social history

Eating for Others: The Nineteenth-Century Vegetarian Movement in Germany

by contributing editor Carolyn Taratko

“Vegetarianism is not only a question of the stomach but also one of society.” This may sound familiar to readers, as articles such as “Eat less meat to avoid dangerous global warming, scientists say” grace our newsfeeds and remind us of the environmental consequences of meat consumption. In fact, this quote comes not from a recent Guardian article but from Hermann Krecke, an advocate of a vegetarian lifestyle and member of the Eden Cooperative Fruit Settlement outside of Berlin around the turn of the twentieth century. Nineteenth-century vegetarianism represented the first popular wave of the movement, with an especially substantial following in Germany. Adherents share some key attributes with what we would recognize as vegetarianism today, but the two also differ in significant ways. While today vegetarianism is regarded as a dietary preference, historically it was associated with a certain worldview. I hesitate to trace a direct line of continuity between contemporary vegetarians and their nineteenth-century antecedents: the group has always been a heterogeneous one, perhaps best defined by a commonly held conviction that reform of society begins with the individual. These differences aside, it does appear that the larger social implications of dietary choices have circled back into contemporary consciousness.

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Cover of Edener Mitteilungen, journal of Eden Settlement, 1931

Instead of an ethical imperative concerned with climate change, or even animal welfare, vegetarianism as practiced in nineteenth-century Germany took up the problem of social relations among humans. While an aversion towards the slaughter of animals was frequently cited as one justification for renouncing meat and adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, it was actually secondary to a group that saw itself as an association of modern practitioners of ascetism and remained skeptical of the increasingly visible manifestations of large industry and capitalism. These troubling developments catalyzed a turn inwards among members, who aimed to reform themselves without waiting for social norms or laws to change. At the Eden Settlement, founded in 1893 and perhaps the most well-known among the communities, the three doctrinal pillars, depicted in the form of three hardy trees on their crest, signified a sort of holy trinity of reform goals: reform of self, reform of land (Bodenreform), and reform of the economy. With that approach, German vegetarians hoped to alleviate some of the problems related to poverty.

Beginning in the late eighteenth century with the decline of the old corporate social structure, it became fashionable for middle-class individuals (primarily men) to organize in forms of associational life through the structure of the Verein. As Thomas Nipperdey has noted, the number of associations in Germany exploded between the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. It was during this time that the first vegetarian association formed. While the earliest associations crystallized around general interests (for example, an interest in reading or patriotism), over time the trend skewed towards a greater degree of specialization. Amid the proliferation of associations for singing, education, and social reform, the Verein für naturgemäße Lebensweise (roughly “the association for a natural lifestyle”) was founded in the 1860s by a cohort of committed vegetarians. The association popularized a “natural lifestyle” which involved abstention from meat. In 1892, it was renamed as the Deutschen Vegetarier Bund, thus putting the avoidance of the meat at the center of their identity as a group.

Yet what was originally called a “vegetarian lifestyle” was not self-evidently a meat-free diet. Eva Barlösius has convincingly argued that membership in the Verein (and later, the Bund) was not about a specific diet, nor was it narrowly about abstention from eating meat. Instead of representing a core tenet of common belief, a meat-free diet was merely one strategy for communicating difference between members and non-members (Barlösius, 11). Members advocated abstention from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat; a “natural lifestyle” entailed a good deal more than a plant-based diet. Writings from early practitioners, including Gustav Struve and Theodor Hahn, focused on a life of introspection and simple, coarse clothing, as well as natural cures in addition to a plant-based diet. As Barlösius notes, avoiding meat was one practice that both distinguished and united members of a group who often had differing agendas.

