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Interview with 2017 Stansky Prize Co-Winner Laura Beers

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Laura Beers, Stansky Prize 2017 Co-Winner

American University and University of Birmingham
Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist (Harvard University Press, 2016)

How did you become interested in this topic? 

After I finished my first book on the Labour party and the mass media, I had initially intended to write a history of women and the British party system. I was reaching that book when I came across Ellen Wilkinson’s press clipping collection, which is held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester. I “knew” Ellen Wilkinson from my work onYour Britain, as she had been an active proponent of Labour’s pursuing a modern mass media strategy in the 1920s and 1930s, and had served as party chairman during Labour’s landslide general election campaign in 1945. However, the woman whom I encountered through the pages of her clippings’ books was a revelation. In addition to being a remarkably media savvy politician, she was an inveterate traveler and consummate internationalist, and her career in the international socialist movement was as impressive as her domestic work as a champion of the dispossessed. (Wilkinson is most famous for leading the 1936 Jarrow Crusade of unemployed men from her constituency in Jarrow to the Palace of Westminster to petition, unsuccessfully, for relief for the distressed areas.) I was fascinated by how these two pieces of Wilkinson’s career fit together, and how she understood socialism as both a British and an international project. My passion for the press clippings led me to abandon the broader project and throw my full energy into researching what would become Red Ellen

Did any specific elements of your training as an historian prove to be useful to this project?

Early on in my career as a PhD student, I acted as a research assistant putting together primary source collections for a course on the British empire. The experience meant sitting in the basement of Widener library trawling through hard copies of Hansardand the British Parliamentary Papers, and my resulting facility with those sources has proved invaluable in much of my subsequent archive work.  It also taught me to be a detective 

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?

The Labour and Communist Party collections in the People’s History Museum were unsurprisingly huge resources, as were the TUC collections at the Modern Records Centre, and the Women’s Library, which is now at the LSE (when I started the project, it was still held in Whitechapel). In terms of personal collections which offered a glimpse of the private Ellen, Robin Page Arnot, Winifred Horrabin and Winifred Holtby’s papers at the Hull History Centre were great finds, as were letters from Ellen to Nancy Astor.  

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?

The first time that I went to the Hull History Centre to read through Page Arnot’s papers, an archivist asked me what I was researching and then told me that they had boxes of uncatalogued papers from Wilkinson’s first biographer, Betty Vernon. The Vernon boxes ended up containing typescript notes from interviews that she had done with scores of men and women, now dead, who had known Wilkinson personally!

Did you encounter any unexpected problems or difficulties with your sources?

My principal difficulty with my sources was that – other than the press clippings – Wilkinson had no private papers. Her brother had burned all of her papers after her death, which meant that, while Wilkinson had a huge published archive, if I wanted to track down her private voice, I had to hunt for traces of her in the archives of her friends and colleagues. Fortunately, my husband jokes that I am detective manqué,and I became obsessed with tracking down traces of Wilkinson in archives throughout Britain.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Find a project that you are really passionate about, even if the topic isn’t super trendy. Red Ellenultimately took over seven years to write and if I hadn’t been totally obsessed with the project, I could not have seen it through.    

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

Your Britainwas published shortly before I was married. In contrast, Red Ellen came out just after my second son was born. Finding the time and mental space to research and write a book as a mother on the tenure track is hard, and I was extremely lucky in the support that I had along the way.    

Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

Red Ellen came out at a time when the Labour party was seriously rethinking its future direction, and I like to think that, for some of the people who read it, the picture that it painted of the early twentieth-century socialist left, and particularly of the left’s relationship to Europe, was provocative in inspiring their own thinking about Labour’s present and future. The project also came out near the centenary of women’s enfranchisement and contributed to the renewed attention to women’s contribution in politics. I like to think that Red Ellenhas played a role in the city of Middlesbrough’s decision to erect a statue to the woman who served as MP for Middlesbrough East from 1924-1931. 

How do you hope your work contributes to the historiography?

I hope that the book serves as a reminder of how integrated many early Labour activists were in the international socialist movement, and of the fact that not all female socialists were hostile to the suffrage movement and organized feminism. Ellen Wilkinson was one of the great “Labour worthies” of the Attlee generation, but her understanding of socialism was by no means limited to realizing opportunities for Britain’s male breadwinners.  

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

I’m sticking with politics, but branching out into a new project on the politics of infertility in modern Britain. I’m interested in what debates over funding for research and treatment for infertility can tell us about British society more broadly in the modern period – how the social is constituted, who’s included, who’s excluded, what’s the relationship between the individual and the state? It’s a new departure for me, and has me sitting in medical archives, and reading back issues of the British Medical Journal, and I am really enjoying it!



