Thursday, November 8, 2007

Beckert reviews Bender, A Nation Among Nations

A Nation among Nations: America’s Place in World History (Hill and Wang, 2006) by Thomas Bender is discussed in a featured review in the American Historical Review by Sven Beckert, Harvard University. Along the way Beckert takes up the state of American history. Beckert writes in part:

For the past few years, historians in the United States and elsewhere have vocally advocated a transnational reorientation of their discipline. In an age of globalization, the excessive disciplinary concentration on national histories seemed limiting and insufficient. As a result, world, global and transnational histories have thrived. Wherever one looks—historical journals, the programs of the meetings of professional associations, the titles of dissertations in progress, the catalogues of publishers—one finds ample evidence for such a reorientation. With the United States as its epicenter, similar currents have emerged in Europe, Japan, China, and India, among other places, and among historians who study virtually every part of the world. Global labor is being studied in Amsterdam, global economic inequality in London, and global industrialization in Osaka. Despite the proliferation of such projects, much of the transnational reorientation of history to date has focused on programmatic, methodological, and theoretical debates. To cite just one example: when in the fall of 2005 the First European Congress of World and Global History met, most of the papers presented were of a conceptual kind—with empirical research still limited.

In the United States, among historians of North America, no one has been more prominent in advocating such a transnational reorientation of the discipline of history than Thomas Bender. A United States historian by training, Bender has written at great length about the need to place the history of one nation—the United States—in transnational perspective. As the principal organizer of a number of conferences at La Pietra on transnational approaches to United States history and as the editor of a volume of essays that derived from these conferences, he has done more than anyone else to awaken United States historians to the possibilities of internationalizing the study of the American past.

It is therefore with a sense of excitement that historians of the United States have greeted the publication of his new study of North American history in transnational perspective. This is not a narrow monograph on a particular problem of U.S. history interpreted in novel ways but an effort to reconsider substantial chunks of the core narrative of American history. The resulting
volume is not only a powerful argument for the need to practice history in a cosmopolitan mode but also a deeply learned and at times brilliant retelling of key themes in U.S. history....

Indeed, with this volume, Bender has become the foremost scholar of North American history in transnational perspective. The case he makes is so powerful that it seems all but impossible to go back to an older and more limiting account of the nation’s history. Yet such a self-consciously paradigm shifting intervention also raises some questions. For one, in the project of transnationalizing North American history, there is an implicit tension between wanting to tell a cosmopolitan history and taking a particular territory as the starting point. Privileging such a territory has the advantage of engaging audiences who care about this nation’s history, but it also entails a certain teleology: The territory whose history is globalized matters because it eventually constituted a nation-state. Bender makes the global relevant through the nation-state instead of the nationstate through an analysis of the global. This is a legitimate choice and an enlightening one, but it is important to remember that it deemphasizes networks that are not first and foremost rooted in or relevant to the later development of a particular nation-state....
Bender’s book is the definite statement on how to embed the history of North America within global history. After reading this book, no one should ever be able to write United States history without thinking about how that history is situated within the larger history of humanity. Bender’s book makes its case in a conclusive way; it is a must read for anyone interested in the history of North America, and anyone thinking about transnational and global history.
The full, detailed review is here.