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Conversation with Tracy, part 2


Transcript, in case you want to read along (or instead), or highlight:

T: I can just read it out. You can take it wherever you want to, because this is really your field. But this is the state of my initial forays into this. So I recently read about Frederick Jackson Turner's idea about the American frontier. So he's been tagged as belonging to a group of late 19th century, early 20th century historians involved in the rising progressive movement.

So you, Dan, have expressed interest in Vernon Parrington's literary approach to history, which is also from the same time period. There's also Charles Beards famous or infamous reading of the American founders through economically Interested ideas or eyes.

And then Richard Hofstadter, as you mentioned, wrote on the three of them, Turner, Parrington and Beard as the Progressive historians. And also I recently read Bradley Watson's book also talking about the Progressive historians; only he's writing like 50 years later, so he's looking at Hofstadter reading Parrington, who are progressives coming out of this movement, looking back at the Founders’ era. So it's like all of this kind of layers of interpretation. So I guess even a more basic question, what's the difference between history and historiography? And how would you as a historian with concerns about, getting the history right because it actually does matter in the ways that we're using it today politically or whatever. How do you come about doing this in a kind of responsible fashion.

D: Okay. I'll take that in the reverse order. The history-historiography thing is really interesting because, to some extent I think it is about career making the way that it's often done in academic journals and stuff. There are these famous arguments that are played out mostly in journal articles and sometimes are expanded even into the themes that people will build books around. One of the big ones that was ongoing through kind of the new social history in the 70s, 80s into the beginning of the 90s was this question of what they called the market transition.

And that was the question of whether the Anglos and Europeans who came to the Americas, especially North America, were commercial from the outset or did they go through some type of change from maybe having been in commerce in the old world and then coming to something different and then becoming commercial again. And again, this does have a little bit of an echo of Turner in it because Turner's idea was that there was something very unique about the American frontier, and it was almost a manifest destiny thought that what would happen was a European would come to America and the frontier experience would strip away all of that veneer of European culture and in a lot of people's minds, European corruption and not depravity, but at least a little bit of softness and too much culture and effete characteristics; and they become more energetic and more direct and more honest.

T: They're rugged individuals, rugged, survive on the frontier. Yes. Very macho ,

D: And like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett are the right.

T: Absolutely. These are frontier heroes and cowboys. Yeah.

D: Or Natty Bumppo in Last of the Mohicans, which is Hawkeye's name. He's one of these characters. So, baked into this, there are these myths, right? They get baked into these arguments in historiography, like the question of the market transition. Primary sources are very valuable for this because it's a lot of the times when scholars are debating these points, it becomes, again, about career building and it's about scoring points and oftentimes just scoring rhetorical points.

There's a famous kind of side argument between Naomi Lamoreaux who was an MIT based economic historian and wrote a lot about what she thought was the market transition and the commercial transition in very early New England. And then there's another guy, Martin Bruegel, who wrote more what he called microhistory, which was very much in a more literary tradition. The other famous microhistorian is Carlo Ginzburg, who wrote The Cheese and the Worms. And his mother was, I think, a Nobel winner in literature.

And so it was very much about stories. And it was very much about what they called Thick Description and the idea that you're going to drill down into these very, very minute, circumstantial, contingent issues of what's happening locally and what's happening in these people's lives and that this is going to, versus the grand theory, the grand narrative or the economic analysis, based on changes in market prices in different markets.

T: Very macroeconomic statistical aggregate. Yeah. Yeah.

D: So Lamoreaux and Bruegel had this famous argument in print in these major academic journals. Lamoureux's point was if these people didn't move the needle, if they didn't have a major effect on history, why do we even care? And Bruegel's much more sort of humanistic point was, because they were people and their stories, can tell us more…

T: Stories matter.

D: complex things about the world and about life that aren't going to be showing in these numbers. But to some extent it's about good guys and bad guys too. I'm reminded of there was a movie in the eighties maybe it was the nineties, the Zero Effect with Ben Stiller. And the guy who I forget his name, but he was the president in Independence Day [Bill Pullman], I think was a kind of a deranged Sherlock Holmes type character. And Ben Stiller is this guy who is protector, his Watson to some extent. But at one point, they're talking — there are a lot of great little riffs in there, but one of the great riffs is that at one point they're talking and Daryl Zero the brilliant guy is saying, we're going to do this, we're going to get the bad guys and Stiller stops him and says, wait a minute, you realize, don't you, that there really aren't any good guys and bad guys. It's all just guys.

And I totally love that. Because there's this sort of naive idea that there is truth to be argued about in some of these things. And almost always what I'm finding is that it's both/and, because in the question of the market transition, okay. So typically the myth is that Jamestown was commercial, they were idiots and they came and they thought they were going to find piles of gold or not have to work or anything. And then they died. But they were looking for gain, right?

