On the surprising but (at least in this case) entirely appropriate places we find renewed inspiration for our American Studying.
There are lots of different kinds of scholarly conversations, and I’d say that each is equally and vitally important for a life of scholarly work. There are certainly those we have with our colleagues, both at a particular institution and around the world. There are those with our models and mentors, in- and outside of academia. These days there are those we find online, such as at the many sites I highlighted in last week’s post. But for me, one of the most significant and inspiring conversations is also one that it’s all too easy to minimize, both because it’s less overtly dialogic and because it’s more old school: the conversation that we have with prior scholars, with those pioneering and influential voices who have come before us and with whose ideas we must and should remember to keep conversing in our own careers.
That conversation can also be easy to minimize because it seems distinctly tied to our work in graduate school—to those reading lists that we create for exams, for example, and the many scholarly voices we encounter during that experience. Obviously the ideas and lessons we take away from those graduate conversations remain with us throughout our career, but as we move into our own scholarly identity, it can be easy to feel as if we have moved as well into the more present and ongoing conversations such as those I cited in the prior paragraph. Such, for me, was the case of historian Francis Jennings; Jennings’s pioneering book The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975), with its exemplary and hugely innovative revisions of our historiographies of the era of European arrival and settlement and of the relationships between settlers and Native Americans, was one of the most inspiring and striking texts I read in graduate school. Yet while I certainly tried to pay back that debt by citing Invasion prominently in the first chapter of my Redefining American Identity, I didn’t necessarily feel that I needed further conversation with Jennings.
Needless to say, I couldn’t have been more wrong. While staying in my late grandfather’s house this past week, I dipped into his impressive collection of American Studies books, and picked up Jennings’ final work, The Creation of America: Through Revolution to Empire (2000). And wow. While the book is officially a history of the Revolutionary era, and certainly represents a very distinct and important perspective on that period, it is also and most significantly a culminating statement in Jennings’ life and career, a final chance for him to articulate some of his most over-arching and meaningful ideas about American history, culture, and identity. And as such, I found it full of incredibly inspiring moments and ideas, passages that speak directly to some of my own most central interests and ideas. So this coming week, I’ll be highlighting five such passages, and using them as jumping off points for my own evolving ideas. I can’t think of a better way to make clear how much conversations with Jennings still have to offer, for me and for all American Studiers.
Series coming up,
PS. What do you think? Any prior scholars whose voices and ideas you’d highlight?