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by John Wilson


History, History, and More History

A report on the 2008 conference of The Historical Society.

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Last week in Baltimore, The Historical Society gathered at John Hopkins University for its every–other–year conference, centering on the themes of "Migration, Diaspora, Ethnicity, and Nationalism in History." Since its founding a little over a decade ago, THS has provided a forum for historical conversation in many venues, including two excellent publications: The Journal of the Historical Society, edited by George Huppert (Scott Hovey serves as managing editor), and Historically Speaking, edited by Joe Lucas and Don Yerxa (Randall Stephens is associate editor). Based in Boston, where executive director Lou Ferleger is on the faculty of Boston University, the society prides itself on its intellectual freedom, its openness to contesting viewpoints, its hospitality to a wide range of subjects, approaches, fields of study. (Here, military history and the history of the civil rights movement are equally at home.) In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I am a board member of THS and an unabashed but not uncritical fan. You can test anything I say about the conference in particular by going to the website, where many of the papers are online, and I urge you to check out the Journal and HS if you aren't already familiar with them.

Typically when I attend a conference I spend at least as much time—often more time—networking as I do listening to presentations. But there are exceptions, and this conference was one. While I had a chance to talk with old friends and make new acquaintances—some of whom, I hope, will turn up in the pages of Books & Culture in due course—I listened to a lot of papers, and even so I often had to choose between two very appealing concurrent sessions. While a few of the presenters weren't ready for prime time, the standard in general was high, and a number of the papers were excellent.

Thanks in no small part to Eric Arnesen, the current president of THS, African American history was particularly well–represented at this conference, which included two sessions devoted to the state of the field in addition to a number of papers on various themes, many of them exploring aspects of the African disapora and migration of African Americans within the United States.

To single out a handful of excellent papers without mentioning others just as good (not to mention the ones I didn't even hear, or the two fine papers at the session I moderated) seems unfair, but here are a few that stood out for me. Darren Staloff of the City College of New York gave a fascinating paper, "Contending for the Mantle of Enlightenment: The Philosophical Exchanges of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams." This would make for good reading as a follow–up to Edward Larson's book A Magnificent Catastrophe, about the presidential campaign of 1800, pitting Jefferson against Adams. Staloff, a wonderfully lucid writer, excels in recovering the intellectual context of Adams' and Jefferson's rival understandings of the Enlightenment.

You may recall Randall Bytwerk's review of two books on Nazi propaganda and the Holocaust, published in the July/August 2007 issue of Books & Culture. One of the books reviewed was Jeffrey Herf's The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust. Herf, of the University of Maryland, is now at work on "Nazi Germany and the Arab and Muslim World: Old and New Scholarship." Herf finds that contemporary anti–Semitism in the Muslim world is distinct in some ways from earlier varieties, having been shaped in part by Nazi influences. Among the sources he's working with is a trove in the National Archives containing translated transcripts of Nazi propaganda broadcast to Arab listeners between 1941 and 1945.

Not yet posted on the website, alas, is Judith Stein's paper on "Conflict, Change, and Economic Policy in the 1970s," a witty and provocative take on what led to the "Reagan Revolution," stressing the failure of the Democrats to recognize that the Keynesian consensus couldn't adjust to new economic realities. Stein (CCNY) is at work on a book on this subject, coming from Yale University Press, probably sometime next year.

In her paper "Indian in a Bottle," Bonnie Lynn–Sherow of Kansas State related the saga of an ambitious young mixed–race man (African American and Latino) who passed as an Indian. Styling himself "Chief Two Moons Merida," he exploited the popular notion that Native Americans enjoy a special intimacy with the natural world. His line of patent medicines made him wealthy before he died at the age of forty–five. The wild story Lynn–Sherow tells—catnip for novelists and screenwriters—is quintessentially American (Chief Two Moons takes his place in a long line of American hucksters) even as it sheds light on the particular history—still unfolding—of attempts to claim Indian identity.

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