Skip to content


The official publication of the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS), the Journal of British Studies, has positioned itself as the critical resource for scholars of British culture from the Middle Ages through the present. Drawing on both established and emerging approaches, JBS presents scholarly articles and books reviews from renowned international authors who share their ideas on British society, politics, law, economics, and the arts. In 2005 (Vol. 44), the journal merged with the NACBS publication Albion, creating one journal for NACBS membership.

50th Anniversary: The Past, Present and Future of NACBS

Henry R. Winkler, University of Cincinnati

The Group that met at the NYU Faculty Club on the north side of Washington Square fifty years ago numbered some thirty British historians--in those days the Conference on British Studies included only historians. Some time later the group was transformed to be genuinely representative of the broader field of British Studies. Six of us from Rutgers were among the original members, but Ruth Emery and Sam McCulloch were by all odds the most active in organizing and promoting the Conference. In due time, after NYU's new Loeb Center was built, meetings were held there and eventually, of course, the CBS became the impressive North American Conference on British Studies with various regional branches that we know today.

One of the striking features of the early days was the large number of distinguished women scholars in the Conference's membership. Margaret Judson, Margaret Hastings, Mildred Campbell, Madeline Robinton, Helen Taft Manning, Caroline Robbins--all except Madeline Robinton were located at women's colleges, yet they were evidence, I think, that for a variety of reasons the British fields were more open to careers for women than most other areas of history or literature. And that receptivity has continued with the career choices of a substantial cadre of able and well trained young women. That in turn raises a major concern. The evidence seems clear that there has been a decline in interest in British Studies as a rapidly changing world has demanded attention to areas and issues hardly dreamed about few short years ago. As appointments shift into such fields--to say nothing of the downsizing that seems to be emulating current business practices--will women be disproportionately disadvantaged? It will require both information and vigilance to make sure that does not happen.

What have been a few of the trends observable in the years since the creation of the Conference? One certainly is the increased movement back and forth of British and American scholars--David Cannadine and Philip Williamson at this meeting, Roger Louis as the editor of the new Oxford History of the British Empire, one could add numerous examples. Occasionally one has heard whispers of "competition," but quite patently the movement is healthy for the discipline and clearly not to be deplored.

Perhaps not quite so fully as among American historians, there has been a major shift in our area away from what David Oshinsky has called "the public life of the nation to the private lives of citizens"--a liberating trend, to be sure. But I am sure you will attribute to my age the view that perhaps too frequently the new initiatives have been involved with the trivial and even the inconsequential.

Enough of that. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the recent Stansky Report both as analysis of our present condition and as prescription for the future. Its emphasis on the need for more flexible interdisciplinary approaches--both because they make pedagogical sense and as a survival technique--is right on the mark. Similarly, the Report's argument for the need to see British Studies themselves in a broader context needs to be taken seriously. To illustrate, it seems likely that the kind of history I have in a small way attempted--history which studies ideas about foreign policy in Britain, but with insufficient attention to the attitudes, history, and so on, of the world in which those ideas have developed, i.e. Europe, the U.S.--that kind of history is likely to be increasingly superseded by studies that will have to be richer in exploring the framework within which British foreign policy ideas have developed.

A final word. Quite aside from the intrinsic importance, in and of itself, of the scholarly exploration of the British past and its culture, most of us, I am sure, are convinced of its continuing relevance in the education of North American students, who know too little about the roots of their own ideas, assumptions, attitudes, prejudices--and for whom it can be a revealing component in the knowledge of the "external" world that is so deficient among them at the present time.

At any rate, it has been a fertile and productive fifty years for the NACBS. Let us hope that fifty years from now our successors will be able to say the same.

The Future of the NACBS
Muriel McClendon, University of California-Los Angeles

The NACBS can certainly prosper and thrive in its second fifty years of existence, and I see three areas in which it might concentrate its efforts.

First, the NACBS needs to pay closer attention to the interdisciplinarity implied in the organization's name. For a long time, conference panels have largely been populated by historians, with only occasional appearances by scholars from other disciplines. Even though efforts to cross disciplinary boundaries can be difficult and fraught with some suspicion on all sides, the fruits of such collaboration have proven more than worthwhile and the NACBS should be a leader in showcasing this type of work.

Second, the NACBS should continue to support and highlight research in newer fields of inquiry that have become the focus of considerable interest among scholars, but were not of central concern when the organization was founded. The annual conference program should continue to strike a balance between panels devoted to topics such as race and ethnicity, post-colonialism, gender and sexuality, family life and work , and those that focus on more traditional areas of study, as well as welcome explorations into new arenas of intellectual investigation.

Finally, the NACBS stands in an excellent position to take a cue from the Runnymede Trust's recent report on "The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain" which has interrogated the very concept of Britishness. This is not simply a matter of coping with changing times, but one of reflecting on the past of the organization, and of British studies in general. Recent NACBS meetings have devoted some discussion to the so-called "crisis in British studies." A decline in interest in Britain in favor of the study of the history, literature and philosophy of other parts of the world has sometimes been linked to the changing face of student populations and an accompanying "identity politics." However, as the NACBS looks to the future, its members must come to terms with the fact that the earlier centrality of British studies was also based on an identity politics, although one of a very different type.