Whereas Boston, the Plymouth pilgrims, coming from Leiden in the Netherlands,

T: They weren't commercial at all coming from the Netherlands.

D: And John Winthrop and his Puritans who came in, I don't know, 17 ships or something to Boston 10 years later, that they somehow weren't commercial. They came in 1630 and in 1626 Winthrop had sent one of his sons to the Caribbean to help found Barbados, the most profitable and economically important sugar colony in early English history until they took Jamaica from the Spaniards, but even so it remained a huge thing. And so then Winthrop and the Puritans come in 1630 and then in 1640, the English Civil War begins. And they're cut off from support for at least 10, probably the better part of 20 years from the home country. From that ongoing connection that they hoped to have. And they turn their attention to the Caribbean, and they start sending grain and hay and fodder and everything down to Barbados because the Barbadians don't want to grow anything but sugar. They won't even grow food. They want to buy that from the New Englanders and the mid Atlantic colonists.

T: Oh, they're not commercial at all. No. They're not even going to grow their own food. They're going to trade for it. Yeah.

D: And thenWinthrop sends another in the 1640s. He sends another one of his sons down to that colony of merchants from New England in Barbados and in the Caribbean. So while they may have had ideas about themselves, had beliefs about themselves, had certainly self-serving and –aggrandizing rhetoric about what their mission was that it wasn't as simple as, Virginia and the Carolinas were a shabby commercial operation, but the city upon a hill was Right.

T: The noble period, yes. Yeah, yeah. Idealistic. Yeah. But, and yet, and yet Dan ideas move people and that creates the thick events and people and happenings. So it goes both ways. So people are really motivated by these good guys versus bad guys.

We're the city on the hill. They're motivated by these kind of visionary objectives, even if the reality ends up being, well, super interesting and super sordid details.

D: Yeah, and so I feel a little bit of an obligation to pop some of those balloons, especially the, honestly, the religious balloons of that whole civilizing mission thing, to the natives. But also the idea that these distinctions that they're fighting about, because the Bostonians also get rid of Roger Williams very rapidly, and then they get rid of Anne Hutchinson. All she wants to do is preach the stuff that the men are preaching, but only the men are allowed to do it. And then when she actually goes to the Providence Plantations, to Rhode Island for a little while, but then she moves on and she goes and lives down along the Hudson River in Dutch territory. And she and her family are killed by Indians a couple of years later. And Governor Winthrop remarks on that and says that's God's justice for you. She got what was coming to her. And so some of those things are, I think need to be called out just, not so much

T: The hypocrisy of it. You can't say on one hand, you're all this great noble, and then you're doing all this. Yeah.

D: And, again, I guess maybe scientifically it's easier to disconfirm than to confirm, right?

T: Yes, the reality is much more messy than any narrative is going to be able to accommodate; any consistent narrative.

D: But that's the thing that I think a lot of people who consider themselves serious historians want to object to and set righ; when somebody else comes along and, in either popular history or in something adjacent to history like what Parrington did or like what Hofstadter, which is like a cultural history to some extent because it deals with the past.

But it's weird. It's like you've got firsthand, you've got primary sources where people actually are talking about the actual events that they are witnessing and participating in, and then you've got secondary sources that typically do have some academic standards associated with them, of evidence and argument and narrativity and things like that.

But then there are tertiary sources or even quaternary sources, right? So a third level would be, I think, popular history, which as we've already been talking about, Charles Mann did a fabulous job with that. And let me be the first to blame historians for not being decent writers and actually telling stories in a way that anybody gives a shit about reading. And that is a problem as well. I was interested in that kind of funny back and forth between Bruegel and Lamoreaux in the journals and the name calling and all of that. But that's not something that anybody

T: Your field's dirty laundry. Yeah, that's exactly it. We're all fascinated by the dirty laundry in our field and we're thankful it all stays in these very limited access journals that the lay people, the hoi polloi, are not going to find out about.

D: Although, maybe they should a little bit just to know that this isn't, because history is different from science in that there's no experiment that can be replicated. So it's not as clear cut the way we talk about causality. It's got to be very hypothetical and it can be suggested, but it can never really be proven.

What did Thomas Jefferson think about Sally Hemings? We have no way of knowing. It does matter, but that's another one of those areas where, you know, Dumas Malone for an entire generation just said no, we will not talk about that. That never happened. That is not going to be discussed. And he was the guy that controlled the Jefferson canon for an entire generation. And then finally, he was undone by DNA. Which I guess, to be perfectly fair, the DNA also really isn't conclusive because the DNA could have come from a son or a nephew of Thomas Jefferson as well as from Jefferson himself. I think, as far as I understand the science. So it's highly likely, but not conclusively proven.

