Monday, December 28, 2009

The Business of History

After years of being on the margins of American historiography, business history is not only back, it's trendy. Hard to imagine, isn't it?

For the last forty years or so, the vast majority of U.S. business historians simply could not or would not swim with the historiographical currents that carried away anything with a semblance of the traditional. (By contrast, historians of Britain, Germany, and Japan, to name three, never lost their interest in business).

Race, gender, and class--all of which should have mattered to business history but never did--swept away old-fashioned biographers and corporate historians, many of whom created works for hire, chronicling the glorious history of this or that major firm and earning a nice living doing so. Who has ever heard of Allen Nevins, except for the fact that there's a nice prize named after him?

The chroniclers of rich, white men and the companies that they founded were not the only drowning victims. Those engaged in the ever-serious endeavor of giving voice to the voiceless and celebrating individual agency had little interest in business. The result was the marginalization of a left-leaning band of historians who, after reading their Marx or Mills or Domhoff, rebelled against the corporate hagiographers. They viewed business as a force that corrupted politics, snuffed out Progressivism, and shunted the New Deal down a conservative byway.

But who cared about business when the subaltern were rising? The people were too busy with acts of resistance and community formation and identity construction to care about corporations. Gabriel Kolko? Barton Bernstein?...footnotes, at best.

Sure, some smart business historians rested on the historiographical banks, above the swirling eddies. Louis Galambos held a comfy perch at Hopkins, above the historiographical floodline. While others were sinking, Naomi Lamoreaux found herself high and dry at Brown and then UCLA (but in the economics department). Giants like Alfred Chandler and Thomas McCraw and Sanford Jacoby found themselves isolated, but well-compensated, among the cliff-diving MBAs rather than the dog-paddling ABDs. And historians of advertising and consumerism never wholly neglected business history, even if they grew increasingly interested in reception and resistance.

Now, however, the shape of the river is changing--and fast. Histories of business and capitalism, enlivened by a more than little culture and gender and religion and politics, are moving into the mainstream.

No place exemplifies the rise of business history than the University of Georgia. While most departments still classify their faculty by chronology or region, Georgia boasts of a whole cluster of historians of capitalism. It's a brilliant move--and because of it Georgia is quickly becoming one of the most interesting departments in the country. Leading the way are some young, trendy scholars. Bethany Moreton, a young Yale Ph.D., published a widely reviewed book about Walmart and the Arkansan Christian women who made it. (How many historians two years out of grad school get marquee reviews in the New York Times?) Moreton's colleague, Shane Hamilton, penned a prizewinner on the trucking industry and is now writing a history of supermarkets. Stephen Mihm, a nineteenth century historian, offers a history of the crooks and losers, the counterfeiters and capitalists, who made a fast buck in more ways than one in the free-wheeling economy of antebellum years.

Georgia is not alone. NYU is home to the energetic historian of business and conservatism, Kim Philips-Fein, and the bestselling chronicler of Ford's misguided Amazonian venture, Greg Grandin. Harvard primadonna Niall Ferguson has made a fortune huffing and puffing about the global economy (a throwback to the days when business historians wrote about and for their subjects) while his heavyweight sidekick, cotton scholar Sven Beckert, has forgone flash for substance.

Business is big history again.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Weekend Update

Friends, I have to admire the incomparable Ambrose Hofstadter Bierce, III. Looks like I've lured him, at least temporarily out of his adobe abode. He throws a little snark my way, but he's good humored about it. I was a fan of his short-lived blog and a few of you have already commented that he's inspired me, minus the fustian prose. He had a winning formula for sure.

Wish I knew who he was...or is. Still no one has 'fessed up to me yet.

Too bad he'd rather have his nose in a glass of tequila than in front of a typewriter. But good for me. Happy Holidays wherever you are AHB!

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Finnish Line

At the top of the list of poach-worthy Californians (his story is so interesting that it's worthy of its own post) is the wunderkind Pekka Hämäläinen, whose book on the Comanche won a slew of 2008 book prizes, including the coveted Bancroft (enjoying the limelight with the ubiquitous Drew Gilpin Faust). 2008 was a particularly competitive year for books: the (then) unknown UCSB prof prevailed against such mighty historians as Annette Gordon-Reed, David Hackett Fischer, Philip Gura, Jacqueline Jones, Thomas Sugrue, David Reynolds, Glenda Gilmore, John Stauffer, H.W. Brands, and Paula Giddings. Most of their books are excellent--but arguably none as eyeopening and innovative as The Comanche Empire.

Even more impressively, Hämäläinen came out of nowhere--well actually the next closest place to nowhere--namely Finland, where he earned his Ph.D. in 2001. Unlike, say, early modern European history or British history, where half the profession seems to be a product of Oxbridge (many recruited away from woefully underfunded British academy) American history is still dominated by American-educated PhDs. Despite all the talk about globalization, the study of the United States is still very parochial. The very prospect that someone educated abroad could be as good or better than his or her U.S.-educated counterpart is almost unimaginable. So that Hämäläinen, someone with a name that is near impossible to spell, from a little country where the sun shines for twenty hours a day or longer each summer, far, far away from the Ivy League, managed to land a coveted perch at a major American university is nothing short of extraordinary.

