Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Uncommon Sense

The following is from the Uncommon Sense archives. It first appeared in the Spring 2004 issue, no. 118.

From the Director's Desk

Director's Desk

Sometime in the dead of winter, the staff in the Director’s Office began to sense that a groundswell of interest in the Institute’s March conference, “The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624,” had begun to build. We’d been getting a steady stream of registrations—maybe ten or twelve a week—after people received the program brochure in late November/early December. Then, around the beginning of February, the momentum began to accelerate, and we realized that something big was in the making. By the time the meeting opened on March 4, nearly 600 people had preregistered, and to our amazement, more than 500 of them actually showed up—and stayed for the duration.

Simply to report that the conference was an amazing success doesn’t really do the event justice in terms of the richness of the papers, the vigor of the discussions, and the wonderful sense of intellectual discovery that permeated the proceedings. As I mentioned in my introductory remarks, the genesis for “The Atlantic World and Virginia, 1550–1624” developed nearly five years ago, in a series of conversations between Fredrika J. Teute, the Institute’s editor of publications, and myself. After discarding a number of bad ideas—all of which were mine—Fredrika brilliantly conceptualized the framework of a program designed to present a mosaic of the regions and forces that shaped the context and provided the impetus for the settling of Jamestown in 1607. The truly international scope of the meeting, along with the sheer number of sessions, presenters, and commentators, make distilling the depth and reach of the perspectives laid before us a considerable challenge. In his summary comment, Stuart Schwartz noted that the broad categories of approach emphasized three themes—“expansion,” “diaspora,” and “encounter”—all paradigms that, in Stuart’s view, “reflect the current trend of study in Atlantic history.” Equally to the point, an appreciative lay attendee observed in a post-conference email: “I will never again be able to think of Jamestown in isolation.”

Among the most exciting aspects of the rich and extraordinarily varied presentations was, to borrow again from Stuart Schwartz, their elucidation of a significantly integrated Atlantic world within which pervasive patterns of “cultural indeterminacy” and “hybridity” repeatedly challenged established concepts of religion, identity, ethnicity, and nationality. By dramatically demonstrating the constant crossing of cultural, social, and religious boundaries that took place in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Atlantic community, the conference papers gave us a true intellectual feast and whetted our appetites for the volume of essays drawn from the proceedings that Fredrika will bring into print in 2007.

Once we caught our collective breath in the aftermath of this big event, the Institute immersed itself in the usual spring schedule. I am pleased to announce the appointment of Patrick Michael Erben as the 2004–2006 Institute/NEH fellow. We look forward to welcoming Patrick and his family to Williamsburg this summer. The 2004 Associates campaign has to date enrolled 1,033 members, among them 103 newcomers and 106 students, who are, of course, the lifeblood of the Institute’s future. A particularly rewarding consequence of the Atlantic World conference has been that it introduced the Institute to a large contingent of lay people interested in early American history, many of whom attended the meeting and some sixteen of whom subsequently decided to join the Associates.

I look forward to seeing many of you at the Institute’s Tenth Annual Conference at Smith College and Historic Deerfield, June 11–19. It is hard to believe that a decade has passed since we convened our first annual meeting at the University of Michigan, under the able direction of Carol Karlsen. The continuing success and vitality of these forums derive from the generous investments of time and energy that Institute colleagues make in organizing the programs, presenting papers, serving as chairs and commentators, and in constituting lively audiences willing to engage with the scholarship presented. The Tenth Annual Conference carries on these fine traditions. Nina Dayton, Neal Salisbury, and Kevin Sweeney, the program co-chairs, have bent their considerable talents and expended prodigious effort in putting this meeting together, for which we greatly thank them and their program committee—Richard D. Brown (University of Connecticut), Leslie Choquette (Assumption College), Philip Gould (Brown University), Dana Leibsohn (Smith College), Barry Levy (University of Massachusetts, Amherst), Marla Miller (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) Lynda Morgan (Mount Holyoke College), Jessica Neuwirth (Historic Deerfield, Inc.), and Martha Saxton (Amherst College).

Avid readers who peruse every jot and tittle of this newsletter, including the Institute Directory, will notice that Becky Wrenn appears as Assistant Editor both in the Director’s Office and under the William and Mary Quarterly. This is not a typo—Becky will henceforth wear two hats, giving both the Quarterly and Uncommon Sense the benefit of her editorial skills. She began working for the Institute as a William and Mary undergraduate in the early 1990s, and it was our good fortune to lure her back from California late in 1998, eighteen months after she received her B.A. in history. Her range of talents have made her much in demand throughout the Institute—she is a proofreader par excellence, an accomplished cartographer, and a fine copyeditor. I can say without exaggeration that Becky is pretty much indispensable around here. She is to be congratulated on her new position at the Quarterly and for the quality of the work she continues to do in the Director’s Office.

In closing, I want to bring an important milestone to the attention of the Institute’s constituents. May 27, 2004, was Thad Tate’s eightieth birthday. By the time this newsletter appears, we will have surprised Thad with a celebration involving the current members of the Council and Executive Board, some of his former Institute colleagues and several old friends. As most of you know, Thad began his career in the research department at Colonial Williamsburg in the mid-1950s. In 1961 he joined the history faculty at the College of William and Mary and the same year accepted the book review editorship of the William and Mary Quarterly. He became editor of the Quarterly in 1967 and director of the Institute in 1972, a post he held until his retirement in 1989. Not only has he lived to tell the tale—well, many tales, in fact—but he’s also still going strong, as the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, which he currently chairs, will readily attest! I know you all join me in saluting Thad for his leadership and service, in thanking him for his friendship, and in wishing him a very Happy Birthday.

Ron Hoffman
Director