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Rethinking American History in a Global Age

Rethinking American History in a Global Age

by Thomas Bender

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In rethinking and reframing the American national narrative in a wider context, the contributors to this volume ask questions about both nationalism and the discipline of history itself. The essays offer fresh ways of thinking about the traditional themes and periods of American history. By locating the study of American history in a transnational context, they


In rethinking and reframing the American national narrative in a wider context, the contributors to this volume ask questions about both nationalism and the discipline of history itself. The essays offer fresh ways of thinking about the traditional themes and periods of American history. By locating the study of American history in a transnational context, they examine the history of nation-making and the relation of the United States to other nations and to transnational developments. What is now called globalization is here placed in a historical context.

A cast of distinguished historians from the United States and abroad examines the historiographical implications of such a reframing and offers alternative interpretations of large questions of American history ranging from the era of European contact to democracy and reform, from environmental and economic development and migration experiences to issues of nationalism and identity. But the largest issue explored is basic to all histories: How does one understand, teach, and write a national history even as one recognizes that the territorial boundaries do not fully contain that history and that within that bounded territory the society is highly differentiated, marked by multiple solidarities and identities?

Rethinking American History in a Global Age advances an emerging but important conversation marked by divergent voices, many of which are represented here. The various essays explore big concepts and offer historical narratives that enrich the content and context of American history. The aim is to provide a history that more accurately reflects the dimensions of American experience and better connects the past with contemporary concerns for American identity, structures of power, and world presence.

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University of California

Copyright © 2002 Regents of the University of California
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ISBN: 0-520-23058-2


Historians, the Nation, and the Plenitude of Narratives

Thomas Bender

Lived history is embedded in a plenitude of narratives. Those narratives come in all sizes, shapes, and degrees of social and political consequence. Historiography necessarily reduces them, emphasizing those that seem more important, those that speak to us, while ignoring or marginalizing-and rightly so-the greater number of them. Of course, over time, different themes or concepts, different narratives, will be deemed significant and emphasized. These privileged narratives, at least on the scale that concerns me here, are in a vital way the product of a quite serious conversation between the historical experience of the present and the histories available in the past. The making of nations and national histories exemplifies this process.

The nation (like a national history) represents a particular narrative of social connection that celebrates a sense of having something in common. A history in common is fundamental to sustaining the affiliation that constitutes national subjects. The achievement of such a history, as Ernest Renan observed more than a century ago, in his classic essay on the nation, depends upon the capacity for disregarding. "Forgetting," he wrote in 1882, "is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical study often constitutes a danger for nationality." Understanding the nation as a "historical result," Renan expected that it would have an end point as well as a beginning, but he did not imagine that its historical career would soon come to an end, and neither, a century later, do I. Nor is it the purpose of this work to subvert the nation. But it does aim to rethink its nature and its relations to alternative solidarities and social connections. It seems important at this moment in our own history, when there is a heightened awareness of both transnational connections and particularistic solidarities, to explore those stories of our past, those experiences at scales other than the nation, that have been forgotten, that have been obscured by the emphasis upon the centrality of the nation in daily life and in historiography.

A brief look at the context of the earliest American national histories helps to locate this exploration. The first histories of the people who settled British North America were not national histories, and neither were the first postrevolutionary histories. The social entities chronicled in the published histories of the colonial era were the town, the colony, or, in some instances, Protestant Christianity. The language of nation was not yet available. Even after the Revolution of 1776 and the Treaty of Paris that ended it in 1783, American histories were local and state histories, not national histories. The first national history was published in 1789, the year of the inauguration of the new and distinctly nationalist Constitution. It was the work of David Ramsay, a Charleston physician who had earlier, in 1785, written The History of the Revolution of South Carolina. That the American national state was created in the same year Ramsay published the first national history, The History of the American Revolution (1789), followed by Mercy Otis Warren's History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution in 1805 in Boston, is not merely coincidental. Nations are, among other things, a collective agreement, partly coerced, to affirm a common history as the basis for a shared future. The near assimilation of history to national history over the course of the two centuries following the invention of the modern nation-state is one of the major themes of this volume.

