Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Independent Historian

This is a big week for me. I have a new book out from Cornell University Press, described below, and two pieces on the History News Network. In this one, I talk a lot about myself, and like most of us, I find myself to be a very interesting topic of conversation.

I have never been a big fan of the term “independent historian.” It always struck me as a subtle form of professorial condescension to those of us going through our careers without benefit of academic position, as if we had to prove to our tenured friends that we were “real” historians. Moreover, our independence largely seemed to consist of freedom from steady employment. But perhaps I was being just a wee bit too sensitive. I have come to embrace the term , with reservations, as I have come to understand that my career as a historian will never involve regular employment at an institution of higher learning. Of course, we are all entitled to our sour grapes. I sometimes think my academic friends really get paid to be teachers, administrators, counselors, etc., while they try to squeeze in a little history writing on the side. If we were to be accurate, their job title might be “academic teachers of history.” Me, I’m a historian. Writing history is my job and profession, and writing history is all I do.

None of this is to my credit, exactly. After all, when I came to the realization that there was apparently no history department in North America that wanted my services (save in the peonage known as adjuncting), I probably should have listened to the good advice of friends and family, to say nothing of the prudential spirit within, and retrained, and adopt a different profession. But I was just too stubborn and foolish. I had decided that a historian I would become, and a historian I would remain, regardless of the collective opinion of my peers about my employability.

Really, I have no complaints or regrets. And I have had a diverse and satisfying career. I choose my own topics to write about. I never report to a boss or supervisor. And every day, I get up, turn on my computer, and get to write about history. What could possibly be better?
For a number of years I worked as a historical reference editor, editing encyclopedias. It’s a perfect job for anyone like me, a Jeopardy contestant manqué with pretensions to omniscience. My work as an encyclopedia culminated in my stint as editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York State, which I directed from beginning to end, working with a staff of fifty, and a corps of contributors numbering well over one thousand. Unfortunately, too many historians still view editing encyclopedias as harmless drudgery, and as not a fully “serious” species of history, and most encyclopedias remain underappreciated and underreviewed. I hope this attitude changes. I know the Encyclopedia is one of the most comprehensive, and I don’t think it is immodest to say, one of the most important works ever published on New York State history.

But to return to the independent historian theme, one of the problems with working as an encyclopedia editor is that day by day, you are slowly laboring to put yourself out of work, and sooner or later you accomplish this great task. And it never gets any easier finding the next gig. So it was when then Encyclopedia was finished. Serendipitously, I found work as an editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, Howard Thurman being the most significant African American religious thinker of the 20th century. I moved up from New York City to Rochester in 1995 to be an editor on the papers project, but things didn’t really work out, and we parted ways in 1997. I never imagined I would ever return, but in 2005 I needed a job, they needed an editor, things were different, and it’s been much better the second time around. We have published one volume of his papers, others are on the way, and with a colleague, Quinton Dixie, I have written an introduction to Thurman’s life which we hope will introduce him to historians, and place him where he belongs, and as a prime creator of the tradition of African American radical non-violence.

And when I left the Encyclopedia, having accomplished all I ever wanted to do achieve in the world of reference editing, I left it behind, tired of chopping up the world of knowledge into 750 or 1,000 word chunks. I started writing a book about the housing cooperative in Queens in which I grew up, Rochdale Village, after becoming involved in a chatroom for former residents. Rochdale Village was unique in many ways, especially in that it was the largest experiment in integrated housing in New York City in the 1960s, if not all of the United States. The book has just been published by Cornell University Press. It covers a lot of topics; race, civil rights, black power, black/Jewish relations, crime, the teachers strike of 1968, the need for affordable housing, and the continuing rehabilitation of Robert Moses, but though it is not a memoir, it is primarily about the historical forces that shaped my early life. Researching and writing it was a thrilling experience, the most powerful involvement with a project in my career, and I found myself using my historical skills to ask and try to answer the most basic of existential questions, “who am I?” I would urge every historian to consider a similar project. I am sure you will find it as rewarding (and surprising, and confounding, and moving) as I did.

Parting advice to would-be independent historians? Money isn’t everything, though try to find a partner with a well paying job, preferably one at a major research university that will give you access to the library and the propriety databases that institutions of higher learning try to keep from the grubby fingers of independent historians. Purge your soul of bitterness, envy, and jealousy. Be happy with your lot in life.

Independent historians are outsiders, and we’re similar to other groups of outsiders. We underestimate our numbers, and we tend to isolate ourselves from those similarly situated. And we often feel badly about ourselves and our careers, and we search out and probe for internal flaws and limitations, when the real problem lies not in our capacities, but in the harsh, pitiless, and dog eat dog market for academic historians that we all have endured for our entire careers. And even if we independent historians are the dogs that were eaten, we are all dogs, and I think that more and more of us are going to spend our careers as independent historians. (We once were naught, we shall be all.) And I hope a day comes, in the not too distant future, when all us will just be called historians, and we will be judged by the quality of our scholarship, and not by the condition of our employment. That’s all any of ever wanted to accomplish.