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For more information on Empire of Guns visit the publisher’s website here.


I did not set out to write a history of the industrial revolution, though the sources of global inequality have long intrigued me. Indeed, my graduate student career began with a master’s degree in development economics at the London School of Economics. When I became frustrated with the way economics as a discipline took context—existing global disparities—for granted, I decided to pursue a PhD in history instead. As a history student at UC Berkeley, I took Brad de Long and Barry Eichengreen’s course in economic history alongside first-year PhD economics students. I did an exam field in economic history.

After my first book, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Origins of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East (OUP, 2008), I resolved to study the history of arms trading to integrate economic questions into my understanding of imperial state power. While searching for the beginnings of that story, I stumbled on the Farmer-Galton family, owners of the largest gun-making firm in eighteenth-century Britain. They were the forefathers of the eugenicist Francis Galton, whose traits he cherished as the sources of his own, hereditary genius. Curiously, apart from one article in Business History,historians had not shared Francis’s curiosity about his ancestors.

This was especially curious given that the Farmer-Galtons were Quakers and gun-makers. Indeed, the endogamous Quaker marriage networks that produced Francis Galton helped persuade him of the virtue of carefully selected reproduction. Even more curious was the fact that the gun business the family started in 1702 attracted no negative comment within Quaker networks until the 1790s, when, suddenly, it became a scandal.  

I made for the Galton papers in the Birmingham City Archives to make sense of these mysteries, and, to my surprise, discovered a new possible narrative of the industrial revolution. For, in defending his gun-making business to concerned fellow Quakers in 1796, Samuel Galton Junior argued that there was no way to participate in the economy around him in the Midlands without contributing to war. As he saw it, complicity in war was general and inescapable. Galton printed his defense for posterity; even if he was rationalizing, he was in earnest. 

I wondered, what if he was right? What if, in fact, Britain’s continuous wars from 1689 to 1815, which made it the preeminent global imperial power, had some bearing on the fact that the industrial revolution happened there, then? Was this a clue to that old mystery—the origins of global inequality, that hinge moment known as the “great divergence” between East and West? 

So, I wound up writing about the industrial revolution by accident. Samuel Galton Junior may have been a white rabbit; but the stakes of the question made it worth my while to go down the rabbithole and retrain as a historian of the eighteenth century. 

I had never been quite satisfied by the idea that some unique British cultural trait could explain why the industrial revolution happened there; the contextual factors that produced such traits existed across a wider space than Britain. I found more compelling explanations that reckoned with the specificities of the British context: for instance, Maxine Berg’s argument that the industrial revolution was the outcome of a British effort at “import-substitution” to produce imitations of Asian luxury goods. 

But as I explored Galton’s perspective, I became increasingly convinced that explanations of industrial revolution based on commercial demand were insufficient; there were too many government officials involved in knowledge networks, too much overlap between commercial and government demand, and too many instances in which large government contracts triggered innovation in either technology or industrial organization. The state was a consumer, too, and many commercial consumers, like the East India Company, were tied to the state.

The gun industry provided the focus of my assessment of Galton’s view of the world. I examined the records of gun-makers in London and Birmingham, records of the London and Birmingham Quaker communities, government and parliamentary records relating to contracting and the gun trade abroad, East India Company records, and a wide array of sources on gun use in eighteenth-century Britain and in British colonies abroad. 

All this persuaded me that the gun industry’s dramatic transformation in the long eighteenth century—from an annual production capacity of tens of thousands in the 1690s to millions by 1815—was driven by state demand and intervention. Moreover, the gun industry had important ripple effects in allied fields. In short, the guns that enabled the rule of property in Britain, the trade in slaves in West Africa, the rise of the plantation system in North America, and the conquest of North America, South Asia, and the South Pacific alsoenabled industrial revolution in Britain.

As I immersed myself in the literature on the industrial revolution, I found scattered within it evidence that the gun trade was no anomaly, that many trades and sectors benefited from government contracts in the long eighteenth century—including the financial world. The Galtons themselves became bankers in 1804, as their fortune from gun making skyrocketed during the Napoleonic Wars. Their bank later merged with what became Midland Bank, now folded into HSBC. When Galton defended himself as a Quaker gun-maker in 1796, he was painfully aware that his prominent Quaker relations, the Lloyds and the Barclays, owned banks intimately involved with war finance; indeed, the Lloyds had also supplied iron to his gun business. The ties between banks and war-related industry suggest that we may have drawn too fine a line between industrial and “gentlemanly” capitalism. After all, like many metal objects in the period, guns were a currency, too.