The conceptual and practical limitations of the notion of bounded unity claimed by the nation-state and revealed in histories framed by the national subject is a second theme. If part of the argument that follows insists that professional history assimilated the ideology of the nation into its basic working premises, it is especially important to recognize earlier insights into these limitations and to build upon them to construct a more generous framing of American history. And this brings us to the historical reflections of Frederick Jackson Turner.

Turner's speculations about alternative ways of narrating American history, including his penetrating critique of the nation as the self-contained unit of historical narration, have been overshadowed by his brilliant and poetic evocation of the frontier as the defining narrative of American history. Turner is pertinent in another way as well: he reveals the importance of openly bringing the present into conversation with the past in the work of establishing interpretive strategies that will speak to the historian's present. As is widely recognized, he wrote his famous essay as the present was being transformed by the closing of the frontier and the development of industrial capitalism. Later, he suggested that the urbanization increasingly evident in the 1920s, the decade when the majority of Americans for the first time lived in cities and towns, invited an urban interpretation of American history. But before the famous frontier essay, his awareness of developments that we now call globalization prompted him to insist that the history of any nation be contextualized on an international, even global scale.

A century after Turner, we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation. We are aware, too, of what seems to be a fundamental shift in the geography of our national life. We are intensely aware today of the extraterritorial aspects of contemporary national life. The inherited framing of American national history does not seem to fit or connect us to these transnational and global developments. Inevitably, contemporary historiography is being inflected by a new awareness of subnational, transnational, and global political, economic, social, and cultural processes. These circumstances invite, even demand, a reconsideration of the American past from a perspective less tightly bound to perceptions of the nation as the container of American history. One can no longer believe in the nation as hermetically sealed, territorially self-contained, or internally undifferentiated. Nor can we take the nation so unproblematically to be the natural or exclusive unit of historical analysis or, for that matter, as the principle of organization for history departments and graduate training.

Having invoked Turner, I want to explore his historical reflections in more detail. Perhaps surprisingly, he provides an important starting point for the reframing of American history that this book proposes. His was a richly complex and playful historical intelligence. If in his famous address of 1893, he moved the profession in the direction of nationalist insularity and contributed to the twentieth-century development of the notion of American exceptionalism, in other places, less attended to by later historians, he had quite different historiographical suggestions, including one that points quite directly to the agenda of this volume.

Turner's address "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," picking up on long-standing popular American myth, reframed the narrative of American history in a new and compelling way. The first generation of professional historians of the United States, including Turner's mentor at Johns Hopkins, Herbert Baxter Adams, had located the narrative of American history in the Atlantic world, partly and notably outside of the boundaries of the American nation. Adams and his colleagues offered what was essentially a genetic history, one that drew upon another ethnocentric American myth. The seeds of American democracy, they presumed, had first germinated in the communal life of the primitive forests of Germany, then sprouted in the medieval villages of Anglo-Saxon England, and finally produced town-meeting democracy when planted in the rocky but somehow fruitful soil of New England.

Turner directly challenged this historiography. He moved the focal point of historiography away from the Atlantic world to the interior. "The true point of view in the history of this nation," he wrote, "is not the Atlantic coast, it is the Great West." Commentary on Turner has focused on the theory of democratic evolution he associated with the frontier experience and on his contribution to the notion of American exceptionalism. The implication is that he understood American history to be self-contained; perhaps his famous address was an example of midwestern isolationism.

In fact, Turner, whom I would readily compare with Marc Bloch, was never as trapped in his rhetoric as many of his epigoni were. He broke the Eurocentric genetic chain, but he did not thereby intend to isolate American history, a point recently made by Ian Tyrrell. Two years earlier, in an essay with an even more portentous title, "The Significance of History," he outlined a vision of history that Bloch would echo a generation later. "In history," Turner observed, "there are only artificial divisions," whether one is speaking temporally or geographically, for

not only is it true that no country can be understood without taking account of all the past; it is also true that we cannot select a stretch of land and say we will limit our study to this land; for local history can only be understood in the light of the history of the world.... To know the history of contemporary Italy we must know the history of contemporary France, of contemporary Germany. Each acts on each. Ideas, commodities even, refuse the bounds of a nation. All are inextricably connected, so that each is needed to explain the others. This is true especially in the modern world with its complex commerce and means of intellectual connection.

