Conference Report

Synthesis, Narrative, and Conversation: On Thomas Bender

By Daniel London

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, a conference honoring New York University’s Thomas Bender last week, attracted humanities practitioners from across departments and disciplines: urbanists, intellectual historians, journalists, law, film studies, and public historians among others. This came about in part from the character of Bender’s scholarship, which has made contributions to a wide range of fields in such books as New York Intellect and A Nation Among Nations. But it also spoke to his methodological, professional, and ethical commitment to bridging and bringing into dialogue all such fields, blurring the lines between national and international, academy and public, wholes and parts. To a large extent, this conference represented a taking-stock of how different scholars have taken up his “conversational imperative” and what the challenges and opportunities for such dialogue are today.

New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London)

This theme was directly addressed in the opening panel, “The Significance of Synthetic Thinking in American History.” Participants reflected on Bender’s influential 1986 article “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History” and its call for an integrative framework wherein histories of particular social groups could be brought into conversation with one another around the broader narrative of the nation-state’s development. The tension here between ‘narrative’, with its potentially valorizing and reifying connotations, and ‘conversation’ attracted sustained attention. Amy Richter framed her teaching and research inquires by highlighting intergroup conversations in which the meaning of different terms, like ‘community,’ are debated, discussed, and misunderstood. The extent to which a society (or a classroom) agrees on the meaning and value of a certain term is one that can be empirically explored, with ideas left out being as important as those included. Film historian Saverio Giovacchini, in a particularly inspiring analogy, compared Bender’s approach towards historical synthesis to that of Jean Renoir in La Règle du jeu (Rules of the Game), who began his project by attempting to condemn the French bourgeois but found himself unable to explain or understand that group without seeing their relations to a wider social network of workers, aristocrats, celebrities, and so on. Such activity does not eliminate questions of right, wrong, and power, but foregrounds them with the actual reasons and relations of different actors with one another.

Panelists then examined the influence and further applications of Bender’s call for synthesis. Giovacchini found that the ethos behind television shows like The Wire suggested a kind of “Benderian” vision highlighting interdependencies rather than single groups. Andrew Needham found that monographs today are increasingly evaluated by their degree of connection with broader sets of stories, which was not the case earlier in the 1990s. On the other hand, Nathan Connolly stressed that a lack of diversity within history departments provided a structural limit to the degree of synthetic narratives they could produce: “You can’t hear those voices unless they are in the room.” Bender believes that journalists, who combine archival skill with the capacity to write for a broad audience—have begun taking the place of historians as crafters of synthetic historical stories. In contrast, Alice Fahs wondered whether historians themselves needed to become popularizers of their own work, or if some fruitful division of labor was necessary. There was an “assumption that everyone needs to be able to speak to everyone,” she stated, but perhaps “we do not all need to do this.”

The second panel of the conference, “Framing American History,” placed the previous day’s theme of synthesis in the context of divisions between national and international history. Daniel Kotzin found that beginning his survey of Buffalo’s history with European developments rather than the more traditional Erie Canal narrative “opened up” the subject to his students. Marc Aronson seconded this, claiming that most of his students have a far deeper connection with global events and cultural currents than with their local community (particularly business majors). Growth of the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in America promises to enhance interest in global history. Andie Tucher explained that highlighting narratives relating to her globally-diverse student body reaped great dividends, but worried that she was indulging in the politics of representation rather than deeper narrative cross-pollination.

Other panelists stressed the still-pervasive barriers within history departments that prevented international dimension in research and teaching. Tracy Neumman recounted that no Americanists in her department wanted to teach the Post-World War II global history survey with the excuse that they weren’t trained to look outside national borders – surely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Heightened standards for transnational scholarship that stresses multi-lingual archival research enhances its already considerable expense and length, exacerbated by the pervasive unwillingness of grant makers to support multi-national research.

David Hollinger characterized Bender as the embodiment of the “cosmopolitan idea as properly understood,” that being the “effort to take in as much of human experience as you can while retaining the capacity to function, live a real life, and make decisions.” Expanding on this theme, Hollinger examined how his professional and scholarly work strove both to foster heterogeneous dialogue and recognize the necessity of deep scholarly reflection and pragmatic action. In New York Intellect for example, Bender stressed the need for urban universities to cultivate a “semi-cloistered heterogeneity” in order to conduct cosmopolitan thinking in ways that even diverse metropoles cannot sustain, even as they take part in matters of public concern and debate on the local level. Community and Social Change critiqued the over-drawn framework of Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft present in much of modernization theory, switching criteria for community to the shared experience of mutual understanding and obligation that transcend mere proximity or locality. This understanding arguably informs much of social history since, such as Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal. Hollinger also recounted the story of how once, in a California conference on intellectual history co-organized with Carl E. Schorske, Bender had no qualms excising the long winded and jargon-ridden contributions of philosophers from the resulting book in the interest of a more balanced and cohesive whole.

