What is historian Jane Kamensky doing NOW?

She talks banking collapses, how technology has changed the way historians do research, and the thrill of the historical treasure hunt

Jane Kamensky is a professor of American history whose primary research and teaching interests focus on NorthJane Kamensky America before ca. 1830, cultural history, and the writing of history. She’s been teaching at Brandeis since 1993 and offers courses in colonial American history, women's and family history, and the writing of history, which have been recognized with a university-wide award for excellence in teaching.

BrandeisNOW spoke with Kamensky about her current projects and how technology has changed the way historians work.

BrandeisNOW: What are you teaching now?

I’m teaching the graduate colloquium in early American history, which is one of the core courses of the American history Ph.D. program.

BrandeisNOW: Is this a class you’ve taught before?

JK: It is. David Fischer and I generally rotate biennially, so I’ve taught it almost every other year for the past 15 years. And like most graduate courses, the content turns over with every iteration, so it’s probably about 75 percent new since the last time I taught it. It’s important that students learn not only the tradition of scholarship in history as it has been practiced over the last 100 or so years—since there’s been history as a professional discipline—but also what the cutting edge of their field looks like. The last time I taught this course was in the fall of 2005, and I’ve added a lot of works that have been published between now and then, and rotated off some others that felt like they didn’t stand the test of time.

BrandeisNOW: Your expertise is colonial America and the early United States. What is it about this time period and place that fascinates you?

JK: I love the detective function of historians and the puzzle-solving faculties that all of us use to do our work. And I find in the early periods of American history there’s enough that’s familiar to us and enough that’s known, and yet still a huge number of gaps and puzzles that we need to solve, often by diligently and imaginatively pulling stories out of scarce and fragmentary sources. Michael Willrich, one of my modern Americanist colleagues and I, joke that his big problem is that there are 50,000 pages to document everything that he wants to write about, and he has dreams about how much easier life would be if an archive burned down, whereas my dreams are that one more fragment of a piece of paper will be discovered. I like the patchiness of it. I tend to work on lesser-known individuals:  on women who often didn’t leave extensive records of their lives, and on ordinary men, who were less well documented than, say, political leaders. So I love the hunt really for sources and stories.

Is that "hunt" like we see in the movies, where you’re going through tombs in old graveyards or something along those lines?

You know, it’s nothing so glamorous; the hunting is mostly in libraries. I can give you an example from the book I published last January, called “The Exchange Artist.” I did “discover” in the Detroit Public Library a piece of a collection that had not been catalogued. It was there and it was available and it could be paged but nobody knew what was in it. And it happened to hold some key pieces of evidence for the story I was researching. There was a series of letters that a clerk of the Detroit Bank had written in 1806, and they had found their way back to the mayor of Detroit over a thousand miles of rutted road, and they had gotten filed with the mayor’s papers, and the mayor’s papers wound up in the Detroit library, and William Flanagan’s folder of letters had sat there for 200 years, unread, until I found it. That’s what I dream of.

BrandeisNOW: How exciting was that for you?

JK: It’s a really thrilling thing. Every once in a while when you’re working in an old source like that, an eyelash falls out and you wonder: is that something that’s been there since 1806? That sense of a direct and undiscovered link with the past is really exciting.

What about those undiscovered links to those relatively unknown people you mentioned before—why is it so important for you to focus on those folks?

JK: I think that what every historian wants is to get the fullest understanding of the past that she or he can come up with, and to understand the past not on our terms but on the terms in which it was lived. And in order to do that, you really need to fill up the world of “then.” It’s important because ordinary people were most of the folks doing most of the doing. In many of our stories, things like buildings and roads and cars and the stuff of life just appear.  Well, people made them. And it was important to me in animating “The Exchange Artist” to get as close as I could to the people who were actually doing the doing. It’s very important to me as a historian whose work is concerned with visual and material culture to think about stuff and the way it gets made, and to think about the material quality of the past. It was a three-dimensional world. Geographers have this maxim: “events take place.” So when you’re thinking about peopling an early republic city, say, which is something I was doing in this last book, I want as many kinds of people as possible, because they were the people that made the story happen.

“The Exchange Artist” was about a banking collapse, and unfortunately, we’re experiencing a banking collapse right now. Any parallels?

I think the most important parallel is that American history has been for 200 years and beyond a constant cycle of booms and busts that reflect our boundless ability to believe as a people, and then the sudden corrections that sometimes undercut that. So the book I wrote is very much about the easy giving of confidence and the sudden withdrawing of confidence, and I guess my hope for the future is that the confidence comes back.

Next month you’re coming out with a fiction book, right?

Yeah, a friend and fellow historian, Jill Lepore and I, jointly wrote a novel that is a different kind of exploration in the early American past. It’s set in Boston in the 1760s.

How has that been for you to be adventurous in a different way, in terms of telling a fictional story rather than a historical book that’s entirely true?

JK: It was an exhilarating experiment. It’s made me value some of my historian’s faculties that I didn’t tend to value as much before. The capacity for human empathy, the playing of hunches:  those are things I am taking back with me into the archives now that I’m back on the hunt. I found it more satisfying in some ways to jump the boundary between fact and fiction and do something in a completely fictional realm than to fudge that boundary in my historical scholarly work, which is not something that I would do.

Now that we’re back on the hunt- how has the Internet and our latest technology changed the way that historians do their research?
JK: I’ve seen a big change in the 20 years that I’ve been teaching. It increases our access to some kinds of knowledge and it decreases our access to other kinds. So we are much more likely now to find some perfect source that we did not know existed. I’ll give you an example from “The Exchange Artist.” When I was searching the Archives USA database that digitized the finding aids and local historical societies all over the country for the term “Exchange Coffee House fire,” I came up with a letter that was written on the deck of a boat that stationed in Charlestown harbor in November of 1818, when the exchange coffeehouse burnt down. And this common sailor talked about his experience of watching this fire. I would never have found this thing. It was not a topic that I would have looked for at the University of Virginia, which is where the letter was held.  The letter wasn’t indexed under its name, but in some set of family papers, and the family had nothing to do with the story. So that’s a thrilling kind of discovery.

On the other hand, the kind of chance discovery that we made by browsing instead of searching, by poring over page after page of old newspapers or scrolling through reels of microfilm and reading everything just to see if there was something we wanted, I think we’re losing that because it’s become so easy in the digital world to put in a set of search terms and think of research as defined by the number of hits that it yields.

BrandeisNOW: So is that a detriment or an advantage, do you think?

JK: I think it’s both. It doesn’t matter if it’s a detriment or not, because there’s no going back. And I feel like as a trainer as students, I have to constantly try to reinforce this lost art of serendipity, of wandering in the stacks and seeing what’s shelved next to what, or scrolling through microfilm. A senior thesis student was just saying to me: “I was scrolling through microfilm I only found two things in four hours. That’s nothing. But when I got on the Library of Congress site, I got 10,000 hits.” Well right, but when you scrolled through the microfilm, you found things that you didn’t expect to find, and when you got your 10,000 hits, they just answered the search terms that you already thought were important. So it’s a positive and a detriment. We need to use the precision, the ability of digital tools to find needles in haystacks, but we need to reinforce our ability as just walkers on the ground to discover haystacks.

What’s next for you?

JK: I’m working on a biography of the Anglo-American painter Gilbert Stuart. I got very interested in the world of artists as people who are responsible for creating the image of the young American nation. And Stuart’s a figure who embodies both the earthiness of the artist and his struggle to lift himself out of what was a fairly plebeian trade, and the power of the image-maker in the new nation.

Read the Boston Globe's Q&A with Kamensky.

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