Vast Early America


POSTS BY

Karin Wulf

Month: February 2017

Timeless, not Harmless

Do teachers, chefs, doctors and lawyers cringe at television depictions of their vocation?  Add this to the things I never thought I’d give more than a passing thought until I watched and then wrote about a show new to NBC this year called Timeless.  I wrote a semi-agonized piece that Perspectives on History, the American Historical Association’s magazine, published earlier this week.  When I started watching and then writing about the show, I was sort of amused by Lucy Preston, the weirdly Wikipedia-light version of a historian who is one of the main characters.  She seemed dopey, but the show’s out of step take on academia (Lucy’s tenure case was put on hold because her department didn’t think she was ready), historians and, well, history, seemed sadly like timeless as well as harmless caricatures.

By the second week in November, though, there wasn’t much left to be amused about.  I’ve never found history a refuge from the contemporary world or politics; like every human production, historical work is embedded in structures of power.  And I’ve always thought that historical research and writing is urgent civic work.  But the counterpoint of Lucy’s only mildly useful –or even informed– historical perspective and global situations so unmoored from critical historical contexts left me semi-paralyzed.  It took weeks before I could finish the essay, and a second full rewrite before I could figure out how to begin to articulate my discomfort with this character.

The basic premise of scholarship–the relationship between evidence and argument and how one assesses the constitution of each and their relationship– is utterly missing from this character’s work on the show.  Lucy mostly offers up dates or other details. Not that in the right moment those aren’t useful, but they’ve got to work in the service of a deeper analysis and larger conclusions.  At first it seemed weird to me that Lucy seemed so detached, except in what struck me as a superficial way, from the moral complexity both of her time traveling and the periods in which she found herself.  Then it started to seem pretty terrifying.

The good news:  I have a better sense of what I’d do if I could time travel.  That means I have a better purchase on the here and now, too.

From “Tempting Fate:  The Historian as Time Traveler” (Perspectives on History, February 2017):  “If you could time travel, would you? As a historian voyaging into history, would you soak up the atmosphere and interact with as many people as possible? Would you consciously fact-check, harvest sources, meditate on the interpretive potential of what you’d experienced, make radical change based on events you knew wouldn’t end well—all of the above? Or maybe you’d devote yourself to the mission of preventing change: “protecting” the history you have learned and taught. These are propositions, each with profound implications, that NBC’s hour-long drama Timeless treats so casually as to be sometimes funny and often painful.”  More

Reading Early Modern Atlantic Families

My Spring graduate seminar at William & Mary on the histories of families in the Early Modern Atlantic World takes up a historical challenge that’s familiar for me, and yet evergreen.  I’ve been reading, thinking, teaching and writing about family history and the intersections of gender, family, and sexuality for more than a quarter of a century.  I started reading family history in a seminar with Toby Ditz when I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins, and have been talking intensively about comparative issues with some of my fellow JHU students, especially Julie Hardwick, and other colleagues since the 1990s.  With Julie and Bianca Premo I published in a cluster in History Compass, Rethinking Family, Gender, and Sexuality in the Early Modern Atlantic World” in 2010, and in 2013 Julie, Sarah Pearsall and I introduced and guest-edited an issue of the William and Mary Quarterly that followed a 2011 Omohundro Institute conference at the University of Texas.

You think I’d have come to some firm conclusions about family history by now!  I have, but they are mostly about the importance of continuing to explore the complexity of family.  Our introduction to  the WMQ issue on “Centering Families in Atlantic Histories” began with the observation that “every word in our title is open to interpretation.”  Perhaps none more than family and families.  I’m also very clear about the significant relationship between “family” (and here I use those startle quotes to indicate just how historically complex and yet how often flattened for strategic purposes that term is and has been) and the state.

As a field family history has a history and my seminar begins there, in interrogating the legacies and echoes of work by Lawrence Stone and others.  Doubtless a product of the ways I first began to grapple with issues around family, gender, and sexuality we also read a lot of comparative early modern European and colonial British American histories.  I still teach Lyndal Roper’s study of the gendered politics of the reformation The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg, for example.  Every time I read it I think about the issues around religion, morality, and gendered forms of civic discipline in new ways.  Lots of new work also informs the syllabus.  Questions about how archives shape what we know and how we know it have been important in many of my classes, but especially so in this one.

As I finalized the reading list this year I wondered if the basic premise (begin with the Stone age) would finally seem unworkable by next year.  Issues and subjects that were formative for me almost thirty years ago are still important, but need to make room for the challenging questions that are shaping the field and my own thinking now.  We shall see.