The final panel, “A Historians’ Historian and the Future of the Humanities,” took up the question of how humanities practitioners can remain publicly engaged, relevant, and employed – one to which Bender drew attention in The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century. Valentijn Byvanck described the wealth of local historical societies and re-enactors encountered during his planning of a proposed national museum on Dutch History, namely organizations suggesting a popular interest in history which historians ignore at their own peril. Robert W. Snyder concurred, adding to the list K-12 teacher-training workshops, local history organizations, and oral history projects conducted by libraries. Jeanne Houch recounted her work in documentary film as a means of drawing a broader public into fundamental questions being debated in academia. Stephen Mihm intriguingly suggested that historians work alongside business, STEM, and mathematics practitioners in order to reach the public, but I am not entirely sure what this would look like. Issues like climate change certainly call for multi-disciplinary engagement, but are there others? These opportunities were leavened by vivid accounts of still-pervasive institutional constraints on public engagement by historians: ‘alt-academic’ projects are rarely taken into consideration by tenure committees, and graduate students are rarely trained on how to apply for public-history fellowships or job openings. All too many historians are—to use Claire Potter’s analogy—content to stay in their boxes.

The conference ended on a somewhat ambivalent, if still optimistic note. Both Bender and Barbara Weinstein stressed that we have been here before: excepting the classes of 1955 to 1963, one-third of all history Ph.Ds in the 20th century did not take academic positions. The jobs crisis of the late 1970s (worse than the one today) was unrelieved by the still-nascent opportunities of public history. Any implication for quiescence was stilled by Bender’s further resolution that in the future “things are going to be unimaginably different” for both the academy and the humanities more generally; in other interviews and an SSRC essay, he suggested what this might look like.

I have long been inspired by Bender’s commitment to bridging institutional barriers within and without the academy, and it was heartening to see the extent to which they will continue to be built upon and practiced by generations of scholars. His championing of public history as a valid activity for historians has garnered a particularly enthusiastic, and hopefully long-lasting, response. At the same time, the academically-anchored political historian in me pined for more examples of unashamedly scholarly work taking up his original call for robust historical synthesis, arrived at through an analysis of “public conversation.” Mary Ryan’s Civic Wars stands out as a particularly notable model, but fewer works come to mind that cover periods beyond the late 19th and early 20th century or that engage with more recent developments in historiography, particularly the history of capitalism and the institutional turn.

This is unfortunate, as I think Bender’s concept of “public conversation” has the potential, via integrating network dynamics, social history, and cultural/intellectual considerations, to dramatically re-orient the way we talk about American political development and – possibly – help us make our work more popular and relevant in the process. But this is just a personal hang-up. All in all, the conference succeeded where it was supposed to by doing full justice to the man – ideas, spirit, and all.

Corrections (10/4/15): an SSRC essay was incorrectly referred to as an interview, and the broad statistic of one-third of history PhD. taking non-academic positions was revised to reflect different career paths chosen.

Daniel London is a Ph.D. candidate in American History at New York University. He studies the growth of social politics in the late 19th/early 20th century North Atlantic, focusing on metropolitan space and the urban public sphere as his corpus. Follow him on twitter at @dlondongc, and check out his blog at

Featured Image: New York Intellectual, Global Historian, September 18-19th, 2015 NYC (photo © Daniel London).

Think Piece

Is There a Philosophy of History Today?

By guest contributor Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

Is there a philosophy of history today? By this I mean a classical philosophy of history, a philosophy of history understood as the course of events. Because there certainly is philosophy of history understood as a philosophy of historical writing, even though many philosophers would hesitate to call it philosophy and many historians would hesitate to attribute any significance to such an enterprise. Yet, as the diagram below suggests, some sort of philosophy of history survives, although it may fail to define which ‘history’ is at stake.


Postwar usage suggests that the philosophy of history (still without qualifying ‘history’) once enjoyed a higher reputation. This may be fully true and misleading at once. The evident rise of ‘philosophy of history’ – with the peak shortly before 1960 – rather points to the simultaneous demise of philosophizing about the course of events and the new legitimacy of philosophizing about historical writing. In fact, the latter endeavor institutionalized itself at the expense of the former. This was the point either implied or explicitly made by analytic philosophers like Maurice Mandelbaum, William Walsh or Arthur Danto, as they made their case respectively for the plausibility that ‘proper’ philosophical questions arise out of the practice of historical studies.