The hiring committee as UCSB knew what it was doing. The Finnish marvel had already been vetted and enthusiastically endorsed by the powerful Southwestern historian, David Weber and had spent time at Weber's center at SMU. As a beginning scholar, Hämäläinen published an article in the Journal of American History (a quite splendid piece on Plains Indians and the horse). But the brilliance that he exhibited in the pages of the Americanists' flagship journal was only a hint of what would follow. The Comanche Empire is one of those rare books that completely reorients two fields--colonial American and native American history. In five hundred plus pages of deeply researched scholarship, Hämäläinen makes an impressive and mostly persuasive case that the Comanche created an empire that was the southwest's most powerful--and one that competed with and altered the trajectories of three other competing empires, France, Spain, and the United States.

Hämäläinen will soon be his own empire builder. My crystal ball sees the Finnish wonder moving up and out--and probably eastward--and soon. Harvard? Yale? Princeton? Which will be the finish line?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Circling Vultures

If I lived in California, I'd be outta there in a New York heartbeat. The University of California system is in total free fall with massive salary cuts (about 8 percent on average), desert-dry research budgets, tuition hikes, larger classes, fewer graduate students and most of them with less-than-competitive stipends, and a housing market that is too expensive for most lowly paid profs, even after the crash. Given the disaster that is the California economy, what has been the best state university system in the United States will probably never recover.

That reality has a lot of department chairs and deans California dreamin.' It's just a matter of time before the East Coast vultures begin circling around the dying universities that Arnold and the state legislature are slowly starving. The Ivies will go after the big names and, no doubt, ambitious places like Vanderbilt, Emory, NYU, and Notre Dame will be right behind them.

Who will be the first UC profs poached away by their wealthier competitors?

Here is a selective, speculative list of a few who are at risk of being lifted up, up and away the very first moment the academic economy starts to recover.

BERKELEY, once one of the top three or four departments in the country, lost many of its great historians (especially Americanists) to retirement and it has never really recovered. Its Europeanists are now prime to be plucked from their East Bay perch.

Peter Sahlins. He's got thick ties to the East Coast and a high flying academic career that includes the perfect profile for a deanship. He'll be crossing some boundaries really soon.

Yuri Slezkine. Russian history fell just as fast as the USSR after 1991, but it's starting to come back. Slezkine is one of a handful of mid-career stars out there and he brings another big plus to the job market. His controversial breakout book, The Jewish Century, positions him for jobs in Jewish history, a promised land for talented historians because it's the only subfield that springs forth a new endowed chair every few years.

DAVIS has been an unlikely success story over the last decade. It has an unattractive, modern campus in an unfortunate location, dreary, suburban, and just far enough from the metropole to be truly provincial. But despite its disdvantages, it has nonetheless managed to recruit some genuinely talented faculty. Those talented Davis-ites are likely to be easy pickings when the time is right. Who's likely to go? I'd pick these:

Alan Taylor. After winning the Pulitzer Prize, many came a courtin'. But Taylor left them all disappointed. It takes real guts to rebuff Princeton, Penn, Columbia, and Harvard, among others. But it's just a matter of time before some desperate suitor comes along again, especially because many of the once-great departments in colonial history have slipped into mediocrity. Princeton? Columbia? Cornell? None of them will be hiring soon...but a year or two or three? And don't forget the large number of card-carrying AARP members holding prime positions in early American history. Retirement isn't that far in the future for Laurel Ulrich, Gordon Wood, Jon Butler, Michael Zuckerman, and Karen Kupperman.

Eric Rauchway. He's the single most productive member of the Davis history faculty and, other than Taylor, the most ambitious too. Twentieth-century U.S. history is not a job-rich subfield right now, but when the time comes, watch him become blessed among historians.

UCSD has long served as a farm team for richer and better universities. That trend is likely to continue now that the university is on a starvation diet.

David Gutierrez is one sure bet to be recruited away from sunny San Diego. He must regret turning down offers from Princeton and Michigan, given the tremors that have shaken his home university. He's charismatic and productive in a field whose future is as bright as the U.S.-Mexican border. My bet is that he'll be on the run from San Diego as soon as he can.

UCLA is still a great department, the best in the California system and still one of the strongest in the world. It also has one of the biggest history faculties in the country, with critical mass in many subfields. But will it be able to cling onto its greatness during the current crisis? Not if the state legislature continues to suck the life out of it. Still it will be hard to break up UCLA. Some of its biggest names like Lynn Hunt, Anthony Pagden, Teofilo Ruiz, David Sabean, and R. Bin Wong are unlikely to decamp, for there aren't many departments with comparable depth in their fields. But you never know.

For my money, the most likely to get headhunted are Sanjay Subrahmanyam, one of the real stars in Indian history, and David Myers, a mid-career hotshot in Jewish history.

I've only just begun. Irvine, Riverside, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara are all ripe for the picking. But more on them later.