OAH wrap-up, part I: Borderlands, Oysters, Strangers, and–who invited Norovirus?


(See Part II of the wrap-up here.)

Historiann coming at you again from the High Plains Desert.  I had planned to update the blog more frequently but was unable to do so, for reasons which will become apparent in the following wrap-up.  It was a (mostly) great trip and all of the panels I saw were really interesting and useful.  Here are some of the highlights (and a dramatic lowlight!):

  • Thursday morning’s “State of the Field:  Borderlands History in Early America,” featuring Juliana Barr, Jane Merritt, and Alan Taylor, with Susan Sleeper-Smith serving as chair.  Merritt provided a detailed overview of post-Turnerian borderlands history, Barr’s comments focused on the problematic fact that “borders” still usually means fictitious borders on maps drawn in Paris, Madrid, and London instead of equally contested Native American geographies, and Taylor sounded the alarm that borderlands might become the next “Atlantic  World”–a concept that loses its focus or explanatory power because everyone claims to be doing it.  Sleeper-Smith’s summary comments noted the power of studies on gender and sexuality to illuminate connections between geographically and culturally different borderlands spaces, and she also confided to Historiann after the panel re: Taylor’s concern that “borderlands” is on its way to being the next “Atlantic World”:   “It’s already happened.”  Given that the theme of the conference was “History Without Boundaries,” that seems very likely!
  • A longshoreman’s lunch of beer and oysters with Tenured Radical Thursday afternoon, at a tavern with an excellent view of Puget Sound and the Olympic Range. 
  • An private insider’s tour of Seattle fashion shopping with Stephanie M. H. Camp, late of the University of Washington and now at Rice University.   She got a fab DvF wrap dress, and I got a fun spring/summer caftan-style dress and a spring raincoat.  (We don’t see many raincoats for sale around these arid parts!)
  • An eighteenth-century panel Friday afternoon, “Identifying Strangers and Regulating Migration in the Mid-Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World,” featuring a discussion of a forthcoming book by Cornelia Hughes Dayton and Sharon Salinger, Warning Out:  Robert Love’s Search for Strangers in Pre-Revolutionary Boston,which argues against the prevailing historiography that views the warning out of “strangers” as harsh and exclusionary.  Based on their close reading of a ledger kept by Robert Love, a sometime-tailor and retailer who was paid to stroll through the town and identify strangers, the authors argue that warning out strangers in the 1760s and 1770s was a means of permitting migrant laborers to seek work in town without making the town responsible for poor relief.  Few people were ever actually escorted to the town line, because Boston served as the hub of a regional job market–monitoring the population of migrant laborers, rather than evicting them, was therefore the purpose of the warning-out system.  Commenters Billy “the Red” Smith and immigration law professor Daniel Kanstroom weren’t having any of it, however.  Smith sees great value in analyzing this record of 800 poor people, of course, but questions its larger argument and urges the authors to ruminate more on Love’s discretion in warning out some (only poor) people, but ignoring the middling and wealthy strangers in his midst, not to mention the huge proportion of “strangers” who were mariners–perhaps as much as 1/4 to 1/3 of all Boston migrants in these decades.  Kanstroom was even more skeptical of the book’s larger argument, and drew many parallels to Kafkaesque modern immigration law.  Panel Chair Elaine Forman Crane wanted to hear more about Love himself, as well as about the gendered aspects of warning out, since it was a majority of women from towns near Boston who were warned out, although single men were the majority of the immigrant laborers.
  • My book was spontaneously mentioned and raved about at not one but two panels, and on one panel the raver didn’t even know I was in the audience.  That was fun!
  • Dinner with my soon-to-be fellow panelist Todd Romero was great, until shortly after I got back to my hotel room Friday night, when my dinner revisited in reverse, several times through the night.  (Maybe the Boeuf Tartare was indeed a mistake?)  My panel was  at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, so I rallied.  Todd looked pretty bad too, and reported that he had suffered the same symptoms all night long–he assumed it must have been the oysters he had.  Then I ran into Tenured Radical again, and she reported the onset of the symptoms that Todd and I suffered 12 hours earlier–and I started thinking that I might in fact be the Typhoid Mary of 2009, since all of my friends seem to have caught whatever I was throwing.  (But–I had lunch with TR more than 24 hours before Todd even arrived, so the timing didn’t make sense.)  I then heard from others that several people associated with the OAH had suffered “food poisoning.”  Nuts to that–I think it’s likelier that the OAH was a big incubator of Norovirus–let me know if any of you hear more evidence one way or the other about non-alcohol related barfing and diarrhea at the OAH.  Bi-Co homegirl Bethel Saler bought me a bottle of Vitamin Water, and Todd and I soldiered on to participate in our roundtable.
  • More on that, and on the lunchtime speech of the fabulous Mary Ryan, in my next update!

UPDATE, 3/29/09:  You have got to read Tenured Radical’s hillarious story about her bout with the dread Norovirus.  Let’s just say that she made quite a “splash!”

0 thoughts on “OAH wrap-up, part I: Borderlands, Oysters, Strangers, and–who invited Norovirus?

  1. Very sorry to hear about your nighttime woes, Historiann! But glad to hear that things were fun otherwise. I’ll look for that new raincoat in the near future. You could even get away with wearing it right now as all of Thursday’s snow drips from the roofs and runs through the streets. You were correct in your guess about last Thursday: despite a general aversion to snow, Homostorian Americanist was loving it because Moo Moo U actually shut its doors!

    Looking forward to hearing about your panel and about Mary Ryan’s comments on women’s history.