Their prominence in the abolition movement made Quakers especially concerned with members’ adherence to Quaker principle in the 1790s. They were not persuaded by Galton Junior’s pragmatic arguments. He was formally disowned—although he continued to attend the worship in Birmingham, and his donations to Quaker charitable causes were accepted. Later Quakers looked more favorably upon his defense, and he was certainly not alone in his own time in perceiving a connection between arms-making and industrialism. Indeed, British officials in India were so alive to such a connection that they actively suppressed Indian arms-making to prevent industrial take-off in the subcontinent. The story of Britain’s industrial revolution was global in its sources and impact; the Galtons showed me the hinge.

We have missed it for as long as we have—despite our awareness that war has stimulated economic growth in other periods—because of the weight of eighteenth-century political economic theory. For, as military contracting drove economic transformation in Britain, political economists like Adam Smith criticized it as corruption, urging clearer distinction between state and economy. Theory displaced reality, and the period’s military history and economic history evolved along parallel lines. The story of military purchasing shows us that these histories were not parallel or even merely intersecting, but deeply entangled. The state’s bulk demand was critical to industry in the long eighteenth century. 

The industrial revolution is an epic topic of British history—one of the reasons for the field’s depth and strength. But the common-sense view of it remains one of heroic entrepreneurship embodied by the likes of Matthew Boulton and James Watt—a view with deep imaginative influence on conversations about what drives innovation today and what role governments should have in economies. Certainly, Boulton and Watt were heroic, but they were also government contractors mixed up with gun-makers. That is the crucial backdrop that Empire of Guns inserts into the story, with the hope of changing our common-sense view of this world-historical event. 

Doing so can help us make better sense of our present discontents. After all, Galton Junior printed his defense for posterity—for us. As Americans struggle to tame the gun industry’s influence on politics and culture, we must do so well aware of the central place of military- (or “defense-”) industries in our economy. By focusing on Galton Junior’s particular villainy, the British Quaker community absolved Friends who profited more elliptically from war. But Galton was right: war was central to the first industrial revolution, and it remains central to our industrial way of life today.

Priya Satia is a Professor of Modern British History at Stanford University.


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Q&A with Thomas W. Laqueur

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Q&A with Thomas W. Laqueur

Helen Fawcett Professor of History, University of California Berkeley

Winner of the 2016 Stansky Book Prize for

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton University Press, 2015)


How did you become interested in this topic?

 I have always been interested in death but my academic engagement began when I was a graduate student almost fifty years ago and read about the deaths and funerals of students in the Stockport Sunday School Memorial Book from the early nineteenth century. I used evidence from this source in the book in 2016.

Did any specific elements of your training as an historian prove to be useful to this project?

The Princeton of my graduate student days encouraged thinking big and eclectically.  My teachers—Lawrence Stone and Tom Kuhn in particular—had big theoretical and empirical  stakes in their work. At Oxford I had the privilege of working different sorts with historians who had a deep and intimate knowledge of local particularities. I think I had the best two worlds. 

Which archives and/or collections did you find most helpful?

When I began to work on what became my book I wrote to every local history archive and local record office in England. I must have picked up magpie like something from scores of them. As the project progressed new libraries and archives suggested themselves; archaeological reports at the Museum of London and the archives of the Imperial War Graves Commission and the Imperial War Museum for example.  I must in the end of visited nearly a hundred archives and libraries and picked up something useful in most of them.

Did you make any particularly important archival findings? Was there a moment when you felt like you had achieved a breakthrough in your research?

The breakthrough in this project as in all of work came when I was able to recognize and articulate clearly the historical problem that had been motivating me without my being able to say precisely how and why. There were of course moments when an archive opened up a new avenue of thought and research but the really important moment came when I recognized that the question I had been pursuing was at once foundational—why do we care for the dead—and locally specific—why do we care for the dead in particular places and ways at particular moments.

Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?

My work has always engaged other disciplines. Historical anthropology dominates my most recent book; my college major in philosophy and continued engagement with certain figures—Hume most importantly but also others—informs all my work; medicine and biology were essential to the two before my latest. (I spent eighteen months in medical school to gear up for them.)  And two of my closest intellectual soul mates—Catherine Gallagher and Steve Greenblatt—are  English.

Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?

Three things:

 1. Think concretely. What do you really want to know and how might you find out? Begin there and not with some claim you want to “prove.”

2) Also think broadly. A great German historian who had been a student in Meinecke’s famous Berlin seminar before the Great War and had retired from Berkeley took me aside my first week here as a twenty seven year old assistant professor and told me that “the task of the historian is to connect the particular with the cosmic.’ I tell that to my students.