Charles Beard and W. E. B. Du Bois, the other great American historians working at the turn of the century, can be quoted in much the same way. Not only were American intellectuals aware of the closing of the frontier, they were beginning to grasp the global dimensions of modern life and thus of history. The literary scholar Thomas Peyser argues, in fact, that "global thinking permeated the literature of the realist period to an extent that has not been appreciated, and, for the most part, not even noticed."

In our own present, when we have such an immediate sense of global transformation, I want to propose a rethinking of the narrative of American history, to move from Turner's more famous essay to the less famous one from which I have just quoted. Our moment is not unlike his moment; it is at least as protean as the one a century ago when Turner pondered on American circumstances and sought to describe a past that could more effectively engage the present.

For all of his prescience in understanding the interconnections and relations at the heart of any history, there is a telling omission in Turner's prescription for writing Italian history. The United States (and the Americas more generally) are not mentioned. But the Americas provide an essential component of Italian history. The creation of the Atlantic economy in the centuries following discovery of the New World by a Genoese navigator seeking the very old civilizations of the East displaced the Italian city-states -Venice was no longer the hinge of Europe, and Florence lost its position as the financial center of Europe.

In the 1890s, even as Turner wrote, agricultural developments in California impelled Italians into the Atlantic migration system, and had it not been for the explosive growth of the economy of Buenos Aires between 1890 and World War I, even more migrants from various parts of Italy would have arrived in New York, San Francisco, and other North American cities. To further elaborate on this point: massive international investment in Argentine railroads and other industries, mostly from Britain, but also from the United States, created extraordinarily rapid development and infrastructure construction, which produced a voracious market for unskilled labor. Without this movement of global capital, there would have been much less demand for labor in Buenos Aires, and the pattern of Italian immigration to the United States and elsewhere would have been different. It is important for our understanding of U.S. and Italian history to know that not all Italian immigrants came to the United States, or even to the Americas. In the 1890s, more Italians emigrated to France and Germany than to the United States. And it is important to Italian as well as to American history that in going abroad Italy's peasants added to older village and regional identities the new one of Italian. On that basis, they became Italian Americans and simultaneously reinforced the developing Italian nationalism in the still new Italian republic. The experience of the peasants who migrated to France was different; they soon became French, just like contemporary French peasants who were being transformed by the cultural and bureaucratic policies of a centralizing state. From this brief account, I trust that one can readily see that American history rather quickly gets bigger, more complicated, and more entangled in other histories.

My intention in stressing this disconnect on the part of Turner is to make an important point about American self-perceptions. In both academic and popular thought and in policy there is a tendency to remove the United States from the domain of the international. America is "here," and the international is "over there." If there is a practical aim in this enterprise of rethinking and deprovincializing the narrative of American history, it is to integrate the stories of American history with other, larger stories from which, with a kind of continental self-sufficiency, the United States has isolated itself.

My argument and that of this book is not for increasing the study of American foreign relations, although that is important. The point is that we must understand every dimension of American life as entangled in other histories. Other histories are implicated in American history, and the United States is implicated in other histories. This is not only true of this present age of globalization; it has been since the fifteenth century, when the world for the first time became self-consciously singular.

This means that American historians should be deeply involved in the current discussions about rethinking area studies. Such engagement is required to overcome the unhappy assumption that unites Americanists and area studies specialists. Both agree that "international" is everything that is not the United States.


Excerpted from RETHINKING AMERICAN HISTORY IN A GLOBAL AGE Copyright © 2002 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Bender is University Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at New York University. He is the author of Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States (1993), New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1988), and Community and Social Change in America (1978) and the editor of The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation (California, 1992).

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