Gustav Struve

Gustav Struve

On the other hand, such a strict focus on social distinction and the social structure of the association as Barlösius presents obscures the ideological and scientific bases of the movement. The development of nutritional science increasingly thrust meat into national debates about health and the “social problem.” In the first place, food safety came to the fore on the international stage. Uwe Spiekermann has highlighted the role of pork as a contentious issue in relations between the US and Germany from 1870-1900, as food inspection became professionalized in the wake of trichinosis outbreaks on both sides of the Atlantic. This was an oft-cited reason given by vegetarians, such as leading figure Struve in his 1869 publication Pflanzenkost, die Grundlage einer neuen Weltanschauung. While disease outbreaks presented one risk inherent in a meat-laden diet, another took the form of more pronounced economic disadvantage. The growth in meat consumption and production was regarded by some as a source of continuing pauperization and undernourishment. According to one calculation, annual per capita meat production in 1855 was 19.6 kg. By 1895 this figure had practically doubled; by 1914 it had reached 45 kg. Several prominent experts (Max Weber among them) regarded the shift in dietary preferences and resulting undernourishment, or nutritional “gap” as they called it, to be the origin of alcoholism and the abuse of spirits among the working class. All in all, the growing presence of meat at the table was one noticeable sign of the changing times.

Continued speculation about the influence of diet on the character of man flourished among the vegetarians. In echoes of the materialist debates of midcentury, when Feuerbach published his now famous dictum “Der Mensch ist was er isst” (Man is what he eats) in a review of Jacob Moleschott’s work, vegetarians argued that meat consumption predisposed humans to a fiery temperament, not least because the act of killing was part and parcel of meat production. While the vulgar materialism of Moleschott (which held that thought and emotion had a material basis that could be found quite literally in food) had been rejected by orthodox scientists, variations of it lived on. The association of meat with an excess of energy, both violent and sexual, appears frequently in contemporary journals. Some, such as Struve, cited the improved temperament of vegetarians and drew the conclusion that war would become impossible among nations of plant-eaters. It became increasingly difficult to socialize in such spheres without sharing the opinion that meat was a moral and social ill in modern Germany.

Today, since awareness of the carbon emissions of livestock rearing has become mainstream, we have a new, climactic justification for vegetarianism. This line of reasoning holds that we in the west who are fortunate to have such a wide selection in our diets should choose wisely. According to the climate vegetarians, choosing wisely is not only a matter of personal health, but also involves a calculus for the welfare of the planet and for others in less advantaged regions, especially the global South, where climate change has and will strike with particular vengeance. The climactic justification for a vegetarian diet in some ways resembles that of the turn–of-the-century vegetarians in Germany, who saw their choices in nourishment not only as an individual dietary choice, but an ethical commitment to mankind.

From American Jewish History to American Jewish Studies: Advice for a Complicated Relationship

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

In her 2000 Oxford Handbook of Jewish Studies article on American Jewish history, historian Hasia Diner notes a new trend in the field in which a growing number of works were focusing on Jews’ self-understanding and self-presentation. Today, such works seem to have taken over the field, displacing older social and intellectual historical narratives and approaches. These works reflect approaches to social history that gained popularity during the 1990s, trends most frequently found in scholarship that identifies with ethnic or cultural studies. They generally seek to analyze a specific sub-culture, in this case American Jews, rather than situate the same within broader narratives of American cultural history. Research taking this approach in American Jewish Studies generally interests itself in how American Jews created a hybrid identity through processes of selectively acculturating into the middle class. Scholars working in this framework also have a strong interest in how American Jews resisted acculturation and American bourgeois norms. This approach bred important scholarship in the field. Today, however, it dominates the field to such an extent that it severely limits how American Jewish historians approach their subject matter.

