Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Ann Little
Most days I don’t think much about graduate school. This is probably all to the good, as my first year in grad school was and remains the worst year of my life. I had been a whiz in college—my senior thesis won a prize and I was accepted with funding to my top choice of graduate programs in History. I had it licked! History was the future. Grad school was going to be a piece of cake.
But it turned out (surprise!) that I was too immature for serious graduate study. My first year in graduate school passed in a blur of bad luck and bad decisions on my part. Then after crying in my beer with a friend one warm night in West Philadelphia, I got off a SEPTA bus at 21st and South Streets and walked right into oncoming traffic. I was tossed into the air by a minivan with New Jersey plates, but I survived, fortunately only a little bit more broken than I was before. Mostly I was just embarrassed—embarrassed to have created a scene, mortified to know that I ruined a New Jersey couple’s date night in Philadelphia, humiliated that I didn’t have health insurance so the police gave me a ride home instead of taking me to the ER.
What had I learned? Not as much history and historiography as I should have, and a lot of life lessons I very happily could have postponed. But one night at the height of my misery, I had a dream that I interpreted as a prophecy that I would not only survive but prosper as a historian. I can’t recall the exact narrative circumstances of my dream, but three books appeared to me as models or examples of the kind of historian I wanted to be. Two of them were published by the Institute before it was Omohundro: Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) and Rhys Isaac’s The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (1982).
You can’t fault my taste: White Over Black won the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize, and The Transformation of Virginia won the Pulitzer Prize in History. You also can’t fault my ambition. But you might well wonder why I dreamed about these books and looked to them as models when I became a historian of neither slavery nor the South. They were hardly new books when I encountered them in the late 1980s, but I still remember the interest and excitement they generated in me. Reading these books was like tasting foie gras for the first time on my twentieth birthday, filling me with a sense of luscious complexity that was all the more intense because it was my first hit. Few books, and few goose livers, have had that effect on me in the thirty years since.
White Over Black pulled me in with its sweep and ambition in telling a story over nearly three centuries that was clearly of enduring interest to all American historians. Could a book do this? Could he do that in just one book? Could he do that in one book published in that explosive year, 1968? I still remember the exact couch in the exact room of the college library where I began reading this daring experiment in intellectual and social history, and I was blown away by its depth and erudition. Winthrop Jordan was writing cultural history avant la lettre, and on the second page of his Preface apologized for what he presumed social scientists would say was “a disgraceful lack of system in the approach taken here toward the way societies are held together and toward the way men think, act, and feel,” and confessing to “a certain sloppiness in the available evidence” (vii). Jordan’s profound insight was that enslavement was a decision made by human beings, not an inevitable fate, and he strove to show us how this decision was made and reinforced by enslavers century after bloody century. Right then and there I became fascinated by his description of European racism and slavery structures so deep they were made to appear natural, even righteous. While Jordan’s book charts momentous change over time, this is a book that is even more importantly about the continuities in American history.
The Transformation of Virginia is even more about the deep structures of colonial American society than White Over Black. Although its title explicitly signals change over time, Isaac’s anthropological method emphasizes cultural continuities over even revolutionary change. In his essay on his method at the end of the book, “A Discourse on the Method: Action, Structure, and Meaning,” Isaac complains woefully about “the notorious obsession of historians with the seemingly intractable particularities of nonrecurrent, unique events” (323), so he wrote a book to show how attention to the patterns and structures of society could help explain change in the course of human history as well as the limits of that change. From the photo essay with which he begins the book and summarizes his argument, the reader sees that this book is no ordinary history. Isaac is explicit about his engagement with place, space, and architecture, and about the need for historians to learn to “read” these different languages to help interpret the past. Thus Transformation is also a forerunner of the subsequent literatures on both environmental history and material culture that have emerged in the past few decades.
Maybe I dreamed about these books during that difficult year because they reminded me of a more confident time when I believed I had my future cleverly planned out. But the dream wasn’t just about the past—my past, that is—it was also about my future as a historian, because the clear sense I got in the dream was that these books were to be my guides. I’ve reflected a great deal over the past decade as to how faithfully I followed this dream. Like both Isaac and Jordan, I’m a historian who focuses more on the deep structures of colonial North American societies—gender, in my case—so I’ve always focused more on the vexatious continuities instead of change over time. And like both of these great scholars, I see people as the agents of history and as the most interesting thing about history, so I’ve tried to engage readers with storytelling that also builds arguments. Isaac’s creative use of non-textual sources is a habit I’ve tried to develop and still continue to improve, and the fact that I now work in a department with an emphasis in environmental history means that I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my colleagues in that field too.
Reviewing these books for this essay, I’m also struck by my disagreements with them, Jordan’s book especially. They’re such typical historians in their interest in men, and in their near-exclusion of women as historical subjects. Both have “women” listed as subjects in their indexes, but Jordan doesn’t have an entry for “men.” (Reflecting the fourteen years between them, Isaac’s book includes “Gender roles” as a subject in his index; he also has a listing for “Men. See Gender roles.”) A man of his generation, Jordan wanted to distance himself from the politics of 1968 as much as possible in his Preface. He goes to great lengths to assure us of his objectivity and of the depth of his research over the previous decade. In language that makes me cringe with its vanity and patronizing tone, he assures his readers that his book “is not about the current, continuing crisis in race relations in America. As a point of personal privilege I wish to state that work on this study was begun several years before Mrs. Rosa Parks got ‘uppity’ on that bus.” He even boasts of having avoided “reading widely in the literature of the present crisis because it is frequently so tempting to read the past backwards—and very dangerous,” (viii-ix). Dangerous! How so? To whom or what? And what level of danger: a household hazard like an unattended hot stove or mixing ammonia and bleach, or something more potentially deadly like a pipe bomb, a drone with deadly payload, or an envelope of anthrax? He doesn’t explain his ominous warning. Warning about the “danger” of particular styles of historical inquiry smacks of revanchism to me, not to mention self-importance.
I don’t take myself that seriously as a scholar, and mercifully I know very few of us who do. Not many people outside of our immediate subfield will read our books, even if we win Bancrofts and Pulitzers and National Book Awards. For those who do read our books or essays or engage with us in various online communities, most seem intuitively to understand that history is only interesting if it addresses ideas and themes that seem relevant to the present. But I’ve always been grateful for Winthrop Jordan and Rhys Isaac as historians who grappled with change amidst powerful continuities.
I see no “danger” whatsoever in confessing the obvious fact that my feminism is instrumental to my interest in women’s lives and gender—perhaps the most pervasive and deepest-rooted of all of the deep structures that define global history and the world today. In fact, feminist scholars have warned us in the past few decades about the dangers of overconfidence in the durability of the historical change that modern feminism has wrought. Compare the relative newness and fragility of gender equality achieved in a limited way in some western democracies in the past fifty years to the seven millennia of historically documented patriarchal global rule that preceded it, and think about the lives you want for your students, your children, and grandchildren. Bold historical arguments about a continuous past seem a lot less dangerous to me than fussy demands for “objectivity.”
Ann Little was raised in the Great Lakes region of the United States near the Canadian border and educated at Bryn Mawr College and the University of Pennsylvania. The author of two books, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (Yale, 2016) and Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007), she also writes about history and sexual politics at Historiann.com and on Twitter as @Historiann.