Analytic philosophy had a novel approach to history, which in turn contributed to the 1960 establishment of the leading journal of the field History and Theory. (See again the peak on the diagram). Yet to a certain extent, analytic philosophy launched a redundant argument against a philosophy of history understood as the course of events. In other terms, analytic philosophers only joined the cacophony of post-war voices condemning the idea that we can plausibly talk about something like historical process. Pointing out the impossibility – or, as per Karl Popper, also the dangerous character – of philosophy of history in the classical sense was not the deepest or most novel insight of the era; it was the norm.

The norm has constantly been challenged, yet this has hardly occurred in history or philosophy departments. This is changing now. Alain Badiou happily revives the idea of communism today in talking about The Rebirth of History, for instance, and History and Theory publishes much of Eelco Runia’s work in the realm of classical philosophy of history.

If you consider the rise of global and world history, the recent rediscovery of the longue durée, and growing profile of ‘big’ and ‘deep’ history, this will not come as a surprise. Is there anything longer term and more global, bigger or deeper than classical philosophies of history? Is there anything more theoretically challenging than the thought which itself practically devised our very concepts of human history?

Today, a revived philosophy history understood as the course of events may be inescapable. Runia poses many of the most inspiring questions in this register, I think, despite certain shortcomings and inconsistencies evident across the essays in his collection Moved by the Past. Hayden White, Martin Jay, Harry Harootunian, and Ethan Kleinberg were quick to seize upon these in a recent panel discussion devoted to Runia’s work at the Townsend Center for the Humanities at Berkeley:

The most often discussed aspect of Runia’s work would be the notion of “presence.” Alongside literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Runia poses presence as a balance between a meaning-oriented and a meaning-infused world. Taken to an extreme, the notion aspired to become an overarching concept organizing research across the humanities. Yet if making such claims only exploits a certain academic sensationalism, it cannot be denied that on a smaller scale—that is, within the philosophy of history—the notion of presence has reinvigorated fundamental debates.

Here I wish to discuss not ‘presence’ but what I think is the most important aspect of Runia’s work, namely, his ultimate concern to come up with a theory picturing a historical process which answers “the question of how, in an endless series of metamorphoses, we have transformed and continue to transform ourselves into who we are” (Moved by the Past, xv). In the panel discussion, only Kleinberg mentions that Runia is engaged in a project that is, in the final analysis, philosophy of history in the classical sense, even though Runia is very explicit about his intentions to develop a contemporary version of the old enterprise. In doing so, he sets history in motion and attributes a mechanism to the course of events just as classical philosophies of history do. Instead of talking about the development and unfolding of humanity towards a fulfillment, however, Runia’s version of the movement of history is driven by discontinuous change.

Runia turns to psychology in claiming that discontinuity is brought forward by an irrepressible, subliminal urge to commit horrendous deeds even if apparently at odds with our best interests. This explanation surely implies a deterministic notion of human nature (although anthropological optimists might simply call it pessimistic). Regardless of whether it is plausible to talk about something like a human nature, however, the question itself does not threaten the consistency of Runia’s theory. What instead challenges it is rather the cultural evolutionary vocabulary he eventually stretches over the mechanism of discontinuous change. When discussing a ‘higher level of adaptive ingenuity’ bringing about discontinuous change, Runia gives in to the substantive concerns of classical philosophies of history by postulating a subject (‘we’) that retains its self-identity amid all the changes in appearance (Moved by the Past, 198).

As it stands, I do not see any compelling way in which cultural evolutionary concerns would necessarily follow from a postulated discontinuity-driven mechanism of history. What I see are rather ways in which they fail to do so. A discontinuity that entails dissociation seems hardly reconcilable with the evolutionary ‘we’ built upon association, or the evolutionary ‘we’ whose stages of development we may track back to its origin. Thanks to this deeper continuity, it seems to me that Runia’s theory reiterates the notion of history born more than two centuries ago. As I discussed Hayden White’s notion of the practical past earlier, the problem with this notion is that being based on the assumption of a deep temporal continuity and of the continuity of human experience, it cannot make sense of our future visions which take the shape of unprecedented change defying the continuity of human experience. And insofar as a philosophy of history in the classical sense encompasses the past, the present and the future, an up-to-date philosophy of history –understood as the course of events—has to make sense of our up-to-date future visions.

