Friday, July 27, 2012
July 27, 2012: Jennings on the Long Haul
[Following up the weekend’s post, this week’s series will feature quotes and ideas from Francis Jennings’ The Creation of America, along with some American Studies perspectives to which I would connect them. This is the fifth and final entry in the series, and as always, your thoughts are very welcome!]
On two distinct and equally inspiring ways Francis Jennings modeled a career and life in American Studying.
The Creation of America was published by Cambridge University Press in July 2000; in November of that same year, Francis Jennings passed away. While of course academic press books take some time to reach the publication stage, it’s still entirely accurate to say that Jennings was working on this book in the final stage of his life, as illustrated by the opening sentences of his Acknowledgments:
“In first rank of essential debts, I owe deep gratitude to the staffs of the James C. King Home, which is my own home. They literally saved my life with surgery and watchful care during recuperation, and they made possible the rest periods during which this book could be completed.”
It’s difficult to overstate how inspiring I find those sentences. I suppose they could be read a sign of someone who couldn’t let his work go, who wasn’t able to adequately relax or the like; but I would read them entirely differently and much more positively: as evidence of the deep significance of the work Jennings was doing, and of his profound commitment to do that work for as long as he possibly could and not a moment less. That he obviously took great and continuing pleasure from the work as well (a pleasure reflected in every ornery and impassioned sentence of the book) only adds one more inspiring level still, one more career and lifelong goal to which all of us American Studiers can and should aspire.
But Jennings did more than just continue to do and take pleasure in his scholarly work until the end of his life; he also allowed that work to go in directions he didn’t expect, as evidenced by his book’s brief but crucial final three paragraphs:
“Perhaps it may seem to some critics that I have written to sensationalize the subject. If so, I respectfully disagree. This book is not at all what I intended except in its effort to include all the people involved in the Revolution. That was what sensationalized the book, rather to my discomfort.
Given the options of reporting my sources straightforwardly or producing what John Mack Faragher has called (in another connection) ‘an exclusionist reading of the past,’ I had no real choice.
My book undoubtedly contains error; it is certainly not definitive. Yet I hope this inclusionist reading will inspire new understandings and initiate new explorations by readings as it did for me.”
“Rather to my discomfort”; “as it did for me.” In his early 80s, after a lifetime of American historical investigations and scholarship, Jennings remained open enough in his ideas and his perspective to allow the sources and the evidence to take him in different directions, to amplify and reshape and shift and strengthen his understandings and analyses. In my own research and in my teaching I consistently argue for inductive reasoning, for examining the evidence and then trying to induce our arguments and ideas from it (rather than the deductive, argument-first approach that I believe many scholars employ and many teachers teach). And here is one of our most senior and established scholars practicing that approach in his final book, literally from his deathbed, in one more effort to inspire other scholars and American Studiers. Mission accomplished, Dr. Jennings.
Next guest post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Scholars and/or books that have inspired you?7/27 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two unique artists whose creations helped define late 20th century American culture and society, Norman Lear and Gary Gygax.