The NACBS has already begun to take British Studies in new and exciting directions and should continue to do so.

Prospects: The Nation State, National Histories, and the North American Conference on British Studies
Chris Waters, Williams College

In September 1946, some four years before the establishment of the NACBS, Winston Churchill spoke at Zurich University. "If Europe were once united in the sharing of its common inheritance," he argued, "there would be no limit to the happiness, to the prosperity and glory which its three or four hundred million people would enjoy." In that speech, Churchill called for the establishment of a United States of Europe, although implicitly he excluded Britain from the entity for which he argued: "We British," he was quick to add, "have our own Commonwealth of Nations." But despite the Commonwealth, and despite the so-called "special relationship" with the United States, a little more than a quarter of a century after Churchill's Zurich address--with Churchill dead for less than a decade--Britain joined what is now the European Union. In 1992, in the Journal of British Studies, John Pocock likened the decision made by British governing elites in the 1960s and 1970s to that made by Scottish governing elites between 1688 and 1707: both, he argued, saw the writing on the wall; both realized that they could no longer maintain a fully independent national policy; both--to some extent reluctantly--saw the very future of their nation enmeshed in a larger geopolitical entity. Even before the adoption of the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, by which most member states of the EU committed themselves to monetary union, it can be argued that each member state, Britain included, had effectively ceased to exist as a fully sovereign, autonomous nation state--a point recognized by Tory Euro-sceptics and columnists for the Spectator better than most.

I begin my reflections this afternoon by mentioning this because it seems to me that as we enter a new century, one already marked by complex processes of globalization, the future of the nation state--in Europe in particular--is in question. And if the nation state is in question, then so obviously is the history in which the nation state has wrapped itself and through which it has justified its existence. As two members of our organization--Philippa Levine and our former president, Reba Soffer--have shown, the rise of history as a professional academic discipline in Britain towards the end of the nineteenth century cannot be separated from complex processes of state formation: on the one hand, the love of truth, objectivity, and the celebration of valuable continuities in national life were identified with the national character; on the other, a thorough understanding of the origins and development of the nation's remarkable political institutions, it was believed, would inspire communal ideals of service to the nation. But that nation is not as powerful as it once was, citizens of the United States certainly do not identify with it as much as they once did, and, I would suspect--for better or for worse--many younger members of this very organization believe there is much less to celebrate in Britain's past and present than did the founder-members of the North American Conference on British Studies fifty years ago, a topic itself worthy of historical investigation.

Now, obviously British history will always have a future in Britain, although the changes in the form taken by the nation itself, and in its relation to Europe and the larger world, will there too lead to changes in the way its past is taught. But in the United States--and I'm going to limit my comments to the United States rather than speak about North America as a whole--the place of the British past is even more uncertain than the future status of the United Kingdom itself. As the so-called Stansky Report makes abundantly clear, British history does not occupy the same position of importance in the US academy as it once did. Indeed, gone are the days when some worthy institutions employed three or four British historians; increasingly the norm is one, and in some institutions none. In other places, British history is being collapsed into European history, often against the backdrop of protest,--at times, ironically, similar in tone to the protests against the broader collapse of Britain into the EU. Survey courses in Western Civ. are giving way to new courses in global history--often very imaginative, like Stanford's "Ten Days that Shook the World"--while non-western history swallows up positions formerly allocated to Europeanists. There's no going back; nor, I think, should this organization try to do so. As one of our members John Gillis, wrote in a 1996 article in Perspectives--the newsletter of the AHA--on the teaching of European history, we should welcome the shift from national to transnational subjects: "It is time," he said, "to abandon the practices of enclosure that define history as a series of separate "fields", jealously guarded by overspecialized proprietors." Hurry up please, it's time.

What future, then, for our organization, an organization dedicated to promoting the study of a national history at a time when the very nation on which it lavishes its attention is coming unstuck and when the teaching of national history in the United States--save of course for the history of the US itself, in all its imperial might--is being challenged from numerous quarters an is in decline, except in the largest of the research universities? Already, I think, members of our organization have been grappling with some of these issues, leading to the emergence of what might be termed a uniquely North American historiography of Britain and of Britain in the wider world. Indeed, I would agree with Jonathan Clark's 1997 claim in the Historical Journal that the sorts of history being practiced in the two countries are becoming increasingly unlike each other--even if I disagree with the conclusions he draws from this. If we take some works written in the 1960s by major American historians of modern Britain--such as David Roberts's Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State (1960), David Owen's English Philanthropy 1660-1960 (1964), Peter Stanksy's Ambitions and Strategies: The Struggle for the Leadership of the Liberal Party in the 1890s (1964) or Sheldon Rothblatt's The Revolution of the Dons (1968)--I think it is difficult to identify these as uniquely American works. By contrast, if we consider those works that have influenced a younger generation of North American historians of modern Britain in the 1990s--Judith Walkowitz's City of Dreadful Delight (1992), Antoinette Burton's Burdens of History (1994), or the articles about nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain that appeared in the American Historical Review (and that one could hardly imagine appearing in the antediluvian English Historical Review)--I think we must agree that these works are informed by a number of concerns and practices that are more central to contemporary US, rather than British, society. In short, they "feel" very American. So, too, does the program for a conference taking place later this month at the Huntington Library, "A New Imperial History: Transculture, Commodities, and Identities in the First British Empire." So, too, do a number of comparative works recently published by American scholars, such as Jamie Bronstein's study of radical land reform plans in the first half of the nineteenth century in the US and Britain.