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This monument to Religious Liberty was erected in Central Philadelphia in 1876 by the Independent Order of Bnai Britth.  It asserted its Jewish sponsors’ identity as patriotic citizens but it also served to publicly associate Judaism with values of religious liberty, reflecting liberal understandings of Judaism embedded in the intellectual climate of the time. It now stands outside the National Museum of American Jewish History on the Independence Mall (image via Wikipedia)

Since the Second World War, social-historical approaches have dominated American Jewish history. As historian Jeffrey Gurock documents in an article on the history of the American Jewish History journal (published under various titles from 1896 until the present), postwar scholars saw social history as a means of inserting Jews into the larger sweep of American history. A classic example of this kind of mid-century social historical work can be found in Moses Rischin‘s 1964 Promised City, a history of Jews in New York. Rischin’s book explores how the Eastern-European Jews of New York became acculturated into the American middle class. Like other practitioners of the new social history, he presents Jewish immigrants as having been full participants in creating American society despite the formidable obstacles they faced, a narrative that ultimately suggested, as Oscar Handlin puts it in his The Uprooted, that “immigrants were American history.” To answer his question, Rischin offers a detailed and carefully reconstructed description of this process that considers, among other things public school education, residential patterns, moves to second settlement areas and changes in occupational patterns.

The 2012, three-volume history of the Jews of New York City of Promises, on the other hand, asks a different kind of question, namely how did Jewish immigrants to America and their children create a new identity as American Jews that in turn led them to see themselves and their religion in new ways. The three books in the series accordingly look to how experiences such as immigration to New York, adjustment to American social realities, and so forth—the same historical vectors analyzed by Rischin—were experienced by New York’s Jews and how they came to think about their Judaism. Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer’s narrative of German Jews in New York during the mid-to-late nineteenth century in City of Promises’ second volume markedly differs from older works on this period. Polland and Soyer describe German Jewish immigrants to New York City as striving to simultaneously reconcile and integrate their identities as Jews with their newly-assumed identities as Americans. For example, they describe how upwardly mobile members of this group erected grand Moorish synagogues that at once inscribed their members status as prominent and wealthy Americans in the public sphere even as they articulated their Jewishness through such an unique and highly visible style that was popularly associated with eastern peoples.

City of Promises provides a fresh approach to a well-traversed subject, but its central framework, the notion of identity, seems limiting at times. The way in which Polland and Soyer’s volume approaches American-Jewish religion and religious thought is a good example of how this is the case. Polland and Soyer present Reform and its architecture as a means of reconciling American and Jewish identity,  but how did these developments relate to larger developments in American religion at the time?  Considering that Reform Judaism developed in the United States at the same time as a much larger liberal religious movement perhaps an intellectual historical approach would enrich our understanding of this period in American Jewish history.

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Social histories like Handlin’s The Uprooted sought to locate the exotic immigrants depicted on the original dust jacket as integral parts of, not outsiders to, American history. Identity and opposition, however, have only become interests in the field in the last twenty to thirty years.

In his 2006 Immigrant Jews and American Capitalism, economic historian Eli Lederhendler levels a more general critique of the identity paradigm, arguing that it often discourages historians from digging deeper and uncovering structural causes for the phenomenon they discuss. In particular, Lederhendler challenges the oft-repeated idea that Jewish participation in left-wing political and labor movements was a result of a deep, pre-immigration Jewish identification with left-wing politics. Rather, he argues that Jewish union politics ought to be understood primarily as an effort to achieve upward mobility. Lederhendler sees his approach as explaining why Jews so often left the labor movement once they achieved middle class status. I would add that American-Jewish historians might also be well-served to situate this history in the context of the intellectual-historical literature on American liberalism. Lederhendler sees the popularity of the identity-driven models of writing American Jewish history more as the result of the post-1960s development of a pan-American Jewish ethnic identity than of the way Jews in the early twentieth century actually identified themselves, which was far more multifarious. Lederhendler’s book has been well-received by many in the field, but few practitioners have responded to his challenge to move way from identity-driven approaches to American Jewish history.

