Category Archives: History


Michael Hattem of the new early Americanist blog The Junto has posted an interesting meta-essay about the controversy surrounding Henry Wiencek’s treatment of Thomas Jefferson in Master of the Mountain.

Rather than work my way through all the complicated exchanges between Wiencek and historians like Annette Gordon-Reed, which Hattem and J.L. Bell have usefully compiled, I’d just like to focus on two issues raised by this controversy: how should historians represent the undeniably immoral practices of the past? and, just as importantly, how should historians understand the proximity of those immoral practices to the rest of those figures’ lives and accomplishments?

For my part, I am not as comfortable as Hattem is to claim that Wiencek’s intensely personal, partisan reaction disqualifies him from scholarly credibility altogether.  Hattem writes:

In an interview, Wiencek describes how he came to think of Jefferson after coming across the calculation by saying, “This S.O.B. is utterly cold. That changed my whole perspective.” I imagine many other historians will bristle, as I did, at this blunt rejection of even the veneer of objectivity. This kind of prosecutorial stance and moralistic tone severely undermines one’s scholarly credibility (but not one’s book sales).

I understand that in some sense Wiencek is giving away the game by admitting how much he hated his subject by the time he was done.  Yet this kind of frustration is in fact a common response among biographers, after they have spent years documenting the weaknesses, myopia, or petty self-seeking of their subjects.

I do think, though, that Hattem should reflect upon the popular appeal of this genre of “Founding Father” biographies, and recognize how their appeal is caught up within a mutually reinforcing pattern of intensely moralized identification and disidentification (e.g., Meacham and Wiencek’s morally complementary but polarized readings).

So once we get past the overly charitable readings of Jefferson as a benevolent “master” (which AGR has battled for years), we still have the question of whether we try to read Jefferson’s relations with the enslaved portions of his family as a personal failing, or as a situation that men of his class commonly created/experienced.  And in this respect, I think AGR’s decision to open out the picture to include the social and legal history of Jefferson’s and the Hemingses’ region was absolutely right, and it usefully contrasts with the more psychologistic approach of Wiencek.  The history of slavery is not just a matter of individuals, but also institutions, and the scarcity and fragmentation of the documentary record makes it all the more important, I think, to understand how it did its work as an institution upon all sorts of individuals, whether Thomas Jefferson or John Wayles.

What seems more serious to me, however, is the way that Wiencek appears to be misreading his primary and especially secondary sources, as when he says that his book “systematically demolishes [Gordon-Reed’s] portrayal of Jefferson as a kindly master of black slaves.”  Like Hattem and Bell, I don’t think this reading of AGR’s work is sustainable, and it ultimately relates to Wiencek’s reductionist [Hattem’s term] reading of Jefferson as a monster, an unaccountable exemplar of evil.

I think it is fair and arguable for 21st century readers like Corey Robin to place Jefferson’s writings about race and slavery at the center of his legacy (though I would not ever apply a label like “fascist” to an eighteenth-century figure, no matter how retrograde).

What I do wonder about is how to present Jefferson and his actions in a way so that he is not simply a “man of his times,” or “flawed,” but an individual working in an incredibly exploitative social, legal, and political environment.  Jefferson, in my view, successfully segmented (we’d say “compartmentalized”) his own thoughts and activities so that the “slave-owner” was apparent in some contexts but not in others.   There is no reason for us to accept or continue that separation of the different aspects of his life.  But that still leaves the problem of how we relate the author of the Declaration of Independence to the writer of the Notes on the State of Virginia.


seaport towns

[Source-Wikimedia Commons-public domain]

Reading Gary Nash’s Urban Crucible made me think about the importance of urban history–specifically the importance of seaport towns–for understanding demographic and social change in the eighteenth century.  As a lit scholar, I was simply unaware the significance of these towns, until I read this paragraph from the Preface [Abridged Version]:

What I think this book captures is a large-scale social process whose origins can be traced in these little Northern ports (New York, Philadelphia, and Boston), which were admittedly tiny in comparison with the great urban centers of other continents. It is perhaps the size of these North American towns that allows us to recognize a process taking place all over the world.