In light of all this, surely there is a philosophy of history today. Yet so far it seems to entail the revival of something old, disregarding the criticism that was labelled against the entire enterprise in the postwar period. The more constructive question we should ask instead, I think, looks like this: Is a philosophy of history that takes postwar criticism seriously possible? Can we have a notion of history other than the one classical philosophies of history operate with? Can we have a notion of history that is able to make sense of our vision of the future?

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon is a doctoral research associate at the Bielefeld Graduate School in History and Sociology. His research revolves around the interrelated efforts to devise a quasi-substantive philosophy of history to account for history understood as the course of events, and to frame a critical philosophy of history that reconciles the linguistic and non-linguistic dimensions of history understood as historical writing.

Think Piece

Personal Reasons: On Mai-mai Sze’s Motivations for Reading and Annotating

By guest contributor Erin McGuirl

In studying annotations, we think of ourselves as entering into an otherwise impenetrable space: the mind of another reader. As I’ve looked closer and closer at Mai-mai Sze’s books and the marks she made in them, I’ve been especially curious about one thing. What motivated her to read so intensely? After all, she published only one work of scholarship in 1956 at the age of 47. After that she was neither writing nor teaching, but she was littering the margins of her books on eastern and western philosophy, religion, art, and history with notes in both English and Chinese. Why? As I’ve spent more time with both her as both reader and writer, I think I’m getting closer to an answer.

Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.
Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.

One of the books that Mai-mai read with the greatest care was Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China. Of the fifteen volumes she owned, the second on the history of scientific thought in China is by far the most carefully studied. In this book Needham comprehensively explores the relationship between Chinese philosophy and its role in shaping scientific thought and study in China. He boldly argued that Taoists, “whose speculations about, and insight into, Nature, fully equalled pre-Aristotelian Greek thought, and lie at the basis of all Chinese science.” ((1) For more on this argument, see Nathan Sivin’s fascinating study of the relationship between Taoists and science.) This controversial point was of great interest to Mai-mai, and guided her reading of every book in the series. While this entire volume is heavily annotated, her interests in Taosim in particular come to light through her extensive marginal notes in section 10, “The ‘Tao Chia’ and Taoism.”

Mai-mai’s interests in Taoist philosophy can be traced back to her translation of The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting, which the Bollingen Foundation published in 1956 as a two-volume set with her only published piece of scholarship, The Tao of Painting: A Study of the Ritual Disposition of Chinese Painting. “The main intent of this inquiry,” as Mai-mai wrote in her introduction, “has been to seek a fresh approach to Chinese painting by exploring the main features of the tao or Chinese ‘way’ of painting and tracing and relating these aspects to the ideas a the source of Chinese life and thought.” (Volume 1, ix) The intention of volume two of The History of Science and Civilisation in China, published in the same year, was much the same, and I think that this that drove her to read the book with the remarkable intensity conveyed in her copious annotations.

Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.
Annotations from Mai-mai Sze’s copy of Science and Civilisation in China, volume 2.

Much like early modern readers like Gabriel Harvey or Adam Winthrop, Mai-mai read Needham alongside several other books, and cross-referenced these in her penciled notes. She occasionally references secondary sources, such as Percy J. Bruce’s study of the Neo-Confucianist Chu Hsi, but her most common references are to the philosophical texts that Needham used to support his arguments about the relationship between philosophy and science. Throughout the book, Mai-mai copied the original texts in Chinese into the margins, often with English translations by Arthur Waley others, contrasting Needham’s translations of Laozi, Zhuangzi, and other philosophers. Her copies of these texts – many published a decade or more after Science and Civilisation in China, suggesting that her interests in Needham’s work evolved over time – also contain references back to Needham.

Mai-mai’s interests in Taoism and her emphasis on the translation and interpretation of primary sources as a reader and annotator suggest two things. First, it establishes her as the Bollingen specialist on Chinese esotericism, alongside Cary F. Baynes, the translator of Richard Wilhelm’s German translations of the I Ching. As William McGuire makes clear in his memoir, Bollingen was as much a cohort of scholars and thinkers as it was a publishing enterprise. His memoir and correspondence with her (now part of his archive at the Library of Congress) show that her relationship with him and with some other Bollingen thinkers – particularly Maud Oakes and Natacha Rambova, both women artist-scholars without advanced academic training, like Mai-mai– continued almost to her death, long after the publication (and republication) of The Tao of Painting and the dissolution of the Bollingen Foundation by Paul Mellon in 1963. Although the specifics of her participation in and the overall cohesion of the group remain mysterious to me, her reading and her correspondence help to better situate Mai-mai within a very well defined group of writers and scholars with interests in esoteric humanism broadly conceived.

