History versus literature: a ceasefire at last?

bookgunDoes it seem to you that in the past few years, we’ve reached a kind of rapprochement among historians and literary scholars?

The last time I had a long-term fellowship–which I’m embarrassed to admit was I was fifteen years ago already!–it seemed to me that there was a great deal of hostility between historians and literature scholars.  This was at the Newberry Library in the winter and spring of 1999, and I recall a number of not-very-helpful comments from literature people to historians along the lines of “you can’t say this!!!”  Similarly, there were rude interjections from historians, who would inform a literature scholar that “you can’t do that!!!”

I remember being lectured by an only-slightly-senior colleague in an English department about my reading of captivity narratives, and when I complained about what I heard as pretty unhelpful advice to another literary scholar, I was informed that I was “just being defensive.”  (And maybe I was.  But why was that?  Was it because I was being talked to like I wasn’t an expert in my own field and I hadn’t won a long-term fellowship on my merits?  Ya think???)  I remember the frustration of a literary scholar who was writing a book about representations and historical experiences of a particular subject in both colonial America and the modern (20th century) U.S., and was skipping the entire nineteenth century who was informed by historians at the Newberry Library a few years later that “you can’t do that.”

Clearly, the historians were disturbed by the implications of her argument for their sacred cow, Change Over Time, but as a literary scholar she doesn’t need to worry about that, just as I as a historian didn’t have to write my book like a literature scholar would.

But over coffee this afternoon with a few of my fellow fellows at the Huntington Library, we were two historians and two literature scholars who agreed that the temperature of cross-disciplinary exchanges has simmered down.  We have a long-term fellows seminar in which we–all literary scholars and historians–present short passages from our ongoing research and writing, and I have yet to hear anyone build a disciplinary redoubt from which to lob bombs at a scholar from the other discipline.  It all just seems so beside the point these days–who am I to tell someone that she can’t write a book?  Who are any of us to say that?

(For the record:  I’ve never told anyone that their work can’t be written.  Aside from being patently untrue, it’s completely unhelpful.  My goal as an advisor, peer, and peer reviewer has always been like an improv comedian:  when someone throws out a premise for a skit, never contradict it or say “no;” say “YES!  And. . . “ throw something else on the table that the other person can pick up and run with.  If we see intellectual life as a collaboration rather than gatekeeping, ours jobs will be more fun.)

Have any of you noticed the same ceasefire?  What has happened?  Is it that historians became more informed about the choices they make in selecting evidence and building their arguments, when previously they had assumed that sources “spoke for themselves?”  Is it that literature has also turned to materiality in the same way historians have over the past two decades?  Is it that cultural history is what a lot of us in both History and literature departments claim to be writing?  Is it that we all got kind of bored with the language of “theory” and got over ourselves?  Is it that we were all a bunch of jerks fifteen years ago, and there’s a different mix of people out here?  Is it that we at the Huntington get to have coffee in the garden in January, and all the fresh air and sunshine has put the zap on our brains?  What do you think?

Or is it that we finally realized we’re all humanists adrift in a world that devalues both history and art, and all we’ve got is each other (plus some art historians and American Studies folks as well)?

22 thoughts on “History versus literature: a ceasefire at last?

  1. We’re all humanists adrift, I think. I remember the same kinds of unhelpful conversations at about the same time. I’d also been working on what were essentially captivity narratives and had a literary scholar tell me I couldn’t interpret things the way I had. (You can’t do that. You can’t write that book.) This was as crushing as my grad school experience of taking a seminar in the English Department on American women writers (I was so excited to get into that class), and having the prof tell me my work was reductive and she supposed that was because I was a historian. Yikes. My hopes of combining my two loves of history and literature were dashed.

    Maybe everyone has gotten over the theory thing. I never cared for it much anyway, but narrative was so unfashionable then. My grad school profs couldn’t say the word without a sneer or snide comment.

    I like the idea of promoting collaboration and helpfulness. Now, if we could all do it at the Huntington….


  2. “This was at the Newberry Library in the winter and spring of 1999”

    That’s like the humanities equivalent of, “we were at Woodstock and tripping so fucken huge when Jimi came on stage”.


  3. Hmm. I think historians all know the whole “texts are not transparent” thing. I don’t feel as if I have to make long speeches about it. And most people have realized that when you ask different questions, you look at different evidence, and you’ll read the same evidence differently. I think there are important differences, but most of us now accept them instead of trying to make the other discipline into us. In general, my literary colleagues seem less interested than I am in actual people, while texts for me are a means to an end, not the end in itself.


