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Flowers appear in front of a large, ornate, white building.

State Capitol Building in Downtown Sacramento. Source: Visit Sacramento

For skeptics, digital history has been long on flash and short on substance. “Yes, but what does it tell us that’s new?” is the common refrain (often accompanied by a dismissive hand-wave). Putting aside the fact that this query often ignores the contributions of digital archives, online exhibits, or primary source collections, it nevertheless highlights the gap between many digital history projects and the kind of historiographical discussions that take place in monographs and print journals like the OAH’s own Journal of American History. Our panel, “Reinterpreting the American State: Digital History’s Intervention,” is an attempt to bridge this gap. This panel demonstrates how digital history is, in fact, telling us something new about the past.

A little more than three decades ago, sociologist Theda Skocpol memorably called for scholars to “bring the state back in” to studies of society and culture. Historians have resoundingly answered her call, with a wealth of new scholarship that has recast our understanding of the American state and its history. The state has been the subject of groundbreaking books (ex. Margot Canaday’s The Straight State) and influential articles (ex. William J. Novak’s “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State”). There is, however, something missing from much of this literature. Try the following exercise: thumb through recent books or articles on the American state. How many maps do you see? Despite a wealth of new research about the American state, remarkably little attention has been paid to where the state actually was. The absence of geography is especially notable given the concurrent rise of digital tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and the wider “spatial turn” in the humanities and social sciences. Our panelists tie together these two parallel historiographical threads, using digital tools to recover the missing geography of the American state and to offer new interpretations about how the state operated during the long nineteenth century.

Each panelist will focus on a different component of the nineteenth-century state, from consular services overseas to weather-collection stations at home. Although our work uses mapping technology, we will not be focusing on the tools themselves. Rather, we will foreground the new findings and interpretations that these tools have allowed us to make about topics like the extension of U.S. sovereignty abroad, the collection of scientific data, and the expansion of military and communications infrastructure. Our goal is to anchor the results from our digital history research within ongoing scholarly conversations about the American state. In brief presentations (no more than ten minutes), the panelists will present individual findings before dedicating the remaining bulk of the session to an open conversation amongst the panelists, co-chairs, and the audience. The panel is aimed at a wide range of conference attendees who are interested in discussing or learning about any of the following areas: the growing literature about the American state, theories of space and geography, mapping technologies, and the position of digital history within the wider historical discipline.

For attendees who are interested the panel’s topics and would like to read material prior to the conference, we recommend a sample of three different readings:

  1. This edited collection of essays offers an overview of different historical studies of the American state: James T. Sparrow, William J. Novak, and Stephen W. Sawyer, eds., Boundaries of the State in US History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
  2. The white paper “Digital History and Argument” discusses different forms of digital history and how they engage with interpretation, argument, and historiography: Arguing with Digital History Working Group, “Digital History and Argument,” white paper, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (November 13, 2017): https://rrchnm.org/argument-white-paper/.
  3. For an example of an existing digital history project that uses mapping tools to intervene within a larger conversation about the nineteenth-century state: Gregory P. Downs and Scott Nesbit, Mapping Occupation: Force, Freedom, and the Army in Reconstruction, http://mappingoccupation.org, published March 2015.

Session Participants

Chair: Susan Schulten, University of Denver
Commentators: Susan Schulten, University of Denver and Gregory Downs, University of California, Davis

Panelists:

  • Cameron Blevins, Northeastern University
  • Jamie Pietruska, Rutgers University, New Brunswick
  • Benjamin Hoy, University of Saskatchewan
  • Nicole Phelps, University of Vermont
  • Susan Schulten, University of Denver
  • Gregory Downs, University of California, Davis

Cameron Blevins is Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University and affiliated with the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. He specializes in the nineteenth-century United States, the American West, and digital history. After receiving his PhD from Stanford University, Blevins was a postdoctoral fellow at the Rutgers Center for Historical Analysis and a Visiting Scholar at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society in Munich. His current project presents a new spatial interpretation of the western United States and the nineteenth-century American state by mapping the sprawling infrastructure of the nation’s postal network. Blevins is the author of “Space, Nation and the Triumph of Region” (the first digital history research article published by the Journal of American History) and has published articles in Digital Humanities Quarterly and Debates in Digital Humanities 2016. He can be found online at: http://cameronblevins.org.

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