According to Nash, this transformative process radiates outward to dissolve and recast social structures and relations throughout North America by the time of the American Revolution.  Nash wants to discover the origin of both class consciousness and modern capitalism in these towns and their history. His extraordinary facility with his sources helps him make this argument persuasively, by matching traditional historical sources like pamphlets and newspapers with economic and demographic evidence. (And I’m glad to see that social historians still agree with me on this, even if they’ve been studying the book for a lot longer than I have)

After reading this opening, my first question was whether these kinds of forces were shaping England, or Europe, as well?  What kinds of comparisons could we make between British and colonial seaports?  And how might literary history have been shaped by this particular dimension of urban history?  I can just barely discern it in Equiano’s accounts of London and Philadelphia, but where else might we be able to find it?  Wycherley’s Plain Dealer?  Somewhere in Mandeville?  Defoe? Or is every important town in 18th century writing a seaport, anyway?


the “culturomics” approach to literary studies?

This is my belated response to the culturomics postings run by the NYTimes last month. The bottom line is that I wasn’t that impressed by the projects discussed there, but I do feel that projects like these have plenty of implications for the literary studies we might want to pursue over the next decade or two.  

From my own perspective, the biggest issue with both the N-Gram and the “culturomics” derived from it is that they seem to be research tools in search of an appropriate research problem, an impression that was reinforced by the sample problems discussed in the NYT piece.  Admittedly, the N-Gram does produce very suggestive visualizations of the frequency of selected key terms over time. Yet Googlebook’s notorious metadata and OCR problems render any spike or dip in the graphs suspect, and useless as evidence without further investigation. This means that the most interesting portions of the graph, the visible “changes,” are essentially off-limits to public discussion until problems like misdatings are cleared away.

The larger issue, though, as Geoffrey Nunberg has pointed out, is what exactly we think we are learning when we track the frequencies of particular words.  In one report, for example, counting the number of times the term “God” appears in Victorian writings  over time is supposed to tell us something about the long-term, large-scale process of secularization in 19th century British culture.  But even if we refuse to read or interpret the hundreds of novels contained in that database (as prescribed by Moretti’s now familiar notion of “distant reading”), we still need to read the results closely enough to produce a plausible interpretation of what they mean.   

For example, two digital scholars are convinced that the relative frequency of terms like “hope” and “happiness” between the beginning and end of the 19th century can tell us something interesting about the Victorian novel.  I am perfectly happy to entertain this idea. Yet how can this claim be tested except by reading and arguing in a very concrete way about some portion of the novels contained in that database?    In this respect, I think the veneer of positivism attached to this kind of project comes off pretty quickly, like a bad paint job, the moment we talk about the validation of such claims.  Because competing interpretations of the results would not be settled with “better” or more data, but by competing explanations with their respective warrants, evidence, and argumentative self-consistency.

In our own exchanges on this project, Ben Pauley pointed out me to this useful comparison between Mark Davies’ COHA project and culturomics, and I think Davies raises the key issues that should complicate any discussion of word frequencies and their significance for interpreting their shifts as evidence for cultural change:  the first issue, if I understand it properly, resides with the “collocates,” or nearby words, that indicate the conceptual clusters (and contextual frameworks) that particular words are embedded within (e.g., gay New York vs. gay Paris); the second, related to the first, is about synonymy, which again suggests the need to relate words to the specific groups of synonyms attached to a particular use (e.g., gay=brilliant, jolly, joking); the last is about genre, which remains an indispensable context for understanding the tacit and social dimensions of the word and its circulation. 

It seems to me that any counting of word frequencies, in the absence of this kind of information (e.g., in what contexts, in what surroundings, using which synonyms, with what kinds of other terms, do Victorian novelists mention God?) makes this sort of analysis unpersuasive.  And I do wish that the scholars pursuing this kind of analysis would familiarize themselve with the practices of conceptual history. In my view, Koselleck’s pioneering work in conceptual history seems closely related to the culturomics style of statistical analyses of culture, though with a vastly enlarged set of corpora to search through.  But perhaps the main value of such statistical research is to perform a kind of defamiliarization exercise on our historical understandings of a period, so that we can look beyond existing histories to construct our own?

Having said all this, I do wish that there were ways to attach the power of the distant reading paradigm to current practices in literary and cultural history.  Thoughts, anyone?



A few days ago a country gentleman, at a coffee-house, having a news-paper in his hand, said to another  who sat next to him.  “I have been looking some time to see what the M—y are about about, but I cannot find where those articles are put, not being used to the London papers.”  To which the other answered, “Look among the robberies.”

