FUN WITH HISTORY
Bill Long 10/24/05
On Historians and Friends
I returned last night from a weekend away to visit friends in Seattle and Tacoma. In Seattle I stayed with friends Bruce Zabel and Susan Wilner. Bruce and I first crossed paths in Providence, RI in the Fall of 1973. I was in my senior year at Brown while he, a precocious 20 year-old, was just beginning Brown's highly touted Ph.D. program in American studies. I glommed onto Bruce quickly because he was the first person my age I had met who had an academic interest in the study of American religion but was familiar, first hand, with Evangelicalism. We both left Providence in December of that year for different reasons, and though we talked on occasion in the intervening three decades, we have only reconnected in a significant way in the past few months. I have stayed twice in the furnished basement of their home but, since that is the place where Bruce stores more than 1,000 of his history books, I have had to face the serious dilemma of whether I should sleep or read through the night.
In my recent trip to Seattle, Bruce and I talked about one of his mentors in history at Northern Illinois University, Alfred F. Young. NIU had a sort of upstart program in history in the 1960s, populated by world-class scholars who didn't fit into the tweedy world of WASPish history programs in those days, and Young was one of them. As the weekend progressed, we talked about Young, read an autobiographical essay Young wrote in 1995, and then I decided to take some notes on the history of early Seattle as a result of my walk along Alki Beach in West Seattle. This and the next essay link together those latter two issues and try to show why studying history is so much fun.
Meeting Alfred F. Young Through His Autobiographical Essay
Young was asked to write an article on his academic autobiography for the prestigious William & Mary Quarterly in 1995. An earlier essay he wrote in that journal, on the long-lived colonial/early national artisan George Hewes (1742-1840) had been named one of the 11 significant articles in the 50-year history of the journal, and the editors wanted him to reflect on his life as a historian as a result. Young's story gives us insight not only into the way that he "made it" from being a poor Jewish kid in New York in the Great Depression but how the historical profession has looked at the data of history and evolved as a profession over the years. We are all familiar with the evolution of the historical profession in America--from a "consensus" history to a a sort of "history from the bottom up" approach which is now standard in every major program in history in the United States. But Young's narrative shows us "up front and personal" the prejudices and values underlying the professionduring the early days of his career.
Illuminating to me were his experiences as "outsider" of the historical academy, his establishment of an approach to history which reflected this outsider status and, finally, his realization that even when he pursued this new approach, he was deaf to certain movements (feminist history) which he would subsequently recognize. First, Young as outsider. He tells the story of attending a conference in the early 1950s in Boston in the restored home of Francis Parkman, the 19th century historian, at which Perry Miller, the dean of Puritan studies, decried popular stereotypes of Puritans. After hors d'ouvres of lobster newburg and sherry, they ascended to the study of the "great man," who had seen "Indians, blacks, Catholics and all lesser breeds thronging America through the eyes of a very Brahmin Bostonian." A decade later Young recalls the presidential address of Carl Bridenbaugh to the American Historical Association in which he lamented a rising generation of historians with "environmental deficiencies"--i.e., they were urban-bred and products of lower-middle class or foreign backgrounds. Young, as a New York bred Jew, whose father was born in Poland, certainly fit this description.
Establishing a Career
Nevertheless, he managed to secure teaching positions at non-elite institutions, and the field opened to him as year turned to year. But his experience as outsider made him sensitive to the feelings of outsiders as he studied texts in American history. And so, he divided his scholarly interests into four areas: (1) the study of popular movements in early America; (2) a quest for original sources; (3) an attempt to build communities of scholars, though leaving room for dissent; and (4) the delivery of the fruit of scholarship to a wide audience. He talks about his own status as "outsider":
"Being an outsider, I can now see, was a source of my capacity to identify with the outsiders in early America, ignored, marginalized, or patronized by other historians. It may have been easier for me to recognize that there were other craftsmen than those in the idealized settling of Colonial Virgina."
What he was realizing is what everyone has realized especially since the 1960s, that your location often determines not only the subject matter that you study but the results that you propose. Rather than trying to become something other than he was, he decided to let that location determine his method. He decided to write biographies of artisans and a colonial transvestite as a result. He wanted to "rescue" American artisans from the "tory stereotype" of the mob and the dismissive political jargon of "petty bourgeoisie." His work has made a mark not simply on specialized historians (such as the historians of work) but of all who study the period around the Revolutionary War.
A Blind Spot
One blind spot remained, however, and he notes this near the end of the essay. Though he now is committed to the study of women in history, he was not always dedicated, or even aware, of this area. He has a wife and three daughters who "raised his consciousness." He took their exhortations to recognize the role of women in history as encouragement to reread all his notes, gathered over a decade, on the Revolution and related subjects and subject them to a "fresh reading." He was amazed at how much he had read but which had not "registered" in his mind. He simply had ignored the women.
It is this experience of Young, refracted over a lifetime of scholarship, that I had ringing in my mind as I innocently decided to take a walk along Alki Beach in West Seattle. Here is what I found.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long