Thursday, July 24, 2008

Where in the World is American Religious History?

Commenting a few weeks on one of John Fea’s latest posts over at the Religion in American history blog, Mike Pasquier commended historian Trevor Burnard’s recent article, “A Passion for Places.” And Fea recently offered his own thoughts on Burnard’s article, situating it in the context of early American history writing.

Their thoughts, and Burnard's essay, inspired some thinking of my own.

Despite an overuse of words like “trajectories” Burnard's provocative and enlightening essay asks, “Why are early Americanists so obsessed with region—with geography, in short—rather than with chronology?” He discusses many books in the article, and notes as well that recent trends in early American historiogroapy—the middle ground and the Atlantic world—as well as borderlands studies—privilege geography. But Burnard also documents a trend in which early Americanists are reading in other fields. About this trend Burnard writes:

What does this mean for practicing early American historians? It mostly means reading more history about other parts of the world. The most noticeable feature of the geographical turn in early American history has been a greater than normal involvement with the work of other historians in cognate fields. It has expanded our horizons, extending our historical geographical reach, and narrowed our focus: the time we spend reading other histories is time we are not spending catching up with developments in other disciplines. Maybe I am speaking only for myself, but I find I am increasingly absorbed in trying to master the historical literatures of many parts of the world, from Europe to Asia to the Americas, and sometimes even of the world itself."

Burnard implicitly criticizes narrowly-focused scholarship and tiny (i.e., geographical) research agendas that fixate on the triumphal development of the nation-state in the context of offering a very telling confession, “I need to try and connect my area of expertise with what was happening elsewhere in the world at the same time."

Finally, Burnard goes on to suggest that early Americanists would do well to "make more of an effort to interrogate their assumptions about space. They might find what geographers have to say about space and place useful starting points for reflections upon the unceasing desire of early Americanists to expand the spatial frontiers or boundaries of their subjects."

I really like Burnard’s article—it prompts me to (re)think all of my assumptions about geography and chronology in my dissertation on church conflict and pastoral dismissal in eighteenth century New England, even as it nudges me to think differently about another project currently underway—notions of space and place in the religious musings of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Yet, Burnard’s article, for all of its challenging insights and helpful suggestions, makes no mention of the field of world history—what I read to be the real foundation of Burnard’s keen reflections on notions of space. And what’s more, Burnard fails even to mention the work of Thomas Bender, one of the leading lights in the global transformation of the study and practice of American history. Here I’m reminded of some of Bender’s more important observations from his book A Nation Among Nations: "If historians want to educate students and the public as true citizens, they must think more profoundly about the way they frame national histories…in ways that reveal commonalities and interconnections..." and "If we begin to think about American history as a local instance of a general history, as one history among others, not only will historical knowledge be improved, but the cultural foundations of a needed cosmopolitanism will be enhanced.”

Even with my quibble over Burnard’s fine article, I see hope on the horizon for what he suggests. The theme of the 2009 AHA meeting, “globalizing historiogrpahies,” is sure to play host to many intriguing and engaging discussions, and the 2009 WHA meeting with the theme of merchants and missionaries in world history will no doubt consider the place of America and American history in its formulations of the past—particularly since the meeting is to be held in, of all places, Salem, Massachusetts.

So I end with some questions, none of which I have definitive answers to, but if there’s interest would love to discuss with the blogging community.

What would early American history look like framed in global perspective—even beyond the Atlantic framework (which I think allows for something of a segway into global history)? What writing exists to this effect already? More specifically, I wonder what the field of (early) American religious history (and other periods too) would look like framed in a global perspective? What kinds of amazing conversations about theory, practice, and teaching could historians of American religion and world historians have?

Let the conversations begin....

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