Friday, March 21, 2008

MHS Panel

Last night, I attended a panel discussion of John Murrin's paper, "Self-Immolation: Patterns of Historiography in the Coming of the American Revolution" at the Massachusetts Historical Society. I did not have a chance to read the paper before hand (because the MHS charges $25.00 for papers), but Murrin's main point seems to be that there has not been substantial academic work on the origins of the American Revolution in the past 30 years because each of the dominant schools of thought burned itself out.

The panel was made up of John Murrin (Princeton), Pauline Maier (MIT), Woody Holton (U of Richmond), and Brendan McConville (BU). McConville mostly agreed with Murrin's premise, but Maier and Holton did not (Holton rather strenuously).

Some of the important points from the evening:
One of Professor Murrin's complaints was that many colleges no longer teach the American Revolution. I'm generally skeptical of this type of claim, and was glad whenLisa Wilson (Connecticut College) pointed out that many colleges teach the Revolution as part of a larger course, often in a comparative framework. She gave some examples of courses with titles like "Atlantic Revolutions" that cover the French, Haitian, and American Revolutions, or survey courses that cover the period 1763-1815 with the Revolution as the centerpiece.

Professor McConville had a rather strange complaint: he seemed incredulous that any graduate student or young professor could call himself/herself an Early Americanist without knowing the literature of the American Revolution. I suppose that's fair enough if he meant that all Early Americanists should be familiar with the basic arguments, but it seemed that he was asking for more than just general knowledge of the historiography. I say it was a strange complaint because it seems odd to expect that 17th-century specialists would also be experts on the Revolution. Are 19th century historians often asked for their opinions on Watergate? Should specialists in the Early Republican era be equally knowledgeable about the Gilded Age? I'm not saying that the American Revolution isn't important - heck, all American historians of all periods should be conversant in the historiography. But I think it is dangerous to expect that "Early American" means "Revolutionary Era." There is always the danger of teleology when you try to read later events into earlier eras. I disagreed with McConville because I think it is perfectly appropriate for an Early Americanist to be only passingly familiar with the Revolution and its literature. In fact, it is more appropriate for a 17th century historian to ignore the Revolution than it is for a 19th century historian to do the same.

There was an extended conversation about the pedigrees of today's historians, with McConville arguing that the neo-Progressives (Wood, Nash) did not turn out many graduate students who went on to work on the Revolution, and Holton arguing that that is untrue. For example, McConville is himself a student of Gordon Wood and Holton is a student of neo-progressive Peter H. Wood ("the wrong Wood," as he calls himself). There seemed to be consensus that grad students generally shy away from the Revolution or focus on non-political and non-military aspects of the period. To this, I say, "So?" I'm certainly interested in the era, but I have drifted backward toward the 17th century because the late 18th seems so crowded and difficult to break into. Besides, I have very little interest in the ideology of republicanism, so any work I do on the late 18th century will not be the kind of history these guys were asking for. I was surprised that they were upset that more grad students don't work on the period: from my perspective, it is incredibly crowded, and I'd like more breathing room.

Also, I met J.L. Bell, author of Boston 1775, which is one of my favorite blogs.

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