10 Historians at Forefront of This Golden Age
COVID-19. The plague. The pandemic. The economic catastrophe. Historians have been aloof of the conversations surrounding current events, much more than usual. Instead, they have yielded the public spotlight to epidemiologists, economists, and public officials. This might seem strange to some, given that history is full of plagues and economic catastrophes.
Tyler Cowen, an economist, even went so far as to suggest that COVID-19 will cause academics within the humanities to fall in status, asking “have they added much to our understanding of the situation, or to our response?” The dig at the humanities from an economics professor should come as no surprise, but Cowen touches on an issue that is fair game. Why aren’t historians weighing in on COVID-19?
Historians once held a respected place in the minds of American citizens. They ran our foreign policy. They explained our heritage. They defended our honor abroad and at home. The postmodern turn in academia, the advent of the internet, and the heated culture wars of the past three decades probably eroded public trust in the history profession more than anything else, but it’s also true that historians today are working in the midst of a renaissance. History has never been more alive and relevant as it is today. The following 10 historians are, and have been, at the forefront of this Golden Age:
10 - Malinda Lowery: History textbooks covering Native Americans in the antebellum South usually end with the story of the Trail of Tears, but this is precisely the point in history where Dr. Lowery picks up her scholarship. It’s impossible to remove an entire group of people from their homelands. (Governments tend instead to remove “enough” locals that they won’t be able to cause any trouble for the settlers moving in.) How did the unremoved Natives recover from the ethnic cleansing campaigns of the US government? Lowery’s research and filmmaking are answering this question.
9 - Jenny Hale Pulsipher: Her best work has focused on the American northeast before the Revolution, where she explained how and why Natives worked within the British imperial system to petition for redress of grievances. Both colonists and Natives often petitioned London to solve problems that one group had with the other, and the British legal system was fair enough that the Natives continued to use it up until the start of the first Anglo-American War. This also helps to explain why Natives polities by and large sided with the UK during the war. ( Dr. Karen O’Brien has also done great work on the British imperial petition system, and she focuses on Australian case studies.
8- Andrei Znamenski: A scholar of religion and modernity, Znamenski’s work will blow you away. He has written on Russian imperialism, Soviet nation-making, Western countercultures, stateless societies in the Arctic, shamanism, Buddhism, and Christianity. These varied topics have a connecting logic. As political units (such as Russia) expand geographically, imperial elites must find a way to incorporate the conquered people into their empire, while indigenous elites must find a way to counter imperial attempts at incorporation. Hel-lo religion! His latest project is on socialism as a secular creed.
7 - Anthony Gregory: A historian of American civil liberty, Gregory has not yet finished up with his doctoral program at Cal and he already has two books under his belt, on Habeas Corpus and the Fourth Amendment respectively. Gregory’s books have won prizes, and his passion for civil liberty is unrivaled, a rarity in the world of mostly dry academic tomes. His most recent project is a history of the New Deal and its war on crime.
6 - Sarath Pillai: A PhD candidate at the University of Chicago, Pillai has latched on to the arguments for and against India as a nation-state in the decades leading up to independence and the collapse of the British Empire. The princely states in South Asia were not too keen about being subsumed into a democratic country called India. The rulers of these states had enjoyed a fair amount of privileges as British suzerains, including the freedom to experiment with constitutional government, and they would have preferred a political arrangement where those privileges could be maintained. Pillai’s scholarship on federalism as an alternative to the nation-state is, and will be, worth your time.
5 - Melissa Dell: Technically an economic historian, Dr. Dell’s research is just too good to pass up. Her work focuses on the long-term effects that states, other institutions, and public policies have on populations today. She takes her readers around the world - from Spain’s brutal silver mines in Peru to the Dutch Empire’s plantations on Java to Vietnam’s pre-French political units - and walks them through hundreds of years of local history to explain present-day phenomena. Awesome!
4- Danna Agmon: Working on the French Empire’s Indian Ocean project during the 1700s and 1800s is an enviable task. Dr. Agmon is using the archives of French companies and Jesuit missions to explain France’s failure in the Indian Ocean. Like the British and other Europeans, France’s overseas elite were trying to build a sphere of influence that would hold everybody in it accountable to the same set of rules (designed to favor French citizens over everybody else, of course). Agmon’s focus on the strategies of corporate and religious actors is ingenious, mostly because these actors held a place in France’s global empire that was neither too low nor too high.
3 - Bérénice Guyot-Réchard: Dr. Guyot-Réchard has been at the forefront of explaining how postwar states have gone about making nations out of the people in their territories. She uses China and India as examples. Both are new countries. Both were patched together by European empires. But the legitimacy and the borders of these new states is hardly assured. China and India had to, and have to, compete for the loyalty of peoples in places like the Himalayas or the Indian Ocean. This of course leads to conflict.
2- Mostafa Minawi: A historian at Cornell, Minawi has been doing award-winning work on the Ottoman Empire and its place in the histories of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. His first book (No. 5 on this list ) explained the Ottoman Empire’s strategy for competing with Europeans in Africa, but his project for a second book sounds even more exciting: the Ottoman-European-Ethiopian axis of power in the Horn of Africa!
1- Hollian Wint: I don’t know if anything I write here will do Dr. Wint’s work justice, but I do know she’s No. 1. Wint is currently focusing on the Indian presence in East Africa under the British Empire. Much of her work zeroes in on economic activity (debt, trust, credit, and slavery) throughout the Indian Ocean, but she’s making inroads on ethnicity, gender, and family life too.
My own answer to Tyler Cowen’s charge of history’s irrelevance in times of crisis is a simple one: Historians just think longer term than economists and other social scientists. Their training and their focus acts as a buffer against the day-to-day rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the internet. This doesn’t make historians or other members of the humanities any less important.
There are two newish history-focused projects that I must mention. Jeffrey CJ Chen, a PhD candidate at Stanford, has an interesting podcast on global history that is well worth your time, and the group of historians who have been working on the Age of Revolutions website are nothing short of awesome.