Thursday, September 1, 2016

Sigh, Argh, Whoa: The Long, Slow, and Lucky Road to Writing my Book

I’m probably not the only historian on the block who has a habit of thinking hard about important moments in my own life.  Give me a long commute (check!), inconveniently early morning or late night travel (check!), or insomnia (double check) and my mind often poses counterfactuals about people I met, places I’ve visited, opportunities lost and regained, and of course ideas. 

The habit has only increased through the process of writing a book.  And now that the book has been published, I’ve been thinking hard and often about how this thing happened.  My incredulity at having actually finished the book is in part some sense of an imposter syndrome that many young (or young-ish, in my case) historians feel when they find themselves having become something other than a hungry graduate student.  But there was also a fairly unlikely set of conditions that buffeted me forward and backward over the years.  I want to tell this story because I hope that it gives proper, public due to the people, institutions, and ideas that helped me think through this project over the years.  But more importantly, I hope that the graduate students laboring away on their coursework and dissertations will find a brief oasis of entertainment and solace in my little odyssey.

I had always been interested in “the state.”  I almost use the term “always” in the longue duree sense that David Armitage and Jo Guldi advocate for in The History Manifesto: the third grade report on the demise of the ancient Greek city-state (answer: they were too nice and needed a Ronald Reagan to win), the 9th grade critique of media complicity in the ramp-up to the Vietnam War (conclusion: we’ve come so far that history couldn’t possibly repeat itself) the 11th grade history fair paper on the National Security Agency (conclusion: quiet, effective spy agency that will one day be recognized as heroic), and on, and on.  Given that my talent for prognostication rivals that of Washington Post Ed Board, it is a good thing I did not become a political scientist.  But I was pretty sure that I wanted to become a historian.

The problem was that I had no idea what historians did and thankfully my undergraduate education at the University of Chicago did almost nothing to teach me this.  I know that sounds weird.  But I got away with 4 years of coursework in which I thought that great historians were: Max Weber, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, the entire Frankfurt School (except for Marcuse), Hannah Arendt, Pierre Bourdieu and David Harvey among others.  Thanks to professors like Moishe Postone, Michael Geyer, Jan Goldstein, Herman Sinaiko, Jeff Librett, and of course Bill Novak, I was allowed to run with ideas—many bad ones—relating to the rise of capitalism, the modern state, and citizenship. 

Given this background, the doctoral program in American history at the University of Chicago was a real shock.  The almost exclusively theoretical terms that I had acquired to think about the problem of the state seemed to have minimal bearing in classes that emphasized empiricism, historiography, and narrative.  That first year was really brutal.  I frequently got responses from faculty like: “You write like a social scientist.”  “I can’t tell what you are writing.”  Even, “are you sure you want to do history?”  But I figured it out over time, and when I did, I was immensely grateful that I had been allowed to take a heavy dose of theory before beginning to learn the practical skills required to study history.  It meant above all that I would continue to frame my smaller projects—like a short primary source paper about Tench Coxe’s political economy—in theoretical terms (however much it ticked off my professors) and that I would pursue a dissertation. 

Also, the books I was reading in my courses with Novak, Amy Dru Stanley, Mae Ngai, and others, were pushing me to ground those theoretical ideas in actual events, personages, and periods of time.  Incidentally, those three things, it turns out, are really important for studying history.  But back to the story.  I was stunned at the argumentative power of books like Polanyi’s Great Transformation, Horwitz Transformation of American Law I, Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, and Woodward’s Origins of the New South.  These books were also about statecraft and the relationship between the state and social and economic structures.  Yet, while they were all beholden to certain theoretical backgrounds, they and other books that I enjoyed made brave moves in their own directions that ultimately complicated reigning structural explanations about things like governance and market relations.  In short, my professors and classmates, and the books we read in common, were teaching me that I could still have my theoretical idols but that I did not always need to worship them.

Current events would also prove important.  My first class in graduate school was shortly after the events of September 11, 2001.  Much of my coursework occurred against the backdrop of the ugliness of the USA Patriot Act and the drumbeat of the Iraq War.  Suddenly my intellectual interest in questions about the state seemed to acquire a new, normative valence.

When it came time to think about a dissertation I knew I wanted to work with Bill Novak, whose People’s Welfare had changed the way people thought about how law and the state worked in nineteenth-century America.  I also was interested in law and governance in the era of the early American republic because it seemed mysterious to me that while it was widely agreed that the founders of the republic needed a more capable federal government, most of the literature seemed to suggest that the federal government was insignificant until World War I.  Novak eventually dispatched me to the National Archives regional branch in Cicero where I quickly found myself digging through massive amounts of federal court, customs, and land office records. 

And in at least one way I’ve never really left that uncomfortable, multi-use reading room in Cicero (though it has been renovated and is now amazing).  Almost all of my work since, especially my book, has embraced federal court, customs, and land records.   So in my next post, I’ll try to explain the main idea behind the book and what I hope it accomplishes.  But I’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane!