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?

10 comments:

  1. Fantastic stuff--keep it coming!

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  2. You failed to mention that Thomas Andrews shared the Bancroft Prize with Pekka and Faust. Talk about someone who's poachworthy, Andrews has never published anything that hasn't won a national prize: six or seven articles and an equal number of prizes, one monograph and a Bancroft (among others) to his credit.

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  3. Not to take anything away from Pekka, by the way, who's a fantastic historian and a peach of a guy.

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  4. I think Princeton tried to get him a couple years ago, actually, but he didn't want to move.

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  5. Andrews is a mile higher than most and unless he's in love with Denver, he won't finish his career there. Breaking news...we now have first-hand testimony that peaches grow in Finland.

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  6. That peach joke was low-hanging fruit.

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  7. Thanks for the writing so far. This year's job market might make worthy commentary; a pity to confine your reporting to the luminaries of the academic star system, really. What's the story on that open-rank position at a major state school, posted less than 2 weeks before they started reading applications? Or the open positions in history departments that show up in the academic job wiki's "Institutions to Fear"? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Looking forward to your AHA editions.

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  8. C. Vann, love your commentary, and also look forward to AHA editions. What are you reading over the holidays?

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  9. Late to this thread, but did anyone see the review of Pekka's book in Ethnohistory? Apparently, if the review is to be believed, those who know Comanche scholarship best are far from impressed. Another case of a press promoting a book far beyond its real relevance?

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