Second, Mai-mai’s annotations in English and Chinese show that language and translation were a lifelong obsession, continuing long after her only published translation of a Chinese text. Although she was born in China, she was raised primarily in England and America and spoke only rudimentary Chinese. Wellesley did not offer instruction in the Chinese while she attended the college in the late 1920s; she was entirely self-taught in classical form of the language. In The Tao of Painting, Mai-mai wrote much on the paleographical history and etymology of Chinese characters, expressing the relationships between the written language and the ways in which characters themselves help to illuminate certain philosophical concepts. While the book was positively reviewed in several publications, two critics – Nelson I. Wu and James F. Cahill – condemned the Tao of Painting, specifically because of errors in the translation and disagreements with her viewpoint in her study of the relationship between Chinese philosophy and painting. Cahill was particularly harsh, devoting three full pages to mistranslations and factual errors. These criticisms must have deeply wounded Mai-mai, a devoted reader of reviews. Considered alongside her annotations, which show the intensity and duration of her study of Chinese philosophy, language and translation, Nelson and Cahill’s criticisms may help to explain why the Tao of Painting was her first and last scholarly publication.

Mai-mai Sze’s notes on the concept of yin and yang, in Chinese and English.
Mai-mai Sze’s notes on the concept of yin and yang, in Chinese and English.

In the memoir of her child- and young adulthood, Echo of a Cry (1945), Mai-mai describes learning the French word deraciné: one who is uprooted from her native society. Throughout her life, Mai-mai struggled to bridge the gap between the disparate cultures she was raised in, without ever feeling that she was truly part of any one of them. This internal struggle took on an intense form and meaning in her reading and, at least up to 1956, her writing. Mai-mai’s reading was part of her search for identity in a world in which she felt she belonged to neither the culture of her birth in the east nor the society of her upbringing and adult life in the west. With Mai-mai Sze, reading, annotating, and translating was an intensely personal act that that helped her to situate herself in the world; it was a lifelong pursuit.

Erin Schreiner is the Special Collections Librarian at the New York Society Library. You can see Mai-mai Sze’s annotated books there at Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books (through to August 15, 2015).

Think Piece

Breadcrumbs in the Library

by guest contributor Erin McGuirl

In the spring of 1989, Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992) and her partner Irene Sharaff (1910-1993) were looking for a home for their library. The collection is strong in East Asian religion, philosophy, and scientific history and well-stocked with classics in translation, English literature, books on art, and western philosophy from ancient to modern. After rejections from Wellesley College, Sze’s alma mater, and Yale, where the School of Drama Library had taken a portion of Irene’s drawings and designs, the couple looked elsewhere. Through a connection at the Cosmopolitan Club, the books came to the New York Society Library, a subscription library founded in 1754 and the oldest library of any kind in New York City. All biases aside (I’m the Special Collections Librarian there), it’s a good fit. Founded as a secular alternative to the Anglican King’s College Library, the Society Library has always operated outside of the academy or perhaps as an autodidact’s alternative toit. As the scholarly character of their heavily annotated library suggests, the Sharaff/Sze Collection is a living record of two creative, educated women who maintained an intense and active engagement in scholarly culture throughout their lives. Today, their books show how these two artist-intellectuals engaged with literary and scholastic culture in New York City in the twentieth century, and carried on a long established tradition of engaged reading that extends far beyond the library.

Irene Sharaff is not nearly so present in the collection as Mai-mai Sze. Best remembered for her translation of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Bollingen Foundation, 1956), Sze never established a career as a scholar or translator, but she read like one. Her annotations in books like Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China (the subject of my follow-up post) are full of cross-references and translations, and she often wrote her own indexes. In addition to her notes, Sze’s books preserve a biblio-geographical breadcrumb trail connected to a global community of intellectual readers.

Mai-mai Sze’s copy of John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose.  London: The Nonesuch Press, 1932.  Clipping laid in at rear cover.  Smith, A. J. "A John Donne Poem in Holograph." Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
Mai-mai Sze’s copy of John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1932.
Clippings from the Times Literary Supplement also turn up inside the front and rear covers of more than 50 books in the collection, as do reviews from the Manchester Weekly Guardian, The New Statesman, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Saturday Review. Sze relied on the TLS in particular as an intellectually rigorous literary weekly covering a wide range of disciplines to connect her with a global community of informed readers with dedicated interests as far-reaching as her own. The collection itself is extremely broad in scope and may appear haphazard, but the clippings show that the books were carefully chosen. Mai-mai snipped and dated TLS reviews for books on Chinese medicine, for an annotated edition of George Malcolm Young’s Portrait of an Age, novels by Iris Murdoch and religious philosophy by Frithjof Schuon. She also clipped and saved reviews on topics of interest, like the poetry of John Donne, that were printed long after she had bought a book. The book itself is thus an index of sorts for her exploration of a given topic, showing that she kept up with scholarship in these areas throughout her lifetime.

