Long Vacations, Big Histories

by Emily Rutherford

ostNo one who—like we blog editors—has recently completed their first year of history graduate school could be in any doubt that “global” history is enjoying its moment in the sun. When we decided this summer to choose a common text to read and write about in book club fashion, we were looking for something that would capture the spirit of the historiographical times as well as offer entry points for historians with a variety of interests. We didn’t have to look long to settle on Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World, which, following the great popular success of its original German edition, has also received numerous accolades for the range, clarity, and accessibility of Patrick Camiller’s English translation. In just over a thousand pages, Osterhammel aims to offer a comprehensive account of “the nineteenth century” as its own category of analysis—rather than the lenses so often used to explain that period, such as capitalism, industrialization, imperialism, and the jockeying of European powers. Thematic chapters begin with the nineteenth century’s own understanding of itself in relation to world history, moving on to consider themes as diverse as slavery, coal, and world languages. Ultimately, it seems, Osterhammel won’t fundamentally challenge what the reader knows to be the “transformations” of this period—”great divergence,” increased mobility of people and ideas around the world, a tension between democratization and imperialism—but he may well confound our tendencies to assimilate those transformations to single “grand narratives,” teleologies, frameworks informed by Marxist or postcolonial theory. As Fritz Stern wrote in the New York Review of Books, Osterhammel’s account is a “mosaic,” its at times circular and repetitive structure and its frequent digressions suggesting the messiness, and perhaps the impossibility, of capturing a sense of the world over the span of a 150-year “long nineteenth century.”

Why did we at the blog think that it was worth devoting our summers to this massive tome? First, it makes a case for the nineteenth century—not currently a fashionable period—in its own right, rather than primarily for its ability to explain the twentieth and the twenty-first. As a nineteenth-century specialist, I was particularly keen to explore ways of understanding how this particular period orients our perspective to the past—how nineteenth-century actors’ experiences of the world can be at once completely alien and startlingly familiar. Second, we wanted to understand what it means that this global history doesn’t look like many other recent iterations of the genre written originally in English. Over the summer, we’ll explore comparisons to older big histories such as Braudel’s history of the Mediterranean, as well as how to understand The Transformation of the World in its original German academic context. With the help of a range of experts, we’ll try to understand the benefits of Osterhammel’s approach—but also its limits. Does the need to force so many national/regional contexts into a single frame crowd out the social history (which often has a lot of local variance) to which older histories of the nineteenth century such as Hobsbawm’s devoted considerable attention? What is lost when large-scale political and economic trends take precedence over individual lives? What might be gained by putting Osterhammel in conversation with a microhistorical global history like Linda Colley’s The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh? Is it the business of global history, in our post-postmodern moment, to do “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” rather than the identity politics of a previous historiographical generation; if so, is Osterhammel’s self-stated “pervasive disregard of gender issues” (xiii) understandable—or not?

As the debate over Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto has shown, there are real, attention-grabbing stakes to the global turn, the longue durée, the new political history, the reasons why we historians do what we do in the ways that we do it. This summer, we’ll be thinking about how Osterhammel, along with others, might help us to understand the trajectory of our discipline. Along the way, we encourage your comments: at the bottom of posts like this one, on Twitter, and on the weekly Osterhammel discussion questions we’ll be including with our Friday link roundups for the duration of the summer. These will aim to progress through Osterhammel sequentially at the rate of about one hundred pages per week, but you don’t necessarily need to read along to engage in what we hope will be a lively conversation.

Finally, if you have a more expansive perspective on The Transformation of the World and other “big” or “global” histories that you’d like to add, drop us a line with a couple-sentence pitch. We look forward to hearing what you all have to say, in the comments of this post and beyond!

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