Another related tendency in cultural studies-inflected works on American Jewish history that at times leads to a flattening of its subject matter is its celebration of opposition to integration into the American mainstream. The field of American Yiddish studies in particular often approaches Jews as an oppositional culture. The radical nature of some of the most prominent voices in the early twentieth century Yiddish press and Jewish mass politics renders this an immediately attractive approach.The most influential work in this vein likely remains Tony Michels’ 2009 A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York, which explores the unique socialist-Jewish identity forged by Jewish socialists in New York. Ultimately, the story ends in tragedy as Jews forsook radical politics and were absorbed into the middle class.However, Yiddish Studies over the course of the last twenty years engages almost exclusively with these radical and leftist elements in the Yiddish community. One only has to peruse the recent Oxford Bibliography of Yiddish to see that the study of Yiddish literature and social movements has ballooned since 2000, before which most of the studies cited in the bibliography are of a linguistic nature. 

In his All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism (2011), Daniel Katz traces the Jewish-dominated International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union’s (ILGWU) efforts to incorporate black and other racial minorities. He argues that the immigrant Jewish women of the ILGWU  espoused an early cultural pluralism and were forerunners of multiculturalism’s emergence on the American scene. Other work on Yiddish theater, literature and politics likewise stresses the Jews’ proletarian and outsider status in America. They suggest that American Jews’ history matters not only vis-àvis Jews and Americans, but in the history of multiculturalism and oppositional cultures at large. However, these studies leave unexplored the vast swaths of Yiddish language culture in the United States that were more accommodating to middle class norms. An intellectual historical approach might help clarify what exactly Yiddish socialists thought and how they fit into larger intellectual trends at the time, both Jewish and American.  

This last point reflects another problem engendered by the cultural studies approach’s dominance of American Jewish history, that there is less of much-needed, broader social and intellectual historical works being published in the field.  Scholarship in cultural studies often seeks to illuminate strands within the history of a group that are tied to its concerns of identity formation and resistance rather than present larger picture histories. However, in many areas of American Jewish history there is a dearth of such work—work that remains a necessary foundation for cultural studies scholarship.

For example, a great deal of recent scholarship looks to how Jews crafted a public and communal identity as white. They draw in particular on Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color (1999). In his The Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews and American Popular Song, American studies scholar Jeffrey Melnick finds Jewish involvement in jazz and blues, musical genres originating in African American contexts, as expressing Jews identification with black culture as well as their efforts to distance themselves from blackness. He argues that Jews performed black music so as to avoid being considered actually black. In his review of this book, social historian Andrew Heinze first notes that this book did not deliver on its promise to provide the “much-needed” history of “Jews and American popular song,” even as it did provide “an instructive analysis” of parts of that history. Heinze further notes that like Melnick’s monograph replicates a weakness of many works in whiteness studies more generally, that it assumes without sufficient evidence that Jews ever actually faced a significant threat of being characterized as “black” even as they were certainly considered less than “white.” Melnick thus infers broader claims from his readings of song lyrics and black and Jewish discourses about their music than may be warranted given the social and intellectual realities of the time. A stronger social history of Jewish-black relations would prove necessary before a historian could make such larger conclusions. Similarly, Aviva Ben Ur’s Sephardic Jews in America (2009) yields the the first discrete narrative of Sephardic-Jewish-American history. However, this monograph actually comprises a series of studies focusing on Sephardic identity in the United States. The book is an extremely strong scholarly contribution to the field and provides compelling “close readings” of facets of American-Sephardic history. Yet who will write the much-needed social and intellectual histories of topics like Sephardic Jews in America?

 

Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.

Synthesis, Narrative, and Conversation: On Thomas Bender

by guest contributor 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.

© Daniel London

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.

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

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.

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 Alantic, focusing on metropolitan space and the urban public sphere as his corpus. Follow him on twitter at @dlondongc, and check out his blog at publicspaced.com.

*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.

