The American Historian

Getting Acquainted

Patty Limerick

I begin with the hope that many of my readers share with me two hidden frailties that I am about to put on public record.

Here is the first one: my house is an unregulated storage facility for old New Yorker magazines.

Every few weeks, I hold an earnest but fruitless conversation with myself about this situation. “You are never going to read all these magazines,” I say to myself. “Face it.”

But realism is instantly overwhelmed by a utopian vision of a future time when I am not overcommitted, when hours of leisure permit me to read my way through those stacks, and when companions in conversation remark on how insightful and well-informed they find me, as I display the wisdom and narrative power I will gain by holding on to these texts until I have the time to read them.

Meanwhile, the stacks of New Yorker issues steadily gain in elevation (and remember, my stacks are a mile higher than the stacks squirreled away by those of you at sea level).

And now the punchline: If we hold this frailty in common, what are our chances of keeping up with The American Historian?

Here’s one big difference between these two periodicals.

The New Yorker honchos have never contacted me to say that I am their target audience. They have never asked me if they are choosing subjects that directly take on my professional enthusiasms and challenges. They have never requested my coaching as they plan future issues. They do not, in truth, know me from Adam or, for that matter, Eve./p>

The American Historian, by contrast, came into being with the very explicit goal of creating, encouraging, and enhancing a sense of community among, first, members of the Organization of American Historians, and, down the road, people—of any occupation or profession—who care about history.

To achieve this goal, we will need to get a solid grasp on the origins and dynamics of the communities of collegiality and friendship that are already anchoring members of our profession.

When an OAH conference is on the horizon, we contact old pals ahead of time and arrange to meet, but we also benefit from serendipity. At the conventions, we stand in a line for coffee and discover that providence has set us up to start a conversation with a person whose work we have long admired, but who has been just a name on a title page. When we have a manuscript close to completion, we activate a network of colleagues to help us with comments and suggestions. And, after a school year in which some classroom undertakings went wonderfully and some failed dramatically, we seek out the company of people who we know will be sympathetic and kind, but who will also help us figure out why we are so spectacular as teachers on some occasions, and so calamitous on others!

Ties of this sort are essential to our professional and personal well-being. And this brings me to the question I ask on behalf of The American Historian’s editors and the OAH Executive Board.

Since these ties form the fabric of the OAH community, how can we bring more of them into being? How can this magazine help to initiate and support more of these alliances, while making those that already exist even more robust?

Why is this a cause I support?

This brings us to my second confession of hidden frailty.

In 1985, I attended my first meeting of the Organization of American Historians. At the airport, I was fortunate to run into a friend from graduate school. But then things took a bad turn as we got out of the airport shuttle and approached the hotel entrance.

I looked at the people in the lobby and froze at the hotel door. My considerably more confident friend looked at me in deep puzzlement.

“Why have you stopped?” he asked.

“Because,” I said, “those are not my people.” Based on my friend’s reaction, this was apparently a peculiar thing to say.

If we needed proof that life takes improbable terms, juxtaposing this story to my present circumstances provides that proof. Exactly three decades after my failed effort to glide comfortably into OAH circles, I find myself President (thanks, voters!) and positioned to try to make it easier for today’s newcomers, as well as old-timers, to feel invited, included, and welcomed.

It is an experiment well worth trying: can the OAH—with this magazine, and with initiatives like the one begun by my predecessor Alan Kraut, introducing young scholars to established, ancient figures like myself—engage its members with a stronger sense of community?

My hope for this magazine is that it will introduce us to each other and bring us into conversation. This conversation does not always have to be congenial, but it should always be worthwhile and meaningful, and honest and direct.

If you have thoughts about how this hope could be realized, please let me know them.

One way or another, you have become “my people.”