Scott Reynolds Nelson

Portrait of Scott Reynolds Nelson

Scott Nelson is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of the Humanities at UGA. His book Steel Drivin’ Man, about the life and legend of John Henry won four national awards including the Curti Prize for best book in US history. His latest book is Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World about how Russian and US competition for grain exports between the 1790s and World War I contributed to wars and revolutions in Ukraine, Russia, and the United States.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

How did a ballad about a black man who challenged a steam drill become one of the first blues songs, one of the first country songs, and the most recorded song in American history? Nelson explains how a terrible crime became a folksong, and how a folksong became an American legend.
Richard Scarry's children's book, What Do People Do All Day, gets children to think about how the world works - how factories operate, how flour is made, how electricity is produced. While most people put away those nosy questions as adults, historians continue to worry about them. We obsess about the little details and narrate and re-narrate stories about the past until they make sense, and that narration leads to new questions. In this sense history is more like the traditional sciences (physics, chemistry, and biology) than the social sciences. When historians are unwilling to give up the Richard Scarry questions, they can discover things they never intended, and can bring about change, often in ways that are difficult to understand.
Nelson's lecture demonstrates the eerie parallels between the 2008 downturn and the six-year-plus financial crash in the late 1800's. Using dozens of engravings from the time, Nelson shows the giddy highs and the scary lows of the first international Great Depression, and its lessons for today. He also covers the peculiar range of government responses that followed, including tariffs and militant nationalism. The problems had emerged around 1870, starting in Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire formed in 1867, in the states unified by Prussia into the German empire, and in France, the emperors supported a flowering of new lending institutions that issued mortgages for municipal and residential construction, especially in the capitals of Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. Mortgages were easier to obtain than before, and a building boom commenced. Land values seemed to climb and climb; borrowers ravenously assumed more and more credit, using unbuilt or half-built houses as collateral. The most marvelous spots for sightseers in the three cities today are the magisterial buildings erected in the so-called founder period.
This lecture explores how to understand the world-economy by examining the distribution of food, in this case wheat. Starting with the myth of Demeter and Persephone as stories about food storage, this lecture looks at how food storage changed how empires worked during the time of the American Revolution and Catherine the Great's transformation of Russia through its invasion of the northern section of the Black Sea, around Ukraine. It also explores how conflicts over the delivery of grain shaped world wars I and II.