I’ve been spending the week at the Library Company, working on Philadelphia newspapers for my single-year project.   There are always lots of things to say about using newspapers as sources, but two things have been weighing on me this trip.

First of all, the organization of “news” in these papers replicates the double-consciousness that Bailyn and Clive famously argued was the peculiar burden and benefit of the provincial, whether that provincial was located in Scotland or North America.

What I mean is that the “local” components of newspapers in both Edinburgh and Philadelphia (meaning advertisements, political news, and the usual calendar of anniversaries and celebrations are distinctly subordinate to the London news, which includes the comings and goings of royalty and the royal family, the ups and downs of the ministry, military and especially naval operations, and even the internal divisions of the opposition.  (In the year that I’ve been following, I was curious about how much space was devoted to the internal jealousies of the Whig grandees or even among Wilkes and his rivals at the Society for the Bill of Rights.)

The other side to this is the relatively small space given over to local events, at least in the period I’m looking.  When London news seems to dry up, the papers seem to contain mostly advertisements (which of course have their own appeal and interest to the historically minded).

The other property of these papers that’s really impressed me is the complete fragmentation of the temporal horizon of these papers.  For one thing, the Philadelphia papers seem to consistently operate with a 3-4 month lag time in relation to their London news.

The putative issue date of any Philadelphia paper acts only as a convenience, whereas the reports contained therein refer to a multitude of observations, “intelligences,” “reports,” letters and extracts of letters, from correspondents from all over the world: Ancona, Constantinople, Lisbon, the Hague, Bridge-town, and so forth.  These reports contain a baffling mixture of more or less up-to-date reports, but everyone seems able to make allowances for the distance traveled and the difficulties of transmission.  One interesting gesture of verification found in these items is to inform the reader of the names  of the Ship and Captain that carried the news, along with the date.

All this is probably old hat to the historians who work with these sources all the time, but I’ve been interested in elaborating concretely on arguments like Benedict Anderson about the temporalizations made possible by print distribution on an imperial scale.  It’s tempting to say that it made possible a certain kind of simultaneity never before seen, as provincial cultures tried to emulate metropolitan fashion, dress, customs, etc., largely by using information like the newspapers to “keep up” with the changes happening offshore.  But the condition of being a provincial is to experience those changes as taking place elsewhere, while the changes happening around one go largely unnoticed.

histories, problems, and periodizations . . .

As someone who spends a lot of time talking to people in other departments, I often find myself having to explain what I do to people who have no clue about what “research” in literature would consist of.   Are there grants for that kind of thing?  If not, then why bother?  Or, as a friend once told me over drinks, “With all due respect, Dave, whar the fuck is your expertise located?”

–In a body of texts and traditions , I said, though precisely which texts and which traditions were always matters of fierce contention.

And he, poor soul, couldn’t imagine a world in which anyone could get a fellowship to study a twentieth-century poet.  “Well, cheers, then, and good luck to ’em,” he concluded.

At times, it’s not much easier in my own department, because creative writers and rhet/comp people can be as casual about our working categories as people outside literature departments.  In the meantime, newer specialties like ethnic lit or area studies cut across the period grid quite differently than the specialties defined by chronological, national, and linguistic boundaries.

So I’ve often wondered why the basis for so much of our literature curriculum, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, remains this linear model of a succession of dominant styles (medievalism, renaissance, classicism, romanticism, realism, modernism, post-modernism, etc. etc.).  Was it imported into literature from architecture and the visual arts?  And is there some other, more general framework available, if the linear model of periodization is no longer considered the most “general” framework?

Which is why I was really interested in this post from Siris, who writes a history of philosophy blog, when he described this online taxonomy of philosophy being produced by David Chalmers and David Bourget.  Siris, I think, asks the right question when he asks: “how best to organize information in History of Philosophy?”  And we could use Siris’s reflections to help us learn how best to organize information in literary or cultural history, especially when we feel that periods and periodization are not adequate to the research tasks we’re defining for ourselves right now.  So what if periodization is nothing more than the most convenient way for us to group and store information?

What Siris notes is that the Chalmers/Bourget taxonomy is specifically unsuited for the history of philosophy, because philosophical inquiry seems to be organized along two very different axes, a set of interlocking or nested synchronic individual “problems” and a linear, diachronic “history of philosophy.”  Individual writers like Hume or Locke can be classified on the basis of the problems they have tackled or their actual historical or personal relations with other philosophers.  And the history of philosophy seems to appear in the C/B taxonomy twice, in two apparently unrelated domains.

