May 03, 2016
9 min read
Fissiparous. Centrifugal. Pluralization. A-synthetic.
Comes to find that when I blog about #vastearlyamerica, my inbox fills up with fifty-cent words.
Each of those words captures potential consequences of the expansive nature of our field. Fragmentation, dispersal, diversity, scale, incoherence. I’ve been hearing a lot about these topics since “Getting Lost?” was posted a few months ago.
That’s not to say, though, that people have been writing me to disagree with the positions that I sketched out in that post. Each of those words was spoken or written by someone in the process of telling me that s/he appreciated my thoughts and shared my sense that “getting lost” was something to be embraced, not rejected. In the end, the feedback that I received—via email and face-to-face conversation, as well as on the blog’s comment section and Twitter—was overwhelmingly positive.
Of course, I’m not laboring under the misapprehension that we all share the same vision for our mutual field. Nor am I unaware that there are real professional disincentives to telling the Editor of the WMQ that he’s dumb as flies. Those points notwithstanding, writing in praise of an expansive form of early American history brings with it a pronounced preaching-to-the-choir feeling. Again, though, along with the words of encouragement and support came words that attest not simply to our colleagues’ impressive vocabularies but also to their ambivalence about the implications of vastness.
And all of this—the words of worry and the words of support, the conversations and the emails—has led me to think about coming home.
There is, after all, a homey feeling about the conversation regarding vastness and the problems it can bring, a familiarity that I find oddly reassuring. The tension between expansion—of geographies, subjects, and methods—and efforts to synthesize new work with previous scholarship is an enduring one within the field of early American history. For the last half century, neither impulse has ever entirely gone away; at times one set of voices has been ascendant, and at times the other has taken the lead. I’m thinking, in particular, of the dramatic expansion of the field in the 1960s and 1970s as the focus on gender, race, and class came online, as social history methodologies moved to the fore, and as bottom-up, localized studies proliferated. To be sure, much of that work tended to be grounded in mainland British North America, but it still represented a dramatic push against the traditional limits of the field. And that push was met, by the late 1970s and early 1980s, with a rising concern that the field was fragmenting, that we were learning so much about so many little places and marginalized groups that we were endangering our ability to tell a coherent story about early America. Our situation today, it seems to me, is analogous to that of the 1970s: a sustained push against previously established boundaries leads to be real advances—God, I sound so whiggish—but also to concerns about fragmentation and the lack of coherence.
In that context, then, our current conversation about vastness and matters arising therefrom is part of a larger and longstanding discussion. And viewed in this light, I find it difficult to see the expansive nature of early American history as something that represents an existential challenge. We’re not somewhere new, somewhere foreign, somewhere threatening. We’re not lost. We’re home.
That’s not to say, however, that our colleagues are wrong to feel ambivalence. Just as I share their sense that, on balance, thinking, writing, and teaching about a vast early America is positive thing, I share their concerns about the field’s future. I worry about what will hold us together, about how we will be able to keep track of our colleagues’ far-flung work, about the time it takes to acquire the ever-more sophisticated methodological and ever-more diverse linguistic competencies that our ever-more expansive topics increasingly require, about the difficulty of synthesis, about how we will explain our sense of the early American world to students and colleagues whose own intellectual worlds are centered in other times and places.
All of which is to say that I am very interested in finding ways to knit our field together. It’s my home too, after all. I don’t share the sense that early Americanists are lost, but clearly we could become so if we get out of the habit of speaking to each other in coherent and comprehensible ways about our shared, expansive field. All of us need to participate in the process of crafting the tools – methodologies and vocabularies, venues and institutions, habits and sensibilities—that will allow our field to be at once vast, inclusive, and coherent.
Moreover, people (like myself) who are pushing to expand the boundaries of the field have an obligation to help us understand what that project means for narratives about early America, just as people who are working in more traditionally dominant sectors of the field have an obligation to think about what the new perspectives from the margins might mean for older syntheses and seemingly settled understandings. “Okfuskee!”—the title (minus the exclamation point) of my first book—isn’t a particularly useful thesis statement, but neither is “Thomas Jefferson!” Put another way, consistently reaching out to our colleagues and engaging with their own efforts to reach out to us is something we all need to do.
And as we do that, some of us, at least, could think about coming home in another sense, about returning to older topics—peoples, places, events, subjects, processes—from new angles derived from our generation or two of basking in the vastness. I don’t particularly want to re-center those topics (however defined), but I’m interested in them because they are still resonant and powerful. As someone whose first topical and methodological focus was on the field’s periphery, I appreciate the power of the historiographic metropoles. If we can productively re-visit places, topics, and approaches that were once at the center of early American history from new perspectives, based on our ever wide-ranging and broadly inclusive version of early American history, then we will at once expand the reach of our scholarship and help us all to keep thinking about the implications of foregrounding a vast early America.