Some members of our organization no doubt lament the changes that have taken place; others do not. To borrow from Peter Novick's magisterial account of the transformation of the profession of history in the US, they are welcomed as a fresh breeze by some and viewed as acid rain by others. Some of our members would not be caught dead going to panels on topics such as "imperial masculinities"; others would stay well clear of panels with names like "Defenders and Critics of Church Rates in the Nineteenth Century." This worried me as program chair, for the increasing prominence of this new work on the program seemed to drive a number of wedges between different generational cohorts of NACBS members. Some years ago, Richard Hoggart published his collected essays under the title, Speaking to Each Other; I worried whether or not we were speaking to each other--indeed, whether or not it was still possible to speak to each other. At many times an NACBS conference feels like a happy family reunion. No doubt there are many of us here who have sometimes felt, to borrow from George Orwell, that it is a family with the wrong members in control, but a happy--and largely welcoming--family it remains. I wondered--and still wonder--whether or not this can remain the case, whether or not the very meaning of history as we now practice it has become so broad as to prevent useful dialogue among us.

Be that as it may, I would argue that much of the new work being done in North America and showcased each year at these meetings has reinvigorated the field and has led to a good deal of excitement about the "new British Studies," to borrow the title of a recent, special issue of the journal Representations. If in the past, some members of the NACBS resented British scholars coming to our meetings and lecturing us, former colonial subjects, on how to do things properly, I now wonder whether or not the tables might have been turned and an American intellectual imperialism, born of a conviction about the importance of the new work, has led many of us to tell some of our British colleagues what they should be doing. Nevertheless, one thing I do take pride in is the growing number of British historians of Britain on our program and the increasing trans-Atlantic dialogue that is taking place at our conferences, a dialogue in which we can speak to each other--or at least try to--across the ocean. Moreover, as national boundaries become more and more porous, so these very distinctions between an American and a British historian of Britain are themselves beginning to appear increasingly archaic, as indeed they should . More and more of us journey back and forth across the Atlantic like yo-yos, working here and living there, bridging differences and reinvigorating the field. We're all increasingly trans-Atlantic now and I think the NACBS has done a good job of both recognizing this and encouraging it. It bodes well for the future!

I'd like to conclude by returning to Orwell's family metaphor that I brought up before. I was often struck during my term as program chair by the cosy familiarity--dare I say insularity--of our organization, older and younger members alike. One year I might receive a proposal for a panel with John, Mary and Tom giving papers, Anne chairing, and Steve commenting; next year I would receive a proposal for a panel in which John chaired, Mary, Anne and Steve gave papers and Tom commented; then the next year...well, you get the point.... And this was the same whether or not the panel was concerned with topics the likes of imperial masculinities or Victorian debates about church rates. If our organization is going to continue to renew itself, we need to find better ways of attempting to become a body devoted to the promotion of a genuinely broad British studies, rather than a more narrow British history--especially given what I said in opening today about the future of the history of this particular nation state in the US. While I feel pleased about having opened up our annual meetings to more graduate students and also to more scholars based in Britain, I think I failed dismally in promoting a genuinely interdisciplinary British Studies, despite the success of some special panels, such as the one I asked Steve Pincus to organize several years ago on early modern British history and the new historicism. But we need to do much more. We need to reach out across disciplines more than we currently do; we need to reach out to work jointly with scholars in North America in the French Studies and German Studies Associations (and I gather that the annual conferences of the latter are extraordinary for their interdisciplinarity), largely because they also face many issues pertaining to the decline of national history that face us; and we need, perhaps most of all, to discuss what we are now doing in the classroom--how we teach the empire, or how we now mount "the survey course"--for it is here that some of the most creative reimagining of the field is taking place. The task we face now is not simply one of promoting British history, nor thinking about how best to enrich it by merely `borrowing' from outside of its immediate boundaries--nor, I might add, simply one of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest fad. Rather, we all need to put our heads together to redefine the whole enterprise. If we don't, I fear that our happy little family might shrink so much that we'll end up getting bored by each other.

Correction: the Pasadena panel included Professor Samuel C. McCulloch, University of California, Irvine. The BSI Editor wishes to apologize for erroneously reporting the death of Professor McCulloch in the printed edition of the Spring 2001 Intelligencer. Happily, Professor McCulloch remains with the British Studies community. The Editor deeply regrets this error and wishes to apologize for any embarrassment or distress this may have caused Professor McCulloch, his family or friends.

The NACBS presents the remarks from a plenary panel at the 2000 Annual Meeting in Pasadena.

Henry R. Winkler, University of Cincinnati

Muriel McClendon, University of California-Los Angeles

Chris Waters, Williams College