I don’t know if anyone’s still “reading” here – in the age of RSS, I’m not sure what that means anymore – but I thought I’d point out that I’m posting again at no great matter. I might cross-post things here, but I might not. I was probably a little too ambitious in starting this blog.
John McGowan has a nice post up at Public Intelligence about the isolation and self-doubt of young academics, and about his experiences just starting out trying to find a job and a publisher for his first book. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a direct link to the post to work; go to the main page and scroll down to July 11th, 2006: “The Loneliness of the Young Academic.”)
Having found a tenure-track position after years of difficulty, McGowan writes:
I now had some vision of an alternative, so being once again on tenure track, still racking up the rejections, didn’t give me knock-down depression this time around. The first book got taken and I wrote a letter of thanks to the sweet man from Brown (Roger Henkle: I never met him and saw a few years ago that he had died) who read the manuscript and recommended its publication. The letter alluded to how grateful I was for his approbation because I had no way of knowing if the book was really any good, even though I thought it was. He wrote me back a very nice letter—and picked up on that note of isolation in my letter to him.
For McGowan, this isolation seems to have been directly related to his situation as a not-yet-established academic; after that first acceptance he
started in on my second book—and it was as if someone had waved a magic wand over me. I still got articles rejected from time to time, but now they were accepted more often than not. And I never had any doubt that the book would be taken. Yet it wasn’t as if I somehow knew how to do this now, or that I really thought my essays had taken some kind of quantum leap in quality. What was the difference? I don’t think I can say exactly. Yes, I now had a kind of confidence that came though in my prose. I had a “voice,” that mysterious thing that both means nothing and also means a tremendous amount.
For others, however, that sense of isolation and doubt can last on through the years, long after worries about finding a job, becoming tenured, or establishing oneself in the profession have passed.
Michael Kammen’s 1982 article “Vanitas and the Historian’s Vocation” (JSTOR)* opens with the discovery of such doubts where Kammen least expected to find them: in the person of Charles McLean Andrews, one of the biggest names in colonial American history in the early 20th century. Kammen quotes from a letter Andrews wrote to Max Ferrand in 1915 when, according to Kammen, Andrews was 52 and had been at Yale for five years after previously teaching at Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins:
Of course I liked your letter. Who would not have liked to have something that made him feel that what he was trying to do was worth while. Expressions of interest in onesself or ones work are so rare in New Haven that I am almost tempted to have your letter framed. I get into the habit of wondering sometimes whether it is all worth the effort and the sacrifice and the drudgery. But I always come back to the one great solace that it is all to the good, and that whatever contributes to knowledge or to life is its own reward. Then I love it and that adds to my cares, lest I be doing that which is purely selfish because I am never happier than when I am at it. I am glad you liked the paper, and I am more glad that you told me you liked it. I liked it myself, and felt that it opened a lot of possible interpretations that had not been in the past a part of our thought of colonial history. I sometimes in my climbing think that I am looking on a new world of colonial life, and that in the past we have been living like cave men instead of searchers for the truth and the light. I keep at it, but it[is] all so slow and there is so much to know. I wonder whether I shall live out the doing of what I want to do. (1-2)
For Kammen, Andrews’ letter is a useful point of departure: it provides
a parable for the rambling reflections that follow in this essay. Andrews’s candor about his crisis of confidence is wonderfully refreshing. Haven’t we all felt as he did? Haven’t we all suffered self-doubt? And having achieved some goal–the arduous completion of a monograph, the presentation of a new course–haven’t we wondered whether it was really worth the expenditure of time and psychic strength at the expense of some other activity? Were we adequately appreciated? Was the effort itself properly understood? (3)
Not having completed a monograph or even a dissertation or article I can’t quite say that I have felt as Andrews did. To look back on these particular kinds of doubts is something I have to look forward to.
*Reviews in American History, December 1982.
Already I’m getting what looks like spam, or at least some extremely irritating trolling. I’ve implemented a feature that says every commenter must have a previously approved comment. I believe this means that your first comment, if you have not yet commented, will be moderated, but that each later one will be approved.
I’m not entirely sure how that works, so bear with me as I figure it all out.
What does [national] exceptionalism mean?
Is it a measure of degree? There’s distinctive, and then there’s even more distinctive: exceptional.
Agree/Disagree (please choose one): If you come up with a list of countries and compare them with each other, and it turns out that Country A is very distinctive, I suppose that makes Country A exceptional, except at the same time the act of making a list of comparable countries means that on another level Country A is not so exceptional as to be incomparable.
Statement (please mark only one blank per pair):
the question of American exceptionalism
_variation on a theme?
seems to produce scholarship that is
interesting for what it has to say about American history in general and
satisfying for the answer it gives to the the question: Is American history exceptional?