T: That he's the father of her children,

D: Yeah. But what that suggests about the complexity; and he admits himself in his own writing that a man would have to be a saint not to be swayed by this and corrupted by this power. He seems well aware, you don't have to read too much into that to, I think, come to the conclusion that he was aware, even if he wasn't participating. And certainly his father in law was because Sally Hemings was the half sister of his wife. Yeah. So it was all around him.

T: Yeah. Yeah, That was a whole different. Yeah. I don't know.

D: So we've gotten to a couple of things. I guess we'll have to keep talking more. Could I change course a little bit here and ask you one more question in the time we have left ? We're 75 minutes in, we should probably

T: Oh, wow. Okay. Yeah. That's a lot already, especially if we're going to look through this video and try to make it digestible in some form.

D: Yeah, so I did want to switch tracks and we can come back to all these things and certainly hold on to these questions and pick up where we left off on some of the ones that we didn't even really get to. But the one that I wanted, maybe for the interest of people watching the video to change course to was your plans and your kind of expectations for Substack. You've recently changed course and so I'm curious, what your priorities are in the context of the A1 through A4 that you talked about in your ideas about ecosystems? Or what types of things you want to discuss in the Substack and what people should look forward to seeing.

T: And this is continuing to evolve so I actually, I just started Substack like late last year with the simplest possible goal of I'm going to write every day and I'm going to actually put it out there. So I do all this writing little notes to myself or emails or whatever to friends, but it's all private.

And I needed to just establish a discipline of writing and putting it out there. So I had no real goals or no real topics that I was going to focus on or develop. And so I was amazed that I was able to actually just start doing that. And of course not having an audience helps when no one's reading your stuff, you don't have to be very fearful about who's going to read your stuff.

But the first thing I noticed was just how big Substack is. I had no idea. There's all these newsletters that I was subscribed to that I had some vague idea that they were using this platform or whatever, but it's a whole ecosystem. It's the old Medium, but on steroids. So then of course that got me thinking, all right now that I've established this sort of habit, what do I wanna do with any of this? And part of it was landing on this. I think my life's mission, in a way, post teaching, post academia; I don't want to publish scholarly stuff anymore. Not that I have published any much anyway. This kind of problem with the Anthropocene, how to be good humans in this era when we're the deal, and it's named after us for a reason.

D: Right.

T: Anthropos being the Greek word for humans.

But then there was this other piece that I quickly came to realize that the only way we're going to cope with this as lay people, non-experts is through lifelong learning. So we're going to have to keep learning. We're going to have to keep investigating, reading, thinking, traveling.

And so that's really what I'm aiming at this point for the Substack. And not just for the Substack, because I think I still see the Substack as my experimental sort of personal writing ground where I'm just shooting from the hip, throwing things out there, seeing what sticks, seeing the ideas actually take form in print, so to speak. And I'm starting to form some bigger ambitions, beyond the Substack actually; both in terms of a place where I can take some of the things I'm writing there and put them into a more permanent, more formal, more edited, less typos form. So I definitely will have a place for that.

And then the other thing is that at heart, I'm a teacher. I want to interact with people and help them along. And at this point in my life, there's a lot of generations coming up behind me. And so I am looking at something completely separately branded, like some kind of little business with some courses and some coaching and that kind of thing. So the Substack will probably stay close to what it is now. But I'm hoping also to do some of these things adjacently. One is a place for more higher quality writing, that I actually want to pull together and polish it a little bit. And then on the other side, maybe think about a little kind of solopreneur, teaching courses, community, something.

D: Yeah, I'm curious about as well. Especially with the idea of, I've got a gig for the next academic year. But what happens after that?

T: What happens after that? Have you taught online? Apart from your university jobs, which might be hybrid or online teaching, but have you taught like just your own things online invented your own courses to put up?

D: Not really.

T: Written textbooks and put them out there.

D: Open textbooks, yeah.

T: In terms of just going off on your own and saying, “Hey, I've got stuff to teach. There's all these platforms I can teach online. Yes. I have to find my students, my audience, anyone who wants to pay me to do this,” but you have a lot, you have a lot to give and

D: That's the plan for this year. And so the fact that you're doing it at the same time, maybe we can share war stories or our successes.

T: I have no idea. I haven't succeeded at anything. But a lot of it's just at this point, I have the time, I don't have a lot of money, have a roof over my head at least.

D: And I think one of the things that's really been a draw for me in what you're doing is this kind of, not only these are the problems of human creation, that humanity and the world are facing the whole problem, but also how to be a good human. I think it’s really interesting.

T: Good. I'm glad, because it's taken me a long time to land on that one. It's really obvious when you see it, but it's taken me literally like my whole life to land on it, that that's the problem. That's what deserves the rest of my life as a mission to work at given what I can bring to it. Diverse interests and all the whatever.

MakingHistory and Lifelong Learning
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