3) Heed the pleasure principle. Your work should be fun.

What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?

 Figuring out what it was about.

 What was your most surprising revelation or important conclusion?

That while there are all sorts of religious and metaphysical reasons to care for the dead and that people in many instances act on these they are neither sufficient or necessary to explain the role of the dead in human affairs. The dead matter whatever one actually believes about them.

 Does your project have any particular relevance to the contemporary—political, social, cultural, etc.?

 Not a week seems to go by when there is not some news story about the destruction of graves, the naming of the dead, the building of memorials or some related topic.

What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?

I am working on a book about why dogs matter to humans. I begin with art.  This is a wholly new project. I am also starting to work with Seth Koven on a book about the history of humanitarianism that builds on some earlier articles. 

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Interview with Susan Kingsley Kent

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An Interview with Susan Kingsley Kent, author of A New History of Britain Since 1688: Four Nations and an Empire. 

1) What prompted you to write this textbook? How does the process of writing a textbook differ from other forms of scholarly work?

There is nothing like writing a textbook for learning things. The process of building an outline alone compels one to think anew about familiar material and that can be exhilarating. Textbook writing is not like other scholarly writing.  Rather than presenting an overarching argument based on primary sources and original research, as one would in a monograph for example, the textbook writer offers an overarching perspective that enables her or him to organize vast amounts of information that other people have already produced.  Certainly the textbook writer is creating new knowledge, but is doing so by recasting material rather than discovering it anew.

2) The subject matter in a book like this, especially a text that incorporates both a “four nations” approach and the empire, is huge! What was your strategy for boiling down such a massive amount of history into one discrete volume?

As a wise friend once told me, the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  The key is to focus on one chapter at a time. It’s not always possible, however, and when it isn’t things get gnarly. Then it’s time to go back to your outline, to recover your sense of the book as a whole in order to figure out how a particular chapter fits.

3) How did you decide on the basic organization and themes of the book?   

It didn’t start out this way, but very early on in the process the campaign for Scottish independence kicked into high gear, and that set the stage for how I saw the book.  I wanted to complicate the story of “Britishness” as set out by such scholars as Linda Colley, to present the relationship of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England as contested and challenging and then to bring in empire to complicate the narratives even further. 

4) What role do you envision your textbook serving in a Modern British History survey course? How can instructors best utilize a text like this in the classroom?

I hope Four Nations and an Empire will become a standard text for British survey and British empire courses. In order to include the empire and nations beyond England I had to leave out detailed coverage of many conventional topics. That leaves room for teachers to focus more tightly on topics, if they wish to do so. But those omissions, I think, also speak pointedly to the English-centric nature of most “British” history texts, and that is well worth exploring in classes.

5) How does this textbook set itself apart from other histories of Britain? 

The most obvious difference is the integration of Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and empire into what has conventionally been English history masquerading as British history.  By taking those other nations and colonial territories seriously as important players, the history we thought we knew changes considerably.  I find it far more interesting, frankly.

6) This book was published relatively recently (February of 2016), but it feels like so much has happened since then! Do you intend to make a second edition and, if so, will Brexit affect your narrative in any way? On a more general level: how responsive should our textbooks be to recent events?

 I think it vital to produce a second edition that will take Brexit into account.  Everything will be different for Britons now, and all kinds of questions will arise—will Scotland become independent in the aftermath of Brexit?  What will happen to the Northern Ireland peace accord?  Is there any possibility that a united Ireland might emerge from the debacle of Brexit?  How will young people in all the four nations respond to what looks to me to be a shrinking of opportunities for them and for Britain in the world at large. 

On the more general question, I believe textbooks have to be attuned to recent events.  On the most practical level, they are what students know; they provide the backdrop to the way they view the world.  More philosophically, I don’t think it’s possible for any of us to produce scholarship that doesn’t reflect in some manner—perhaps in some deep dark recess of our minds—the world in which we walk around. 

7) What advice would you give to other scholars who are thinking about writing a textbook in their area of expertise?

Do it: you will learn a ton. Get a good editor: I had one of the best in Charles Cavaliere at OUP.  Be kind to yourself:  there will be moments when you tear your hair out.

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Adam_Hochschild.jpgRenowned author Adam Hochschild’s most recent work To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011) presented a heartbreaking tale of the mass slaughter of the First World War and a sympathetic portrayal of those who opposed the conflict. In this Q&A, he gives his thoughts on the book and offers his perspective on the role of the publicly engaged historian. 

