Tuesday, March 10, 2020
March 10, 2020: Last Week Recaps: Serena Zabin’s Book Talk
[Last week was one of the busiest of my professional career, featuring a series of great Boston events, culminating in the 51st Northeast MLA convention. So this week I’ll recap that convention and those other events, leading up to a special weekend post on what’s next for NeMLA and how you can get involved!]
On two takeaways from a wonderful talk on a vital new book.
My busy week meant I didn’t get to too many of the city’s many commemorations of the Boston Massacre’s 250th anniversary (all of which were helpfully compiled by the public historian and BostonStudier par excellence J.L. Bell). But I did have the chance to follow up my own amazing experience giving a book talk at the Massachusetts Historical Society by attending another such talk, this time by my fellow AmericanStudier Serena Zabin on her groundbreaking and timely new book, The Boston Massacre: A Family History. My main point about that book is the Reading Rainbow one, but here I will highlight two takeaways, one on content and one on form, from Zabin’s compelling talk about this crucial work.
My content takeaway is on (a very quick and reductive restatement) of Zabin’s central point, one implied by her provocative subtitle: that the British soldiers involved in those March 1770 events had over their two years in Boston, for a variety of reasons and in a number of significant ways, become part of the city’s evolving community and family (literally, through events like marriage and childbirth and the naming of god-parents and so on, as well as figuratively). Zabin pulls together a tremendous amount of primary source research (utilizing MHS’s own collections as well as many others) to make that case, and in so doing fundamentally reshapes our collective memories and narratives not only of the Boston Massacre, but of Boston, New England, America, and the 18th century (among other subjects!). Getting to hear how she found those materials and developed those arguments, as well as details and stories that flesh out those overarching historical goals, made the book talk a perfect complement to the book itself.
My form takeaway has to go with one particular word in that last sentence: stories. As with any aspect of this profession, no matter how many book talks (or talks of any kind) I get to deliver, I always feel that I have a lot to learn about this genre, and learn particularly clearly from my inspiring fellow book talkers and public scholars. One thing Zabin’s talk modeled pitch-perfectly and thus really drove home for me was the central importance of stories and story-telling to public history, and I would argue public scholarship of any kind. I don’t know that the old-school debate between “academic” and “narrative” history fully persists into 2020, but I think there still can be a sense that those who tell historical stories are somehow doing work that is distinct from (if not lesser than, although too often that feels like part of the narrative) those who offer analysis. But to me it’s precisely the opposite: stories are what connect us to history, and what make it possible for us then to develop analyses and arguments and all other kinds of perspectives. Zabin’s book talk, like her wonderful book, makes that point clearly and potently.
Next recap tomorrow,
PS. If you were at NeMLA 2020, I’d love to hear your thoughts and takeaways as well!