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?