Meantime, check out the syllabus:  Spring 2017 HIST 715.  Then let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear suggestions about  ways that you would rearrange the topics, change emphasis, and add or subtract readings.  It’s too late for the students in #AtlFam17, as this seminar is stuck with what I’ve assigned, but I’m pretty sure that in addition to me, they and others will be interested in the feedback.

Reading #VastEarlyAmerica in the Georgian Papers

Johannes Kip, Map of Sierra Leone, 1732. University of Florida Map and Imagery Library

What can we learn about #VastEarlyAmerica from the archival collection at the very center of Anglo-imperial power?

Last week the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle opened access to the first tranche of materials in the Georgian Papers Programme.  Because the Omohundro Institute is a primary US partner of the GPP, I’ve been working on the project for two years; we have funded fellowships and digital humanities work, and are deeply engaged in a whole range of this major undertaking.  It’s important for all kinds of reasons I’ve written about over on the OI’s blog.

Now that the archival material is starting to appear online and fellows from the OI and King’s College are starting to write about their research, it’s time to think aggressively about the range of scholarship this archive can support.  As an historian of women and political culture, I’m used to prying information from archives oriented toward men and formal politics. As a scholar of family in the early modern Atlantic, one of my models for thinking about how archives can yield histories of family that decenter colonizers is Ann Marie Plane’s Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England.

But the papers of George III?

Aside from the important political aspects of the American Revolution, how do we find the history of the world beyond England in the papers of George III? And in the papers of the Georgian monarchs, including George III, newly digitized as part of the Georgian Papers Programme, how do we locate the histories of people and subjects that seem to be on the margins of these most powerful, privileged people in the early modern British Atlantic world? What could we possibly do to learn about people and subjects seemingly far from the center and yet still within the grip of imperial authority and policies?  This is the ultimate reading against the archival grain challenge.

In part it’s easier–easy being relative–because of trailblazing work on turning the archives from a historian’s resource into a historian’s subject of analysis. It’s key to identify these trails, and how we can follow their lead. Scholars have been long indebted to Michel-Ralph Trouillot’s 1995 Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History for illustrating the ways in which the history of the Haiti and its revolution was silenced by the very work of history. Haiti’s archival remnants and the historians for whom Haiti’s history seemed quite literally unthinkable silenced its story.

In just the last year, three publications stand out for me. First, a special issue of Social Text on “The Question of Recovery: Slavery, Freedom and the Archive” edited by Laura Helton, Justin Leroy, Max Mischler, Samantha Seeley and Shauna Sweeney includes a roundtable on archive and methods. Second, an issue of The History of the Present edited by Brian Connolly and Marisa Fuentes explores “From Archives of Slavery to Liberated Futures.” The essays in these two issues alone show the depth and breadth of work that can be done from working in—and working against–established archives. Third, Fuentes delineates in her remarkable new book Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive the ways that the structures of power reflected in archival knowledge can be so easily reproduced in scholarship.   “Epistemic violence originates from the knowledge produced about enslaved women…and that knowledge is what survives in the archives.”  Working against those structures requires an unwavering attention.

I hope we can explore the Georgian Papers with these guides in mind. How is this most elite of institutions shaping what we know, and how we know it?  What is being said, or not, and in what frame, about the slave economy, colonialism, and abolition? Where can we find and map the connections of scientific correspondence with roots in native knowledge and communities? How can we extend the documentary materials on menus and food provisions to show the extensive connections and dependencies on the trade economy around and across the Atlantic? What can we learn about mental health and disability from one of the most fully chronicled (likely bipolar) cases? How can we pull the threads of fashion history to think in new ways about the history of the body and health?  Some of the fellows for the Georgian Papers are already exploring these possibilities.  Suzanne Schwarz has just written about beginning to discover the “Slave Trade, Slavery and Abolition in the Royal Archives, 1785-1810” and in particular divergent perspectives including those of the Duke of Clarence and his role in the African Institution and Sierra Leone.

Beyond the topics we explore, for me a vital question is how we can use this opportunity of archival creation (which is what’s happening as these documents become digitized and cataloged) to consider how we will work with and also how we might shape this archive.  As scholars and librarians working together at the OI, William & Mary and King’s start to map digital projects, I think there is enormous potential in the Georgian Papers for archival and methodological ambition.  Indeed, it will be a key measure of the Georgian Papers Programme that we are able to support that kind of ambition.

NB: The Georgian Papers Programme site for the US, for US-based work, and for #VastEarlyAmerica -focused scholarship and news is georgianpapers-us.wm.edu.

Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com