Clipping laid in at rear cover. Smith, A. J. "A John Donne Poem in Holograph." Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
Clipping laid in at rear cover. Smith, A. J. “A John Donne Poem in Holograph.” Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
And what’s more, Sze’s annotations show how the TLS guided her active and intense reading. In a 1964 review of W.A.C.H. Dobson’s Mencius: A New Translation Arranged and Annotated for the General Reader, I.A. Richards wrote, To enjoy Mr. Dobson’s version fully we need to have Legge’s (or Courvreur’s) open on the table too to help us in recognizing its felicities and theirs. And also the Chinese characters, if only to hold constantly before us the contrast between a succinct and resonant utterance and the relatively relaxed ramble of vocables that readable English sentences employ. Sze read and annotated Dobson’s Mencius not only with Legge’s translation in hand, but also with his translations of the Confucius’s Great Learning (referenced as T.H. “Ta Hsueh”) and The Doctrine of the Mean (referenced as C.Y. for “Chung yung”). Following Richards’s advice to the letter, she also transcribed the original Chinese.

Mencius.  Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader.  London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze.  Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library
Mencius. Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze. Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Mencius. Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze. Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Booksellers’s labels also connected Sze with an international community of scholarly-minded readers in more direct and personal ways. In New York, she visited the Holliday Bookshop, Gotham Book Mart, The Paragon Book Gallery, Books & Co., Orientalia, and Museum Books. In Europe, we find her at Heffer’s in Cambridge, Blackwell’s and Parker’s in Oxford, W. & G. Foyle and the Times Book Club in London, and Galignani’s in Paris. Shops like these catered to educated readers, many of whom were also active members of academic, literary, dramatic, and artistic circles. The Gotham Book Mart and Books & Co. are particularly well known for the social, literary-artistic scenes they fostered, and the others pop up (like Sze herself) in the memoirs of New York writers and artists who worked, shopped, and socialized there.

Booklabels in the Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library
Booklabels in the Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Few of Sze’s letters survive, and the best are in bookshop archives. In the 1950s, she corresponded with bookseller and sometime literary critic Terence Holliday. The muted-gray label of the Holliday Bookshop appears more often than any other in the Sharaff/Sze Collection. The 49th Street bookstore was founded in 1920 by Terence and Elsa Holliday, and specialized in English imports. The Hollidays drafted a memoir of the life at the shop (printed in The Book Collector, volume 61, issues 3-4), and they wrote that they decided to “stick strictly to the selling of books. There were to be no side lines, no gifts, no tea serving, no authors’ parties. And we would never have a shop on the street level.” This was a shop for readers who wanted their booksellers to know how to find out of print and specialized publications. It was for people who read a lot, who read reviews, who called the shop and placed orders for themselves and for their friends. This letter from Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai (c. 1944) shows that he called the bookshop to have three titles on Shakespeare by John Dover Wilson sent to her as a Christmas gift.

Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai Sze, 15 Dec. 1944?  Sharaff/Sze Collection File, Institutional Archives, New York Society Library (click for larger view)
Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai Sze, 15 Dec. 1944? Sharaff/Sze Collection File, Institutional Archives, New York Society Library (click for larger view)

Sze wrote Mr. Holliday in 1943, when she lived just 12 blocks from the shop on 37th street to thank him for yet another gift. Eleven years later she wrote again to set a date for an informal “seminar,” saying that she would bring her copy of “Karlgren’s book on the Chinese language,” which is annotated and part of the Sharaff/Sze Collection today.

Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952.  Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)
Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952. Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)

Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952.  Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.
Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952. Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)

Collections like Mai-mai Sze’s vividly show us just how actively cosmopolitan intellectuals developed their minds, in both public and private spheres. In many ways, her reading extends the kind of knowledge-gathering we see in early moderns like the Winthrops, a familial network of readers who relentlessly cultivated their minds across continents and generations. In Mai-mai Sze’s library we see how the tireless reader thoughtfully picking her own path through the vast territory of human knowledge—on a global scale, from the distant past to the present—traversed the twentieth century.

Erin McGuirl is the Special Collections Librarian at the New York Society Library. You can see Mai-mai Sze’s annotated books there at Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books (through to August 15, 2015).