  2. Sounds like a bummer, Historiann. But now you’ve soldiered through at least two conference presentations under the weather, so it argues for general tenacity and playing hurt to say the least. It’s probably amazing that large academic meetings don’t “incubate” even more community health calamities, whether foodborne or airborne.

    I saw a seminar paper presentation of the Robert Love project some time back, and while “Red” Smith’s strictures are doubtless well merited, you could really have it both ways. A (relatively) big, anonymous labor exchange community like Boston couldn’t have simply functioned to exclude poor people as a matter of course, or it wouldn’t have worked economically. It seems valid to say that putting the nominal stamp of “warned out” on all strangers of unknown means would allow the town to attract and keep poor folks as long as the consequences of their poverty were merely their own. And alternatively to push them out whenever the consequences threatened to become the town’s. A lot of modern law is designed to support this kind of discretion, “loitering” laws being one example.

    I actually somewhat like concepts that melt and soften under the pressure of everybody “claim[ing] to do them.” Probably the result of a two-semester graduate seminar years ago with a guy who was obsessive about “concept clarification.” The more of it we did, the more we seemed to need to do, and we didn’t always get to the underlying phenomena. In any case, Atlantic History and Borderlands are eventually going to flow together, sloshing over that great nominally concrete but still essentially unplotted administrative “reality,” the “Proclamation Line of 1763” as well as many other lines in the sands of time. And then we’ll all be underwater, a kind of historiographical Ordovician era, or one of geological periods, anyway. When you see Trilobites swimming around in the grand ballroom or the book exhibits, it will have happened

    Have a healthier second half of your trip.


  3. Indyanna, you’re probably one of the few people who remember my performance (in 1995?) with a malarial fever! This one was less grueling–the worst was over by 8:30 a.m. yesterday.

    I’m looking forward to reading (and teaching) the Robert Love book. I think you’re right that it doesn’t have to be either/or–and I certainly defer to Salinger’s and Dayton’s expertise on the rabble and the law. In response to a question I asked about the book’s intersections with the new literature on institutions in the Early Republic (prisons, poor houses, hospitals, etc.) that take a Foucauldian view of the classification of the urban poor, they said that they don’t think that connection is as important as connections to the older English traditions connected to poor relief and deciding who was a lawful inhabitant of a town and who was not. Still, I thought that Kanstroom’s and Smith’s comments were very persuasive. I think it will be a provocative and sadly timely book when it comes out–the authors made it clear that the draft of the book the commenters read wasn’t the final draft, so perhaps they will revise in light of the fine discussion we had on Friday.


  4. oh, sorry about the virus. . . or food poisoning. Giving a paper after a night like that would be horrible.

    My shtick on concepts like Atlantic History or Borderlands history is this: does this idea help us think about a problem better? If so, it’s a useful concept. If not, not.


  5. Thanks for the sympathy, Susan. Others we both know were afflicted, too!

    As for the buzzword du jour: as with “middle ground” and “Atlantic World,” there will be an initial flurry of interest, but the field will coalesce around a key historiography that really is integrated and speaking to each other. And the flurriers will scurry after the new next thing!


  6. I was going to defend both borderlands and Atlantic world as useful—but then the Robert Love bullet seemed to exemplify exactly how Atlantic has lost any explanatory power. But I think they both still offer lots for people who are actually *doing* borderlands or Atlantic work, rather than just leaping on a trendy title. I feel like both borderlands and Atlantic have already proven stronger than “middle ground” (as has Mediterrean), but that may just be my perspective. They are also both very good teaching units, I think—bigger than national histories but much more coherent than world.


  7. dance–to be clear, no one on the Robert Love panel talked about Atlantic World history. Salinger’s and Dayton’s work is firmly within an Anglo-American colonial urban history context, despite the title of the panel. I agree with you, BTW, about AW and borderlands being more useful than “middle ground” turned out to be. (Richard White was himself rather amazed by how so many people picked up that term and ran with it, when he was clearly writing about a specific time and place and not proposing it as a model for Euro-Indian relations in North America generally.)

    Andrew Mc–HA! But, I think Pacific World/Pacific Rim studies are hot now, aren’t they?


  8. We in Chicano/a studies have been suspicious of the relatively recent interest in “borderlands.” Indeed, it’s interesting that a panel on “borderlands” would start with Turner rather than Herbert Eugene Bolton, the guy often credit with inventing “borderlands” studies. And I’m sure nobody even bothered to mention Américo Paredes.

    You’re right about buzz words and trends. They live for a bit and then burn out.

    But, then, I think of myself as doing a “borderlands” topic.


  9. GayProf, Bolton was mentioned–Turner wasn’t. Turner was my addition to the mix, although the work Jane Merritt cited all referenced Turner in terms of the evolution from his concept of a “frontier” to a contemporary North American borderlands approach.

    I think the pre-1848 stuff is where borderlands-as-buzzword is taking off. Post-1848 and especially modern U.S.-Mexican borderlands is really a different animal, I think, because it is so focused on that border and not on the U.S.-Canadian border. Whereas pre-1848 Northern borderlands people like me are trying to make that connection to S/SW borderlands scholarship. (At least, it seems like most of us read the S/SW stuff, but I’m not at all convinced that the S/SW people read northern/NE borderlands books and articles at all.)


  10. It seems that high-concepts in historical work are kind of like time-release capsules. They metabolize fairly quickly in their specific contexts and then the patent runs out and they go generic. Anybody can use them for anything. I’m not sure that White’s retrospective caveat is all that unusual. I think, for example, of how Linda Kerber’s republican motherhood got carried all over creation. To say nothing of republicanism itself.


  11. Pingback: OAH wrap-up, Part II: Gender and Sexuality in Early American History : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  12. Pingback: OAH Throw -- Er, I Mean --Wrap-Up - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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