The American Historian

Transnationalism and Temperament: Putting Sociability to Work

Patty Limerick

When it comes to placing the study of American history in a larger international context, sociability in a scholar acts equally as an asset and a liability.

It serves as an asset because sociable historians will put everything they have into a lively discussion of the international and transnational context of American history. We will invest hours and hours in this wonderful mental sport, and all sorts of assumptions about American history’s claims on the unique and the exceptional will emerge from this exercise in a destabilized and rattled state.

But that moves us quickly to the liability: very sociable historians will not find a moment to put these ideas and insights into writing. They will move on to the next exhilarating discussion, skipping over all the hard work of actually making something of those fresh ideas.

If social psychologists choose to study this pattern, I will be their lab animal of preference. Taking Hansel and Gretel as role models, I marked my career path with the historiographic equivalent of their bread crumbs, leaving in my wake a languishing project on the connections between attitudes toward desert landscapes in the U.S. West and Australia; a forfeited inquiry into the similarities and the differences between utopian communities in U.S. western expansion and Israeli expansion; a number of withered initiatives to transcend the Canadian/U.S. West border; and, most ambitious and also most abandoned of all, a project comparing imperialism and colonialism in certain locales in Africa, the Middle East, and the U.S. West.

That last project arose from the lucky opportunity to teach a capstone course for senior history majors. Joining up with the University of Colorado’s African historian Chidi Nwaubani and the Middle Eastern historian James Jankowski, I got to team-teach two courses tracking the patterns of invasion, conquest, dispossession, and forced assimilation in these geographically disparate locales. In 2000, what I learned in that course turned into my presidential speech for the Western History Association. Published as “Going West and Ending Up Global,” that essay marked a remarkable—but entirely unsustained—variation in my behavior: instead of just conversing away on the ideas to be gained from defying the borders of the nation-state, I actually stopped chatting long enough to put a few of those ideas into writing![1]

And then a few half-hearted efforts to interest a publisher in a book, co-authored with my team teachers, took the momentum out of this venture, revealing (what was at the time) the publishing world’s persistent preference for single-authored historical books, and also revealing my own persistent preference for scattered sociability over the exertion and discipline of writing a complicated book.

All these false starts are now only ghost presences hovering in the vicinity of my vita. But in these incomplete enterprises, I saw the future—and it would have worked if I had been able to summon up greater resources of resolution and discipline.

Better managed and directed, sociability could have grown as an asset and diminished as a liability. Transnational and comparative history provides a wonderful platform for camaraderie and shared enterprise among scholars, and the satisfactions of exhilarating intellectual adventure can drive hard work.

And so, with apologies to the writers of the U.S. Constitution, I now draw on two particularly striking phrases, appearing in this issue of The American Historian, to craft a first draft of a call to action. In her article, “The Ocean, the Continent, and the Nation,” Jane Kamensky makes a compelling case for the power of transnational perspectives to reveal “a more contingent nation.” And in his article, “Lehren und Lernen: Teaching U.S. History in Germany,” Joseph Crespino refers with admirable forthrightness to “the tyranny of specialization.”

And so, with apologies to the writers of the U.S. Constitution and to Professors Kamensky and Crespino, here we go:

 

We, the Organization of American Historians, in order to study “a more contingent nation,” now declare our individual and shared determination to rattle, befuddle, scramble, and confound “the tyranny of specialization.”

 

Like every effort at capturing insights, this one could use a few more drafts guided by congenial colleagues and collaborators—i.e., the members of the OAH.

 

PATTY LIMERICK is president of the OAH, professor of history at the University of Colorado Boulder, and faculty director and chair of the board of the Center of the American West. She is the author of several books, including A Ditch in Time: The City, the West, and Water (2012) and The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (1987). She is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

 

[1] Patricia Nelson Limerick, “Going West and Ending Up Global,” Western Historical Quarterly, 32 (Spring 2001), 5–23.