Think Piece

British History and the Question of Relevance: Dispatches from the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies

by Emily Rutherford

Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto continues to make headlines within academic circles. Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler’s critique (about which I wrote in January) has now appeared in the American Historical Review, with a reply from Guldi and Armitage. Cohen and Mandler issued a further “rejoinder,” as well as a statement making note of “silent changes” to the History Manifesto‘s digital edition. The substance of the exchange seems largely to center on disagreements about how to interpret data about things like the level of specialization of history dissertations over time, but along the way there’s a degree of mudslinging that only serves to make clear what all participants see as the high stakes for this debate.

I’m still struck by the fact that Armitage, Cohen, Guldi, and Mandler were all trained within the British/imperial field, and to a large extent still teach and publish in it. I still wonder if there’s something about this field’s own long-perceived crisis that draws British historians to large questions about how to rethink the discipline. I also wonder if that’s the right way to think about this, and if media narratives about “crisis” and “relevance” aren’t too self-reinforcing. Last weekend, I attended and presented at the Mid-Atlantic Conference on British Studies, the regional conference for my field’s professional association. Experts gathered from a wide range of institutions across the Mid-Atlantic region and also from further afield, including several scholars from the UK and Ireland. This was the first time I’d had the opportunity to see British history in action, and particularly to see it in action outside the most elite US and UK institutions. This experience told me a rather different story about the field, and historical scholarship more broadly, than you’re likely to get from the pages of periodicals.

MACBS 2015 was held in honor of the great social historian Judith Walkowitz, retiring this year, who broke new ground in the 1980s and ’90s with her sensitive and perceptive writing about prostitution and other ways that sexuality mapped itself onto urban spaces in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain. Perhaps accordingly, social and cultural history were well-represented among the papers, ranging (among those I heard) from the demographics of Royal Navy officers in the Napoleonic period to utopian communes of the early twentieth century to gender and equestrian sport in late-nineteenth-century India, with much between. Many speakers made use of the kind of prosopography it seems that you can only do with the wealth of ego-documents left by Victorians, tracing familial and affective connections across empire. And a panel held in memory of another great social and women’s historian, the late Leonore Davidoff, demonstrated that there is as much continuity as there is change in our notoriously faddish discipline. Elizabeth Imber, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins whose dissertation project is clearly imperial and transnational, had as much to say as historians who came of age in the 1960s about the lasting influence of the seminal work Family Fortunes (1987) that Davidoff co-authored with Catherine Hall. In general, the conclusion I drew from MACBS was that much good work is coming out of history departments across the US and the UK that isn’t trend-driven, that doesn’t posit the global—or even the imperial—as a natural theoretical good. I saw a few graphs and maps that visualized things like census data, but this struck me less as a sign of the triumph of Big Data than as reflective of a kind of empirical social history with which the British field has long been associated. This is not to say that the entire conference focused on these themes—there were also panels on literature, on twentieth-century political history, on high-intellectual Cambridge School history of history (J.G.A. Pocock himself gave a paper on Gibbon!), on the early modern Atlantic, and more. I heard a surprising amount about eighteenth-century sodomy. But the conference’s overall interest in social history was clear.

The panel in honor of Walkowitz was titled “London, Britain: The Role of the Capital in Studies of British History.” Panelists spoke about the prominence of the spatial in structuring their analysis of the past as well as their practice of research in the present. Most of the audience nodded in recognition—if there’s one thing I’ve noticed about American historians of Britain, it’s that they love to bond over their shared experiences of the British Library and the National Archives at Kew—though as one historian originally from the North of England remarked to me at the subsequent reception, “Haven’t we heard enough about London?”

In his paper, panelist Farid Azfar (Swarthmore) made what I interpreted as an implicit dig at the History Manifesto-led argument that relevant—or even just good—history should have a wide geographical and chronological scope. Walkowitz’s book City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Azfar argued, remains compelling precisely because of its situation in a specific place and time and its synchronic analysis. I have to say that I agree—and MACBS convinced me. Since I began my doctorate, I’ve been anxious about the point of studying the intellectual and cultural world of English educational institutions within the span of fifty-odd years, when my department colleagues are planning dissertations about international governance, control over natural resources, capitalism, and other topics that bear a clear relation to today’s headlines.

But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The range of excellent papers at MACBS ably demonstrated the difference between “relevant” work and “good” or “interesting” work. Papers compelled not because they were connected to the headlines (though some certainly were), and not because they turned to the kinds of “origins” questions from which diachronic narratives about recent (particularly state-centric) history so often depart. They compelled because in twenty minutes with just a few archival examples they opened up new worlds of understanding about the past, creating a way in even for non-experts. I was surprised by the number of papers from far outside my own sub-subfield by which I was fascinated.

