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Uncommon Sense


By Karin Wulf · March 30, 2020

History in the Time of Coronavirus

News/Announcements 8 min read

by Karin Wulf

Around the world we are experiencing an extraordinary simultaneous crisis. COVID-19, the coronavirus that has caused a pandemic, is affecting people very differently across geography and individual circumstances but we are all in its grip. Here at the OI we are now working fully remotely, our home campus at William & Mary is closed and classes have moved online, and schools in Virginia are closed for the remainder of the year. The peninsula region has been hard hit by coronavirus cases.    

The gravity of the moment is plain. 

What will we choose to do in this moment, and how will we go forward?  For the OI, one choice is plain even when so much seems unclear. We will continue, to the absolute best of our ability and with a generous awareness for the many and different challenges we all face, to support scholars and scholarship in the vast history of early America, and to share that work as widely as possible with a public that needs it more than ever.

Is this work critical in the face of a pandemic?  It’s early American history, after all.

It absolutely is, because it is early American history. We know that even as we rely on science to guide our understanding of this virus and our medical response, the humanities and social sciences illuminate critical features of how that understanding and response is shaped. We know that sociologists can track the differential provision of care between communities, that political scientists are analyzing the developing stress on and among local, state, and federal powers, and that literary scholars are scrutinizing our reading consumption as well as the writing that is capturing this moment so we all understand it better and from different perspectives. And historians are providing crucial information about public health crises such as the flu pandemic of 1918, the polio and AIDS epidemics, and what we can learn about infrastructure needs and comparative responses. 

Early Americanists have a lot to share about issues of health, medicine, and disparity of resources in the time of epidemics. David Jones’s essay in the William and Mary Quarterly, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” for example, tackled the sadly persistent myth that it was the lack of immunity to the pathogens that arrived with European colonists that devastated Native Americans. As Jones showed, it was pathogens combined with the disruptions of communities, food scarcity, and wars brought on by colonialism that had such devastating effects. In other words, the disease exists in a context, and it is vital to understand how the context is responsible for how people will be affected by the disease. Sound familiar? There are so many examples of how early American scholarship helps us to better and more fully understand the early American past on which so much for our present and future is premised.

Because we know we have a lot to offer in this time of extremity, the OI is joining with other publishers including our colleagues at the University of North Carolina Press, in opening our books and journal content through JSTOR and Project MUSE. Open through June 30, this content will help support students and teachers at every level who have quickly pivoted to online education. It will also provide resources for a public hungry to learn. 

For early Americanists, our task is ever thus:  to convey the complexity and diversity of the early American past. History is always the lens through which we understand our present, and the platform on which we build the future. This is why historical interpretation and subject matter are often so contentious. Within the world of research, we review one another’s work by evaluating evidence, assessing the relationship of that evidence to the argument put forward, and positioning the work within the body of existing scholarship. The debates can be intense. When historical interpretation comes into the public view, it is framed as if history is already known, and as if its quality of being known makes it neutral. Neither could be further from the truth. The insistence that history is known and thus neutral is itself a non-neutral position. We learn more about the past all the time through new materials, new methods, and new perspectives. That process is what creates knowledge, refreshed regularly. 

So when you see the OI’s newsletter or social media channels announcing OI initiatives, please know it is with this sense of purpose that we are pressing forward. There is much more to note about how we are working to support the community of scholarship (authors, editors, listeners and readers) through our commitment to keeping our contracts and fellowships funded, and our events and programs rescheduled. We will continue to share that information. 

You and yours are in our thoughts. We love to hear from you anytime, and look forward to when we can meet again in person.

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