In Boston to attend the annual American Historical Association meeting: For anyone not familiar with these large, academic conferences this is the largest for the history profession. It meets ever year right after New Year’s and provides publishers with an opportunity to present new publications for course adoption or research. Also, working historians can present research-in-progress for feedback from informed audience members or discuss the state of the field at roundtables. Unlike smaller conferences throughout the year which have more specific chronological or field-specific parameters, this is open to all professional historians, and is therefore the traditional place for universities and colleges who are hiring to interview historians looking for work. In addition to all of that hustle there's also a great amount of social networking during meals and late into the evenings.
I had an early flight out of Houston Bush IAH this morning and was fortunate to meet two professors from the UH history department and one of their wives at the departure gate. About a three hour flight, I spent the time reviewing my game plan for today when I landed and then read about 100 pages of Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees; the British edition I own irritates me with all its colours, greys, and tyres. Soundtrack: Beatles’ Hard Days Night, The Wipers’ Over the Edge, and a fourteen track bootleg of live Springsteen duets. The others from UH and I were spread out on a nearly half empty flight but reconvened in Boston and shared a cab to the Hynes Convention Center, where most of the hotels were connected by tunnels or sky-bridges, or through the Prudential Center. The arrangement is odd compared to previous AHA conferences I have attended in DC, NYC, etc. or the smaller spring and summer conferences- this may be the first time that I have attended a conference which is essentially within an enormous shopping mall.
David Brion Davis
After checking into the Park Plaza Hotel and Towers I went straight to conference registration, handled some business, and then went to a pretty great panel on the state of the history of abolition. Warning, nerd talk ahead: The panel chair David Brion Davis (Professor Emeritus Yale, 1967 Pulitzer Prize winner for non-fiction, advisor/mentor to Steven Mintz who was my initial graduate studies advisor at UH) opened the panel, made some general remarks of welcome, and introduced each speaker as they presented. Christopher Brown (Columbia University, scholar of British antislavery and the Black Atlantic) presented a cogent evaluation of British scholarship on antislavery over the last four years with an emphasis on the relatively recent (for British scholars) interest in the Haitian Revolution, slave revolts in British colonies such as Barbadoes and Jamaica, and the increasing study of public memory in Britain of that nations past connections with slave trading and abolition. James Sidbury (UT, scholar of Gabriel’s Rebellion, among other African American history topics) provided some meaningful criticism of a field of scholarship- abolition- that gives little credit to the role and place of relatively elite African and African American leaders, such as Paul Cuffee, in the movement before the antebellum period in favor of an emphasis on day to day resistance or larger economic patterns.
The best presentation, Manisha Sinha's (Univ of Mass-Amherst) fantastic overview of historical representations of the abolition movement from historians of the 1940s and 50s who emphasized the fanaticism, idealism, impracticality, and responsibility of abolitionists for provoking Civil War and antagonizing practical antislavery politicians like the Republican party followed by the postCivil Rights era reevaluations of abolitionists as agents of bourgeois cultural imperialism, paternalistic racism, free labor capitalist boosterism, etc. Sinha effectively re-centers the radicalism of the abolitionists by looking wider at blacks and women in the movement and deeper back before the American Revolution; she restores them to the centrality of progressive change, a much needed corrective to historians who tend to dismiss the religiously motivated white northern busybodies. The final panelist, John Stauffer (Harvard, a Davis student also, published Black Hearts of Men on black and white abolitionist cooperation, a recent book on unionism in the secessionist South, etc) gave a presentation about his future work on the centrality of notions of friendship among social equals, a transgressive practice among abolitionists black and white when social equality would have prohibited such openly declared and practiced friendships.
After the panel ended at 5pm I strolled through the trade show. Imagine two hundred publishers, 600+ tables, 10000+ new books. They basically had to throw me out.
Last time I was in Boston was July 2007 and I walked the Freedom Trail with Salima, visiting all the colonial and Revolutionary highlights north of Boston Commons. This week I mostly would like to visit the two fine art museums, the MFA and Gardner, for quick tours after the convention closes. I also hope to see more of the city's 19th century architecture. Today, just a short walk around the hotel and convention center I spent some time before dark looking at Trinity Church (1872-77), Boston Public Library (1887-95), and Old South Church (1874-75). In the Back Bay, Downtown, and Beacon Hill neighborhoods, all within walking distance of the hotel, are several other municipal, religious, industrial or residential homes from the 19th century that I would like to see, especially some of the Bulfinch homes from the 1790s to the 1810s.