Is it enough for historical scholarship to be “interesting”? I expect this question will continue to keep me awake at night, and it doesn’t change the fact that, no matter how “interesting” or “relevant,” there won’t be enough jobs for all of us. But it does suggest that reading magazines, or even the AHR, to know what’s happening in research terms in a range of American colleges and universities won’t provide a complete picture. Perhaps we should consider whether having a say in the media really constitutes the public engagement and claim to relevance to which all historians ought to be striving—or whether teaching “interesting” history to school and university students, as most of us who call ourselves historians do, mightn’t be just as essential.

Think Piece

Reflections of an AHA First-Timer

by Emily Rutherford

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.
—David Lodge, Small World, in The Campus Trilogy, 223

Lodge’s novel, a brilliant pastiche of medieval romance which traces the peregrinations of several international conference-going English professors, climaxes at “the Big Daddy of conferences,” the Modern Language Association’s Annual Meeting. His extended description of that meeting is worth a read for anyone who, like Lodge’s ’70s literary scholars, found themselves at a Hilton in midtown Manhattan last weekend awash in sensory overload. One of the things Lodge’s novel gets most right is how much of the point of academic conferences, particularly enormous ones, is about anything other than the ideas being exchanged: the people exchanging them, the social and political contexts in which they are being devised and exchanged. At AHA 2015, for every panel, like those we highlighted, devoted to new developments in the scholarship of ideas, there was a panel about the historical context of Ferguson, or about Leftist takes on the meaning of “public intellectual” and how to be one. One of the most important things going on at the AHA was how historians worked together to imagine how they might be historians in the world, whether that meant debating whether to suspend the AHA bylaws to allow a resolution regarding Israel and Palestine to be considered at the Business Meeting, countless sessions about digital humanities, social media, and more traditional forms of public history, or the usual and essential spate of sessions about teaching, one of the most important forms of public engagement.

From the panels I attended, it was clear that what a “public intellectual” is can be an intellectual-historical question. So can questions of field and relevance, and whether politically and socially conscious history in the United States can be produced and taught as effectively by non-US historians as by those who do the national history. But just as important as all this are closely related questions about who is debating these issues, how they interact, the personal commitments that inform their stances on history, society, and politics, and what happens when you pour them all into the hallways of a Manhattan Hilton and ratchet up the tension by requiring many of them to undergo high-stakes job interviews in the process. As effective as (though certainly very different from!) Lodge’s novel in explaining how this is the case was outgoing AHA President Jan Goldstein’s Presidential Address, which mapped the moral field in which a variety of different nineteenth-century French racial theorists operated. Goldstein stressed the need to recover these theorists’ own debates about the moral content of scientific versus philosophical approaches, allowing us to move towards a more complex understanding of their different views than a blanket condemnation of their distasteful imposition of racial hierarchies allows. The published version of the address will appear in the February issue of the AHR, and perhaps I will delve more deeply into its content then. But as I listened in-person on Saturday, it seemed that the method Goldstein was modeling for us could easily be applied to the AHA itself, to the complexities of the moral and political implications of our work, the unintended consequences of decisions made on such grounds, and the ways in which personal contingencies can shape the moral field in which it seems possible, as a scholar or intellectual, to operate.

The most revealing aspect of the conference was the five hours I spent as a shift-worker for the Local Arrangements Committee, during which I, in the company of many other New York-area grad students, ran around the Hilton in an orange t-shirt, providing directions, answering questions, and doing headcounts in the sessions. I must have come into contact with a hefty proportion of the conference attendees, and it was interesting to note who was kind and respectful when they asked for directions, even if they were senior scholars; who remembered that we had met before; who banded together in groups because they had been grad students together 25 or fifty years ago; who made a beeline for the receptions as soon as the panels were over; who (like the two military history buffs who came up to me looking for a lecture on George C. Marshall) had never heard of the AHA before. My own research on nineteenth-century England shows that intellectual communities and the making of their history occurs just as much in these circumstances as in what can be discerned through formal published conference proceedings, journals, or monographs. Understanding the historical profession as a thing today also entails understanding who historians are, why, as much as what, they think about the past, the webs of their friendships, how they treat graduate students, which way they voted on whether to suspend a bylaw and the discussion that got them there.

I hope there wasn’t as much sexual scandal at AHA 2015 as there is at David Lodge’s fictional MLA. But in choosing to account for conferences in the terms of romance, he has an important point to make about the relationship of intellect to everything else.