Update: Eric has a measured response here.
This may be a new blog, but I am not all that new to blogging (as some of you may know). To give more background to this blog, I’ve selected a few history posts from my other blog and posted excerpts from and links to the originals in the archives.
It’s nice to see a bit of environmental history get reviewed prominently (as opposed to being confined to subscription/academic only publications): Neal Ascherson on The Conquest of Nature: Water, Landscape and the Making of Modern Germany by David Blackbourn in the London Review of Books.
Particularly striking is this description of Frederick II of Prussia’s campaign to colonize the Oderbruch. It is a reminder that even into the 18th century European states were not engaged in border/territorial disputes only with other states: they were still in some cases trying to expand, integrate, and settle their own domains.
The imagery was warlike from the start. James Dunbar, from Scotland, wrote in 1780: ‘Let us learn to wage war with the elements, not with our own kind.’ Frederick II, looking out over drained marshes, announced: ‘Here I have conquered a province with peaceful means.’ It was in 1743 that he launched his grand offensive into the Oderbruch, but although he did not resort to the use of cannon, his ‘peaceful means’ involved widespread coercion, the militarisation of the labour force and the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people living in the marshes.
In Frederick’s time, marshlands were regarded as sinister, useless places, breeding malarial vapours and sheltering not only dangerous wild beasts but primitive human beings beyond the reach of law. Today, we would treasure the lost Oderbruch as one of the marvels of Europe. On its way to the Baltic, the river frayed into countless shallow channels and lagoons, into swamps, shoals and muddy islands. Twice a year, it flooded up to ten or twelve feet deep, nourishing a dense cover of waterlogged bushes. Here lived ‘an almost unimaginable range of insect, fish, bird and animal life’, including wolves and lynxes. Blackbourn has the sense to rely heavily on the travel writings of Theodor Fontane, the most lovable and observant of German writers, who explored the drained Oderbruch in the 1850s and collected memories of pre-reclamation times. Fontane was told of the enormous shoals of countless species of fish, of pike hordes so dense that they could be scooped up in buckets, of crayfish which escaped the hot summer shallows to swarm in trees from which they could be shaken down like plums. And he wrote also about the old inhabitants. They were not Germans but Wends, Slavs who had survived in the marshes since the Germans colonised the fertile land almost a thousand years before. The Wends lived on mounds hidden in the swamp, their huts encircled by ramparts of cow-dung which kept out the floods and served as pumpkin beds.
Frederick put an end to all that. The marshes were drained, a new straight bed was dug for the Oder, its labyrinth of side-channels was blocked off, and miles of dykes were reared to keep the river in its place and protect the farms now being laid out with geometric precision across the Oderbruch. Thousands of German farmer-colonists were brought in and planted in little red-roofed farmhouses. The shy Wends melted away as the waters dried up. Fontane thought he could recognise Slavic headscarves in a few villages on the fringes of the Bruch. But the old life had gone.
The current condition of the Oderbruch, Ascherson notes, illustrates another of Blackbourn’s points: that places that are presented as pristine and natural are, in fact, often subject to numerous outside and human-caused pressures.*
Blackbourn ends his book where he began: in the Oderbruch. Since German reunification in 1990, a certain amount of ‘greening’ has gone on, and the Oderbruch is now often referred to as a place ‘where nature is still intact . . . a natural paradise’. But it is not. The quiet river is the old drainage-cut dug by Frederick II’s men, and the yellow carpets of helleboraster are a recent invasive species. Even the disastrous Oder flood of 1997, which inundated the cities of western Poland and almost overwhelmed the Oderbruch, had immediate causes which were human rather than natural: fresh deforestation and wetland destruction in the Czech and Polish catchment areas.
In his final chapter, Blackbourn reflects on the illusions attending human efforts to shape the environment. The Oderbruch, as it exists, is
hard to justify rationally, a small, thinly populated area that lies well below the normal water level of a river that is a permanent threat to its existence. After more than 250 years, however, this new land has acquired the patina of age . . . I would not wish it returned to the ‘wilderness of water and marsh’ that existed before the reclamation, even if such a thing were possible.
And it is not possible. A few pages earlier, he writes: ‘What is at stake here is not “untouched” or “intact” nature, but the question of “renaturing” the Oderbruch – what this might mean and how far it might go.’ The way towards wisdom, he implies, is to recognise that we cannot ‘restore’ nature, or stop it changing. Instead, we can for a limited time alter a landscape to suit our needs or our pleasure. After that, the landscape will take back the job of its own unpredictable alteration. The ‘conquest of nature’ can never amount to more than an armistice.
*This is a point that William Cronon made quite forcefully in the American context in his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in the mid-1990s.