The field of inquiry for HoP [history of philosophy] naturally organizes itself along two completely different lines, each of them important and essential to the field. On the one hand, what historians of philosophy study is naturally seen as a complicated historical system of networks: networks of influence, networks of institutions, networks of oppositions, networks of personal interaction, along with the individual thinkers at the nodes of these networks. On the other hand, they study not only networks but themes, which we usually call, somewhat misleadingly, problems. Thus historians of philosophy do philosophy by tracing both the history of networks of various kinds and the internal structures of problems discussed and investigated within those networks; and what is more, they do so simultaneously, and doing so simultaneously is essential to the approach.

Siris points out a number of interesting effects of this kind of taxonomy, which relate to the fact that the core of philosophy is usually felt to be on the “problem” axis, because these problems are the focus of individual inquiries, meaning high profile articles and books, etc.  Yet individual philosophers have no way to communicate with one another except through these ad hoc and unrecognized “infrastructures” for their field, which are the kind of thing people construct for undergraduates, but rarely take seriously for themselves, unless they really are professional historians of philosophy.  But the history of philosophy is still considered something of a lesser endeavor compared to really “doing” philosophy, probably because it’s considered a preliminary, information-gathering step preparatory to the real work of inquiry.

After looking over the C/B taxonomy, my question would be: what kinds of persistent, collectively pursued issues would literary or cultural studies offer as counterparts to the “problem” in philosophy?  And to what extent are these conceived within or apart from our periodizations?   How should we be organizing the information for our inquiries?


Peter Burke, “Context in Context”

[plate printed cloth of George III and family (1784-5) courtesy of the Whitworth Gallery textile collection]

When I found this 2002 essay a while back, I was excited, because I had really liked the lucidity and accessibility of What is Cultural History? (2004).  I also liked the fact that it shared some of the theoretical preoccupations of my Cynicism book.  In Burke’s hands, Raymond Williams, the Warburg school, and de Certeau all hang together.  And of course I’d never seen or heard of this book until my own book had been published.

So Burke’s essay opens strongly when he reminds us of just how indispensable the term “context” has become for scholars working across an impressive number of disciplines.

Context is a term that has come into more and more frequent use in the last thirty or forty years in a number of disciplines–among them, anthropology, archaeology, art history, geography, intellectual history, law, linguistics, literary criticism, philosophy, politics, psychology, sociology, and theology. A trawl through the on-line catalogue of the Cambridge University Library in 1999 produced references to 1,453 books published since 1978 with the word context in the title (and 377 more with contexts in the plural). There have been good reasons for this development. The attempt to place ideas, utterances, texts, and other artifacts “in context” has led to many insights. All the same there is a price to be paid, the neglect of other approaches and also the inflation or dilution of the central concept, which is sometimes used–ironically enough, out of context–as an intellectual slogan or shibboleth.

I won’t repeat the details of Burke’s argument, except to say that he does indeed “re-place context in its contexts–or better, its many contexts,” beginning with a Koselleck-style sketch of its “placements” in a series of linguistic and cultural fields.  But the most intriguing part of the opening was the promise that it would detail the “price to be paid” for using this term, and to discuss at some length the limitations that this term imposes upon our analyses.

Burke’s starting-point is the Ciceronian notion of literary decorum, and the rhetorical accommodation of one’s expression to a particular occasion, meaning the specificities of time, place, and audience.  In the fourth century, however, Burke sees the emergence of a new term, “contextio,” (from L. contexere, to weave)  that describes “the text surrounding a given passage that one wishes to interpret.”  The metaphor of weaving suggests that meaning is to be found not in any isolated element under examination, but in the manner in which it sits in its surroundings, or in its relations with those surroundings, however those are defined.  Note also that this double-move aligns rhetorical production with textual exegesis, thereby providing a double-perspective for understanding language and its uses.  “Context,” the relation of what was said to the social and linguistic situation in which it was said, becomes an indispensable aid to interpretation.