  4. In general, I haven’t had conflicts with historians or seen sniping between historians and literature scholars (I got my degree about ten years ago); I see a lot of fruitful collaboration and mutual respect–and I’m very grateful to those historians who tell me how to do things I wasn’t trained to do (e.g., find records of some sort of other).

    But I will say that at my institution there are historians who clearly have no idea what anyone in my department even does. Most memorable was when the graduate school dean, a mid-career historian only slightly older than me, came to our department to chat about the kinds of research funds they had newly made available. In talking about what we might apply these funds toward, he was suddenly at a loss. “Well,” he said, “in history, we need to go to archives. I don’t know. . . is that something a literature scholar would ever need to do?”


  5. I’ve always found close kinship with my colleagues in literature. Often closer than many of my history colleagues since so many of them insist on studying this modern stuff about which I know nothing!

    I do see what you mean. Ten or twenty years ago, the buzz was all about how theory had divided literary scholars from historians. Now it seems to be a non-issue or maybe we’ve learned that we’re more alike than different?


  6. A great post! In the precincts that I’ve patrolled, I don’t remember much animus or hostility between fields, but a fair amount of maybe polite inattention, if inattention can ever be polite in a presentational context. In truth, it’s pretty hard to not be obtuse, if obtuse is what you end up being with something, so polite may just be the default non-hostile pose.

    At some point, some disciplinary centers of scholarship began to “appoint” people from out of their disciplines to their cohort ranks, and it was probably fairly easy for them to condescendingly think that if there were one or two literary scholars among a dozen historians, that was some kind of daring openness. And to be unaware of the outsiderness that the newcomers inevitably felt. That has probably ameliorated to some degree over generational time, but maybe not.

    I did get dressed down good one day in the Ahmanson Reading Room by a more senior English prof when I made the mistake of allowing as how I understood that _The Tempest_ had been written by Shakespeare in homage to the shipwreck of the Virginia Company relief fleet on Bermuda. It was the most “well I never” experience I ever had on a rug of that quality. I ended up wishing I had just said something bland and neighborly like “how ’bout those Lakers…”

    Best zinger of the month: Comrade Physio Prof on Woodstock!


  7. I’ve noticed something similar in my research travels, which includes gobs of time at the two places on the East Coast where historians and literary scholars are most likely to interact (AAS and the Library Company).

    As others have said above, at this point most historians (whether through cultural history or otherwise) are aware of textual analysis, and most literary scholars are sensitive to chronology and historiography. In my own conversations with literary scholars, I rarely feel defensive, and rarely feel like I’m trying to get them to go places they don’t want to go. (But trading references, that’s always fun!)

    One other possibility is generational. Scholars trained since 2000, say, so early career faculty/post-docs and graduate students, seem not nearly as invested in the culture wars, debates about theory and its uses (or abuses), and so on.

    In any case, that’s a really long way of saying that I’ve noticed it, too.


  8. I do not remember a lot of overt hostility between the disciplines. In 2000 I was doing dissertation research and had profs on my committee from both Comparative Literature, Anthropology, but most of them were social historians. I think that everyone gave me advice from their disciplinary perspective, but also encouraged me to strike out on my own.

    The only case of disciplinary animus I experienced was in grad school. I had a bad experience with an art history class where the instructor set up his grad students with their seminar projects and then turned the rest of us loose on whatever we wanted to do. The only feedback I got on my project was the final grade. I earned a B in the seminar, which seemed like the kiss of death in grad school, but my adviser told me not to worry about it, since it was outside my discipline.

    After the semester was over, I went back to ask the art historian for advice on what to do better or differently. What was the art historian way of doing things? The only thing he could do was tell me I was wrong and lazy without articulating why. He said it was my project and I was supposed to be the expert. I should have figured out the relevant literature and what needed to be done better.

    The thing I learned for my own teaching was that you have to be able to articulate the strengths and weaknesses of a students work. They need to be told when they are doing something right, so that they can do more of the right things. They also have to be given advice on how to fix the parts they got wrong. It also helps to explain why these changes and choices make the project better. Its not about justifying the grade, its about helping students to make specific changes which make the project better.


  9. Thanks, everyone. In defense of that mid-career historian/admin that Flavia tells about, I’ll just say that reading her blog, and Dr. Crazy’s blog, and Bardiac, and Undine, etc. has really educated me about how literary scholars think about their work and how they approach their research and writing. Although I will also note that even back in the 1990s, I was aware of the literary scholars who worked alongside me in the archives, and their (at the time) renewed interest in both historical texts as well as the materiality of the texts they studied. (In fact, I recall that it was a Renaissance comp lit scholar back at the Newberry who most helpfully educated me about this.)


