Historiography (or Realizing You Know Something)

I had two presentations in class this week. One of them was fairly standard: I read a book and explained its major points to the rest of the class over a fifteen minute period. I felt pretty good about it. It helped that I liked the book.

The second presentation was slightly different. I was tasked with putting together a historiography (like a focused bibliography) that related to the book we were reading in class  that week. The book was Kristin Hoganson’s Fighting for American Manhood, a gender history of the 1890s that centers on the decision to fight the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars. My job was to describe how this book fits with its category of historical monographs, namely, late nineteenth century American imperialism. Using several different sources (including two very good historiographical essays), I put together a two page summary of the major interpretive schools, including Jingoes, Progressives, Realists, New Leftists, Culturalists, and Continuationists. What exactly I included in my historiography isn’t terribly important, but the way it led me to reflect on the historical profession and my own training as a scholar is what I really want to talk about.

So far I have read several dozen books in grad school. While these books are usually organized around a theme or topic, they don’t often have direct interaction with each other. Grad school colloquia (at least at BC) tend to be more like survey courses – they introduce you to the major scholarly monographs in a given period. For this course, the period and topic are huge: U.S. History, 1877-2000. But last semester I took a much more focused colloquium called U.S. Imperialism in the Pacific. We read three books that do interact with Hoganson’s book: Eric T. L. Love’s Race Over Empire, Jane Hunter’s The Gospel of Gentility, and Paul A. Kramer’s The Blood of Government. So when I made it to the “Cultural” school in imperial historiography (which didn’t really start until the 1980s), I suddenly had three scholarly monographs that I had read that I could include.

I know that I have already learned more in this semester-plus of grad school than in several years of undergraduate work, but presenting this historiography made me feel like I was tasting scholarship for the first time. Not only can I now relate some of the major facts of American empire, but I can also contrast, compare, and weigh different interpretations concerning the rise and activity of that empire. I want more. What will the web of connections look like when I have seven or eight books on empire under my belt? Fifteen? Rather than leading to relativism (as I expected), developing my bibliographical list has instead added nuance and depth to the way I think about history and the human experience.

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