived of liberty socially, “as a voluntary location of one’s self within overlapping social networks” (25-26). [1] Continue reading

Hybrid Moments: Should there/Could there be Atlantic Musicology?

In a week I’ll be heading to Little Rock for the Society of American Music Conference, where I’ll be chairing and presenting at a session on music in the Atlantic world. My paper is titled “Strategizing Atlantic Musicology” and in it I’m discussing some of the benefits and drawbacks for incorporating ideas from Atlantic studies into musicology. (I’m also hoping to claim the Pithiest Title Prize). I thought I’d try out a few of my ideas and concerns here, and hopefully tap the collective wisdom of the Junto community.

To give a little background: I’ve been thinking about Atlantic studies and music for a while–I wrote a dissertation about how transatlantic music shaped the identities of early American communities, and wrote a musicology article that uses concepts from Atlantic history to interpret musical networks in the early modern period. I’ve also delivered conference papers on that touch on this topic. But this is the first paper I’ve written that is devoted entirely to question of how (and whether) musicology could engage with Atlantic studies. Continue reading

Brave New World: Digital Early America

As settlers and explorers, early Americans navigated intricate webs of trade, created dynamic intellectual networks, and (often, thankfully) left us a paper trail of discoveries great and small. Presented with that past in the archive or on the screen, historians increasingly turn to digital resources for a new arc of insight. Thanks to digitized books and manuscripts, online reference tools like Google Books, amplified search methods, new digital libraries, and GIS mapping, there are plenty of opportunities for new research. We can follow foreign consuls, read a Southern man of letters, watch a Brooklyn family put down roots, or hear a podcast about Native American family life in Virginia. That’s just a small sample of the many digital projects transforming what we know of American history. The wave of new media has benefitted professional training, too. For digital scholars of all stages, there’s a welcoming set of training opportunities like THATCamps, summer institutes, and winter training sessions. Continue reading

Narrative History and the Collapsing of Historical Distance

Among the highlights of my Christmas was receiving Catherine Brekus’s recently-released volume, Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, a fascinating account of an eighteenth-century evangelical woman whose life experiences intersected with, and speak to, several importance events and themes from the period. At the time of writing, I’m about half-way through and can’t recommend it enough. At a future date, I’ll try and post a more formal review (or at least lengthier thoughts) of the book, but wanted to briefly reflect here on something Brekus briefly discusses in her preface. “Reading Sarah’s reflections on her life,” Brekus explains, “reminds us of how far away the past is—but also how close.” Solidly grounding her subject’s experiences in its eighteenth-century context, she continues: Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: