[ A well-regarded historian muses on key works that illuminate
history and popular struggles.] [https://portside.org/]
WHAT I'M READING: AN INTERVIEW WITH URBAN HISTORIAN CARL ABBOTT
Tiffany April Griffin
February 10, 2019
History New Network [https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171178]
_ A well-regarded historian muses on key works that illuminate
history and popular struggles. _
History News Network,
Carl Abbott is an American historian and urbanist, specialising in the
related fields of urban history, western American history, urban
planning, and science fiction, and is a frequent speaker to local
WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HISTORY AS YOUR CAREER?
I’ll attribute it to Scrooge McDuck. In the early and middle
fifties, writer/artist Carl Barks created a series of classic Donald
Duck and Scrooge McDuck comic books that often sent Donald, Scrooge,
and the nephews chasing a historical myth or artifact. Along with the
story, you could learn about Coronado’s search for Cibola, Vikings
in Labrador, and Walter Raleigh’s expedition up the Orinoco in
search of El Dorado. There was plenty of fantasy in the comics, but
also tantalizing historical nuggets that led naturally to the Landmark
Books, a series of history books for kids that my dad brought home
from the library, and to reading real accounts of archeology. At one
point I thought it would be great to be an archeologist, until I
figured that they spent their time roughing it in sweltering jungles
and blazing deserts and decided that reading and writing about the
past in reasonably comfortable libraries might be more pleasant.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVORITE HISTORIC SITE TRIP? WHY?
Chaco Canyon: There is nothing else like it to remind 21st century
Americans about the depth and complexity of our continental history.
Tour the grand houses on the canyon floor and then climb to the rim to
imagine the trade routes that radiated from what was essentially a
metropolitan complex. Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads Fort provide
something of the same imaginative transport into a different past,
especially when visited in proper English weather with dark skies,
wind, and rain showers. For those interested, Gillian
Bradshaw, _Island of Ghosts_, is a very well done novel that is set
at the wall in the 2nd century and speaks to Britain’s multiracial
If you’d asked me when I was six years old, it would have been
Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine (a fort! with high stone
walls!! and cannon!!!).
IF YOU COULD HAVE DINNER WITH ANY THREE HISTORIANS (DEAD OR ALIVE),
WHO WOULD YOU CHOOSE AND WHY?
Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Carl Becker, foundational
voices for United States history as a comprehensive scholarly endeavor
embracing social, economic, and intellectual history. I would be
eager for their opinions on our current ideas about historical
epistemology and on the vastly expanded range of our understanding of
past lives and peoples. If I wanted to be provocative, I might add or
substitute that historical gossip monger Suetonius to see what juicy
stories he didn’t dare put into his _Lives_, although I’d have to
brush up on my high school Latin.
WHAT BOOKS ARE YOU READING NOW?
I just finished service on an OAH book prize committee that received
ninety submissions, so I feel extremely caught up on certain aspects
of U.S. history. I recommend Beth Lew-Williams, _The Chinese Must
Go_, Susan Sleeper-Smith, _Indigenous Prosperity and American
Conquest_, and Julian Lim, _Porous Borders_. On the nonacademic
side, I have just finished Margaret Drabble, _The Dark Flood Rises_,
a deeply humane novel about the ways that we confront aging and death
(it is _not _depressing).
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE HISTORY BOOK?
William H. McNeill’s _The Rise of the West _has been dated by
decades of global history scholarship from different regions and
postcolonial perspectives but it was eye-opening in the mid-1960s for
someone who had just been through the Western Civ approach to history.
I had the stimulating experience of taking a course on the history of
the Balkans from McNeill at the University of Chicago and hearing
about his approach to teaching (read a lot of books, close them, talk
about what you’ve learned) and to writing (read, take minimal notes,
close the books, organize your thoughts, write). I’ve only been able
to follow this very challenging sequence a couple times, but I’ve
really liked the results. After you revisit _The Rise of the West_,
read Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative history novel _Years of
Rice and Salt_, which imagines the course of world history if 99.9% of
Europeans had died in the plagues of the 1300s.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE LIBRARY AND BOOKSTORE WHEN LOOKING FOR HISTORY
Living in Portland, I have easy access to Powell’s City of Books, a
great independent bookstore that’s chock full of interesting finds
on its multiple color-coded levels. When looking to order a book
online, consider visiting Powells.com rather than defaulting to the
first letter of the alphabet.
As a researcher, I’ve been privileged to work in both the Newberry
Library and the Huntington Library, two treasure houses for scholars.
When you walk out of the Newberry you have all the vibrancy of Chicago
to enjoy; when you take a break at the Huntington you can wander its
gardens. Chicago may be _urbs in horto _but that chunk of San Marino
is _bibliotheca in horto_. Because I might have ended up a historical
geographer if I had not attended a very small college with no
geography courses, let’s highlight the Newberry’s map collection
and the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress.
DO YOU OWN ANY RARE HISTORY OR COLLECTIBLE BOOKS? DO YOU COLLECT
ARTIFACTS RELATED TO HISTORY?
I am not much of a collector. The old books in our house are Quaker
journals and sermons from the 18th and 19th century, passed down in
my wife’s family for several generations, which support her writing
and teaching on the Society of Friends.
WHICH HISTORY MUSEUMS ARE YOUR FAVORITES? WHY?
There’s no way I could show my face around here if I didn’t single
out the Oregon Historical Society, where I’ve advised on numerous
projects and whose library I’ve used for 40 years. Like all state
historical museums, it has been responding to the need to broaden and
deepen the “white guys” narrative with very good intent and
generally successful results. I serve on a citizen committee to
monitor a local tax levy that supports the Society, so I do get an
inside view of their efforts to do a lot without enough money. We also
need to acknowledge the valuable work of county historical societies
and museums all over the country, where public historians are doing
their best to add richness and nuance to the old pioneer stories—so
a shout-out to the Deschutes County Historical Society (Bend, OR) and
Crook County Historical Society (Prineville, OR) for recently inviting
me to give talks and providing the impetus for weekends in sunny
central Oregon. On big museum scene, I learn new things on each visit
to the National Museum of the American Indian.
WHICH HISTORICAL TIME PERIOD IS YOUR FAVORITE?
The right question can make any period interesting, but what
originally engaged me as a graduate student were the early decades of
the 19th century when the territory northwest of the Ohio River was
being transferred and transformed from Indian to white occupation and
development. This is the area where I grew up and where my family has
roots to the 1820s, and I wanted to understand how it had changed with
the Miami and Erie Canal, early railroads, and industrialization that
would create the technological infrastructure that produced the Wright
WHAT WOULD BE YOUR ADVICE FOR HISTORY MAJORS LOOKING TO MAKE HISTORY
AS A CAREER?
Historians should make friends with geographers and other social
scientists and take courses in policy research methods. Much
discussion of non-academic careers for historians focuses on closely
related areas like museums, archives, and historic preservation.
Historians with social science and policy research skills have a wider
range of options in government and think tanks jobs that should not
automatically be ceded to economists.
WHO WAS YOUR FAVORITE HISTORY TEACHER?
The entire History Department at Swarthmore College when I was there
in the 1960s—Robert Bannister, James A. Field, Jr., Paul Beik, and
Lawrence Lafore. Specializing in U.S., French, and British history,
they had distinct personalities but all nurtured a love of critical
inquiry. In addition, I have a soft spot for the Chicago historian
Bessie Louise Pierce. She was long retired from the University of
Chicago by my time there, but attended my dissertation defense and
told me quite firmly not let myself be pushed around by my committee
(Richard Wade, Robert Fogel, Neil Harris).
WHY IS IT ESSENTIAL TO SAVE HISTORY AND LIBRARIES?
It’s a truism that we are all our own historians, a point made long
ago by Carl Becker and recently reaffirmed by Edward Ayers. We
understand our lives and world by the stories we tell about how
we—and things in general—got to be as they are. It is the job of
folks who are paid to study, write, and talk about history to help
people tell accurate and inclusive stories that can be the foundation
for a progressive and inclusive nation. That’s as important in
Britain, India, Mexico, and every other country as it is in the United
The last couple decades have been a good time for public libraries.
Cities all over the world have been investing in library systems that
are true community learning centers as well as book-lenders. The
list of cities that have found it worthwhile to build new,
architecturally exciting downtown libraries is long. Calgary is the
most recent entry, but there’s Perth in Australia, Birmingham in the
UK, Guangzhou, Amsterdam, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver,
Minneapolis, and Chicago (which helped to kick off this new wave). It
is quite exciting for someone who grew up on trips of exploration to
the downtown library in Dayton, Ohio, and it holds promise for civic
life. Academic historians understandably focus on university and
research libraries, but public libraries nourish our audience.
DO YOU HAVE A NEW BOOK COMING OUT?
I have two shorter books in process for series aimed to introduce
topics to general readers. _City Planning: A Very Short
Introduction _is for an Oxford University Press
series. _Quakerism: The Basics_, which I am writing with my wife,
is for a Routledge series. I am trying to build up steam for a book on
the ways in which speculative fiction uses and abuses history
(galactic empires modeled on Rome, alternative history, etc.) but it
is a long way from daylight.
_Author/Interviewee Carl Abbott is an American historian and urbanist,
specialising in the related fields of urban history, western American
history, urban planning, and science fiction, and is a frequent
speaker to local community groups._
_[Interviewer Tiffany April Griffin is a features intern at History
_Information on History News Network, including on joining its mailing
list, is available HERE [https://historynewsnetwork.org/]._
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