Reflections on “Treasured Possessions” and Material Culture

by Madeline McMahon

Treasured Possessions from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment,” an exhibit at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, folds the viewer into the fabric of life in early modern Europe. Street venders hawked their fare and pharmacists displayed their wares, and men paraded around in the latest fashion while women stepped into slippers to protect their elaborately embroidered heels from the mud and dung of the city. In the relative quiet of the house, people cooked, ate, drank, sewed, prayed, and saved money, all aided by or in the setting of their material belongings, which, of course, they also spent time arranging. Much in the same way an early modern household would display its finest objects for view, the exhibit shows off some of the Fitzwilliam’s fantastic collection of decorative arts.

The exhibit is also an instance of historians in the museum: it was co-curated by three historians from Cambridge’s faculty—Melissa Calaresu, Mary Laven, and Ulinka Rublack— and the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Victoria Avery. Thanks to this collaboration, “Treasured Possessions” responds to recent historiographical developments in the study of cultural history and reflects their own research interests. Objects, not just archives, can teach us about the past—about production, acquisition, possession, and use. This exhibit is an homage to the rise of the study of material culture and it makes a strong case for that study’s importance by putting material evidence before the public. The cases and commentary do not merely display objects but also create a historical narrative around them—setting them into their local and larger contexts, while focusing on no one country or region in particular. The rooms depict the consumer revolution as Neil McKendrick and others have envisioned it since the 1980s, but with important addenda, noting, for example, that “alongside the production of worldly goods…[there was] a simultaneous surge in the production and consumption of items of religious significance” (case 18).

In fact, the case of “Spiritual Belongings” (18) especially captured my imagination (in part thanks to my own interest in early modern religious history). The case is in the final section of the exhibition, “At Home and On Display.” The exhibit as a whole gradually takes the viewer from the marketplace (a 17th-century print of Roman venders and their cries adorns the right-hand wall at the entrance) into the home, but to show devotional objects used in private versus those used in public—that is, in a church—is a helpful intervention. We would expect a cross or crucifix in many early modern churches, but to see the scene of the crucifixion on a bright green lead-glazed stove tile from late sixteenth-century Germany is almost startling. The tile is telling—Christ made his way into the early modern kitchen—but also obscure: we can’t be sure whether that stove fed and heated a Protestant or a Catholic family (Treasured Possessions, 241). Yet many of these objects were nonetheless crucial to confessional identity, as Laven observes in the catalogue (244). An 18th-century Dutch wall panel bearing an inscription from Paul’s letter to the Phillipians was likely Protestant, while a tin-glazed earthenware statuette of the Virgin and Child would have been a treasured possession in a Catholic home. Perhaps more than other items, religious objects reveal the limitations as well as the possibilites of the study of material culture: ultimately we cannot recreate precisely what they meant to early modern owners, even if aided by signs of use and the help of accompanying text or images.

Text and images, after all, are objects, too. Early moderns recorded their own use of objects—as in Matthäus Schwarz’s “book of fashion,” a manuscript in which he recorded his outfits for forty years—and they were eager to capture the material culture of the world around them, as the prints of venders and costume books attest. They were even interested in the material culture of the past, as we are in theirs. They also used and displayed books in much the same way they showed off their other stuff. A pendant in the shape of a book, with biblical scenes as pages, and a book of hours would have worked in much the same way, and both were deluxe goods that signalled material well being as well as spiritual.

The mere survival of early modern objects can speak volumes. Many treasured possessions were ephemeral—such as tulips and camellias, and food and drink (although some trendy foods were represented in surviving objects, such as the this pineapple-shaped teapot, the container for an even trendier drink). Textiles and leather easily disintegrated: the only full suit of clothes in the exhibition is a reconstruction, and we are fortunate to have this worn pair of sixteenth-century leather shoes. But the objects that lasted despite their delicate nature, such as the many items from the Fitzwilliam’s impressive porcelain and maiolica collection, were clearly conserved thanks to the people who treasured them in the early modern period and after. The collection and display of objects are in so many ways distinctively early modern, and the exhibit captures and plays on that, like a modern Wunderkammer of ordinary and luxury goods.

“Treasured Possession from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment” is open at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK until September 6, 2015.

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.