  10. Sorry–I meant also to say that there are other reasons why I might perceive less hostility between historians and lit scholars these days has to do with the particular circumstances of each of my sabbatical environments. At the Newberry in 1999, there were a LOT of very junior scholars like myself, so we were perhaps caught up in the performativity of intellectual life and (yes) defensive about our own positions and disciplinary homes. Whereas here at the Huntington, it’s definitely much more of a mid-career and senior scholar kind of place this year–only a very few assistant professors at all. We’ve all made our beds and just want to learn something from one another and soak up some rays. So the difference in career cycles is one possible explanation.


  11. I think part of the problem was that lit scholars have/had a tendency to read a theorist or scholar in another field, often a dated one, and then follow through less than critically and almost in a sort of scriptural study, so that scholars in the other field look at us and wonder why we don’t engage more recent work. So, psychologists look at lit folks reading Freud and Lacan, and are dismayed. Economist look at us reading Marx; historians look at us reading Foucault; anthropologists look at us reading Levi-Strauss. We lit folks may think we’re being multi-disciplinary, but experts in those fields don’t think we’re doing their disciplines justice at all.

    Perhaps lit folks have gotten better at engaging with historiography, and such, or the rest of academia has grown tired of trying to teach us and moved on?


  12. Bardiac, I think you are being hard on Lit scholars. I think I have seen historians (and scholars in almost every other discipline under the sun) do the same thing!

    Now I’ve got to get back to reading Roland Barthes so I can get a handle on this new fangled semiotics thing…


  13. Probably you are right — although over at my place I was just taken to skool by a literary scholar for this sentence: “Perhaps differently from other humanities scholars, many historians find this so profoundly opposed to the ethic of our practice, they dig in their heels right there, and I happen to be one of those people.” She read this to mean, I think that I believe historians need evidence and other humanities scholars are fine without it, when in fact I meant that we are a Kinsey 10 in the archives department. Skin can still be thinnish.


  14. I got your meaning immediately TR, but I can understand how people in other disciplines might respond to that sentence defensively. (When really, I thought it was even kind of a dig at the empiricism of historians, not a pat on our backs entirely.)


  15. Just read the comments again today on your latest post. Some people read the internet for reasons to get pissed off and/or to police ideological correctness. Me, I’m on a low blood-pressure regime that involves fresh air, lots of exercise, and when all else fails, a valium or two. There’s nothing on the internet that can hurt me without my cooperation.


  16. In seven years of grad school and a year of teaching, I’ve had exactly zero contact with literary scholars (unless you count twitter stalking Rebecca Schuman). Literary scholarship has had nothing to do with any of my scholarship, or of anyone I’ve worked with (although granted, I don’t interact much with cultural historians, or historians of anything post-1500). Asking if history and literature are still fighting strikes me as asking about the conflict between sharks and eagles. Maybe this is something that was a thing 15 or 20 years ago, but is no longer a thing?

    Now, if you ask me my opinions on economists or sociologists, I’ll have some very sharp things to say indeed…


  17. Although as I think about it more I remember that, in a search for a historian of the ancient Mediterranean that I was involved with, we rejected a candidate for working with “texts” rather than “sources,” since that meant he belonged in classics rather than history. I’m not sure if that conflict would ever come up in a job search for a later period, though- American literature and history are more clearly separated disciplines than Roman history and literature.


  18. HA-ha. Truth be told, I’ve only taken one valium in my life (for a dental procedure.) It was nice! I saved my second valium for years–for some reason, I liked having it in the medicine cabinet as a backup plan.


  19. Permit me a comment as an associate professor of philosophy. I am in agreeement with Bardiac’s comment above to a good extent. My interactions with certain English and Art History faculty in relation to theory has been interesting to observe. I have met several faculty who explain to me that they do theory and read areas of philosophy like Heidegger, Foucault, Rorty, etc. They often take these figures’ views to be true, without much awareness of the problems their views come with. It was as if they were studying only 20th century philosophy without having an understanding of Locke, Descartes, or Kant. This was strange to me since from my perspective you simply can’t understand what Foucault was doing without a thorough understanding of Kant, and for that you’d have to know Hume very well. But as most of them never read much history of philosophy it was hard to know what to think of their work. This isn’t a knock on literature or art history since I appreciate them both, but just a point about the perils of trying to learn outside of your discipline.


  20. Thanks–interesting perspective, couchloc. I think we all tend to look for theorists outside our ken whose work will back up whatever it is we’re looking to argue. I’ve been using some psychological & medical research recently in some of my articles & book chapters, and I would shudder to think of what an actual academic physician or psychologist would think of my “borrwings” from their fields of expertise!


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