Stephen Jackson: What was it about the subject that inspired you to write it, and what would you argue was your most important contribution to the historical discussion on the First World War?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always been deeply fascinated by those who resisted the First World War, ever since I read a biography of Bertrand Russell as a teenager, and then later Sheila Rowbotham’s work on Alice Wheeldon. To have had the courage to speak out so boldly when there was such jingoism in the air deeply impressed me. I also found a very strong echo in those times of something I had been deeply involved in: the movement against the Vietnam War here in the United States. Then, too, a war divided members of families from each other; hence I was intrigued to see the divided families of Britain in 19141918, and used that as a narrative structure for my book. In the Vietnam era, too, we had an epidemic of government spying on citizens—when much later, using the Freedom of Information Act, I was able to get the records of surveillance on me by the FBI, CIA and military intelligence, they amounted to more than 100 pages and I was a very small fish in that movement. Hence it fascinated me to read the government surveillance records from Scotland Yard and military intelligence on the UK dissenters of 19141918. I felt I was seeing at work the same mindset as that of the FBI agents who reported on me.

I’m by no means the first person to write about those brave British dissenters. I certainly hope my book, and those of others, helps put them in the foreground as we remember the war. Paradoxically, most people today would agree that the First World War remade the world for the worse in almost every conceivable way, yet all our traditional ways of remembering it parades, monuments, museums, military cemeteries celebrate those who fought and not those who refused to fight.

Stephen Jackson: In the years since the publication of the work, what sort of feedback from the scholarly community and the general public did you receive? How do you think that contemporary events, especially a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, shaped the response to your work?

Adam Hochschild: I’ve always believed that you can write for a general audience and at the same time meet the highest scholarly standards for accuracy and the documenting of sources. This book got good reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; at the same time many university history departments have been kind to me. I was writer-in-residence at the history department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst this past spring and will be doing a speaking tour of some half dozen campuses in the US and Europe this fall, talking about the war.

I’ve also heard from several descendants of people mentioned in the book one of the great pleasures of writing history, I’ve found. And sometimes, unexpectedly, I’ve heard from other people as well who are connected to this patch of history. After the book came out, an American mining company official whom I’d met a few years before in a godforsaken village in eastern Congo, wrote me that in 1917 his grandfather, a conscientious objector, had been hanged in effigy in his home town in Iowa.

And yes, I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show what tragic mistakes one can make by not studying history more closely. How similar the illusion of President George W. Bush when he landed on that aircraft carrier in 2003 in front of the sign “Mission Accomplished” to the illusion of Kaiser Wilhelm II when he told his troops in August, 1914: “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” 

Stephen Jackson: This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. What do you think is or should be the place of conscientious objectors and leftist anti-war activists in the public memory of World War I?

Adam Hochschild: None of these people were perfect, but on the central issue of their time, they were essentially right, and should be honored. Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the war to die 5 years ago, at 111 said it best: the war “was not worth it. It was not worth one life, let alone all the millions.” 

Stephen Jackson: How can scholars teaching undergraduate or graduate courses in British History or Modern European History incorporate non-traditional themes such as anti-war activism into lessons on the Great War?

Adam Hochschild: There are rich primary sources: the writings and speeches of outspoken war opponents, like Bertrand Russell and E.D. Morel in Britain, or Jane Addams and Eugene V. Debs in the United States. Periodicals that these anti-war movements published. Letters and memoirs by war resisters who went to prison, not just in the U.S. and Britain, but in other countries as well. I hope someone is thinking of pulling a collection of material like this together into a reader! And there are fine secondary sources as well. That list could be a long one, but I’ll just mention Jo Vellacott’s Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War, a careful, well-written book I learned a lot from. 

Stephen Jackson: The 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said historians can “merely tell how it really was,” and should not judge the past nor attempt to give moral guidance for the present.  To End All Wars, and your work more generally, compellingly does just that. How would you describe your underlying philosophy for writing history? What role do you think that the historian — as an historian — should play in engaging in contemporary political and ethical discussions?

Adam Hochschild: Well, I’m certain in favor of telling it how it was and with the highest possible standards of accuracy. In real life, seldom are one’s heroes totally heroic or one’s villains totally villainous. In To End All Wars, for instance, the fiery pacifist Charlotte Despard had a kind of knee-jerk far-left reaction to everything that would have made her difficult to talk to, although I agree with her about the war. But her brother, Field Marshal Sir John French, though he exemplified the worst type of unthinking generalship in the field, seems to have been a warm-hearted person of great charm whom it would have been delightful to spend an evening with. One should enjoy such paradoxes and not try to deny them.

But beyond that, I think sometimes an historian can provide something that’s relevant to contemporary political discussions without having to hit people over the head with it. In my book, for example, I don’t talk about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. But whenever I give a talk about the First World War, the first question anybody asks is: do you see an analogy? 

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