What follows in PB’s argument is at once hugely suggestive as an opening for research and a little disappointing in its follow-through, because the term “context” seems to arise almost without being noticed as part of an increasingly historicist attitude towards language and meaning.  Over time, it also takes on “culturalist” assumptions of the specificities of geo-political space, especially in fields like history, anthropology, geography, and so on.  One of the tacit assumptions informing the use of this term seems to be that particular “contexts”–whether those of period, tradition, or culture–are unique and incommensurable with one another.  This means that contextualizing becomes one of the standard practices of scholarship devoted to deepened knowledge of a particular time and place.  It also means that contexts, tacit or otherwise, allow experts or connoisseurs to distinguish the vases of one dynasty from another, the style of this writer from his subsequent imitator, and so on.  So “context” becomes one more way for scholars and connoisseurs to play the game of “distinction,” in every sense of the term.

And I have to say, now that I have read Burke, that “context” has to be one of the most important and undertheorized conceptual underpinnings for the period-specialist, since contexts become a crucial way to provide specificity and content to the expertise of the period-specialist, who defines his or her expertise solely by reference to a particular (and perhaps too arbitrarily defined) period of time.  It might be worth pointing out, too, that the informal, holistic, yet openended understanding of the literary period specialist often seems less professionalized, less specialized, and closer to the older, “amateur” worlds of connoisseurs, antiquarians, or dilettantes than the stricter, more regulated worlds of professional historians or philosophers.  So one problem that follows from Burke’s essay concerns the formality or informality of such contexts, and how we might understand how they are constructed or recognized in the past or present.

Finally, as suggestive as this essay was, I wished while reading it that Burke had followed up on his initial promise, and spent more time analyzing the limitations or possible dangers of contexts in interpretations. For example, how might it be studied in terms of specific encounters (or collisions) among disciplines?  The circular nature of contexts-as-explanations-seems like another problem well worth exploring concretely, as would be the question of how multiple contexts are supposed to relate to one another (cf. 171-6).  The multidisciplinary aspect of contexts stands as perhaps the most interesting part of this story, because the concept of “context” remains one of the ways that more or less remote disciplines communicate their results to one another, while also acting as part of the self-organization and understanding of those disciplines.  But I am grateful to Burke for opening up this line of inquiry, which I hope others will follow up.


genre and distance

Over the past few years, the intellectual historian Mark Salber Phillips has been developing an interesting train of thought about historiography, genre, and distance, where he argues that distance constitutes one of the fundamental parameters of historical writing.  (For those with access to Project MUSE, some of these articles can be found here, here, and here). 

For Phillips, distance can serve both synchronically (as a stylistic option for writers in historical genres) or diachronically (to characterize the dominant paradigms and genres of history-writing at a particular point in time).   

The generic dimension of Phillips’s argument has always seemed pivotal to me, because by viewing genre as historically conditioned, it transforms genre “into an instrument of historical investigation.”  This seems to me a basic assumption that literary scholars have held for some time, but well worth applying to historical and other kinds of writing as well. 

Genres . . . are necessarily responsive to each other as well as to the social conditions that frame them. In this way, they form larger groupings or systems, which are themselves historically conditioned and variable. Accordingly, as authors innovate and the conditions of knowledge and communication change over time, genres undergo a process of revision that registers new relations of authors, readers, and disciplines (Histories 213).

Phillips transforms history from a single, continuous, unified category to an ensemble of genres with its own stratifications, its own highs and lows, its own contradictions.  This is clearly an empirical advance on earlier, more idealized notions of history and history-writing.  Moreover, it gives a very plausible account of the significance of the “minor” genres for registering the newest, most innovative forces at play at a particular moment. 

First, building on the idea that genres are contrastive and combinatory, I want to argue against the customary assumption that history is a single, stable, and rather decorous literature and suggest instead that it is best understood as a cluster of overlapping and competing genres, “low” as well as “high.” The result is a much more nuanced and flexible picture of historical thought—one that is better able to accommodate the range of methods, ideologies, and rhetorics that make up the practice of any given era of historical writing. And since the so-called “minor” genres often give us the best evidence of the force of new agendas or the demands of new audiences, a genre theory that pays attention to the full range of historical writing is much better able to capture the sense of new directions in thought or practice.

It seems to me that anyone trying to write a literary history of the late 18th century, with all its experiments and one-offs, would have to use an explanatory scheme like Phillips’s to account for this period’s peculiar character.

But thinking about genre as a communicative practice in the 18th century naturally raises the question of how it works for our own writing: to what extent does professional literary criticism enforce its own strictures on behalf of “distance”?  How might distance be understood differently when we move from the various genres of literary criticism to historical writing?  And how does distance organize the highs and lows, the major and minor genres of our canon of criticism?