Monday, November 21, 2011

November 21, 2011: Giving Thanks 1

[This week I’ll be highlighting American things for which I’m thankful. Feel free to suggest your own topics in the comments, or send your own guest posts to me by email []. This is the first in the series.]
Few works of scholarship have made as much of an impression on me as did John Demos’ The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America (1994). Granted, Demos’s book was one of the first I read in college, as part of my introductory History and Literature tutorial (the amazing year-long course with Professors Jay Grossman and John McGreevy about which I blogged here), and the timing certainly contributed to its effects. But what really made Demos’ work stand out for me was its innovative and (somewhat) controversial form of narrative history—the book’s subject is the early 18th century captivity experience of a prominent young Puritan woman, Eunice Williams (the daughter of minister John Williams, who was taken captive with her but later redeemed back to the Puritan community, and who wrote a personal narrative called The Redeemed Captive about that experience); since Eunice ultimately married into and became a lifelong citizen of the Mohawk tribe which had captured her, Demos complements his historical researches and accounts with imagined passages from Eunice’s perspective, sections where he works to fill in the gaps in the historical record with his own, certainly informed but still speculative version of her evolving identity.
By far the most compelling work of historical scholarship I’ve read in the last few years would have to be Karl Jacoby’s Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History (2008; that link is to a complementary and very impressive website Jacoby created for the book). I had the opportunity to read Jacoby’s book as the chair of the 2009-2010 New England ASA’s Lois Rudnick Book Prize Committee, and the committee unanimously agreed on Shadows as the best work of AmericanStudies scholarship pulished by a New England scholar over those two years. But what makes Jacoby’s work particularly unique and compelling (far beyond just New England or that time frame) is its innovative and brave structure—the book’s subject is the brutal and far too unknown 1871 Camp Grant massacre, in which a mixed force of Anglo, Mexican, and Tohono O’Oodham soldiers decimated an Apache camp made up almost entirely of women and children; each of those four communities and cultures had a long and complex history in the region and the southwestern borderlands more generally, and so Jacoby structures his book through two parts (pre- and post-massacre) comprised of four distinct sections, each working to understand, capture, and narrate (including extended, in-depth use of the distinct languages) the experiences and perspective of one of the cultures in order to portray the many specific, complicated, and humanizing factors behind and influences on what might seem to be simply a horrific and inhuman historical event.
On this first day of Thanksgiving Week here at AmericanStudies, I’m very thankful for contemporary, ground-breaking, disciplinary-boundary-and-definition-pushing historians like Demos and Jacoby. There are lots of reasons for my appreciation and gratitude for their work, but I’ll highlight one somewhat selfish one—if we’re going to argue for a cross-cultural American identity, as of course I very much want us to, such arguments will often depend on a couple of key moves: filling in gaps in our historical record, gaps occasioned by the kinds of identity shifts and experiences at the heart of cross-cultural transformation, gaps that require us to imagine lives outside of our expected or traditional categories; and trying to understand not only the perspectives of the multiple cultures and communities that have always constituted America, but also and most significantly the American community that has been comprised out of the intersections and encounters (too often violent, but crucial in any case) between and across and among our cultures and communities. More conventional or traditional historiography can and will continue to contribute to those efforts, as will scholarship in many other disciplines; but ground-breaking, imaginative, multi-vocal histories like those provided by Demos and Jacoby are to my mind entirely necessary if we are to move forward into these new perspectives and narratives.
More tomorrow,
PS. Links above, so I’ll repeat this week’s request: any American things you’re thankful for? Ideas, and even guest posts, very very welcome!

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