The Author’s Corner with Matthew J. Clavin

Matthew J. Clavin is Associate Professor of History at University of Houston. This interview is based on his new book, Aiming for Pensacola (Harvard University Press, 2015).


JF: What led you to write Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: After receiving my Ph.D. in 2005, my first time full-time teaching job was in Pensacola, Florida, where shortly after arriving I began researching the city’s history. One day, while viewing a handful of antebellum-era newspapers, I was amazed by the number of runaway slave advertisements published in the local press. At times, these papers contained a dozen or more advertisements in a single issue and frequently on the front page, proving just how extensive the problem of runaway slaves was in this unique frontier town.  It wasn’t long before I decided that I had to tell the story of the generations of enslaved people who made the desperate bid for freedom in a part of the United States where the attainment of freedom was for most African Americans nearly impossible.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: This study proves that despite the legend of the Underground Railroad, fugitive slaves routinely ran south towards freedom, often with the assistance of their free African American, European American, and Native American allies. Because of its reputation as an enclave of diverse people and cultures, Pensacola was in the colonial, antebellum, and Civil War eras, a popular destination for many of these runaways who sought refuge on the city’s waterfront, which verged on a boundless world of ocean and sea, and the surrounding villages that opened into a vast expanse of forests, swamps, and streams.

JF: Why do we need to read Aiming for Pensacola?

MC: The book demonstrates that resistance to slavery was much more widespread than previously understood. Even in the Deep South, where slavery was deeply embedded in the culture and the cars and conductors of the Underground Railroad stopped only infrequently, African Americans and their allies resisted the white supremacist culture that slaveowners and other white elites imposed on the region. There has long been a tendency to read American history as the story of two oppositional regions: a non-racist North and a racist South. Having lived in southern cities most of my life, and now being a resident of Houston, TX, what many consider the most diverse city in the entire United States, I have always been motivated by my own personal experiences to challenge this interpretation by finding examples of interracial cooperation and collaboration in early Southern history. This book is a case in point.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MC: Though I’m sure they wouldn’t even remember me today, two truly extraordinary Jr. high school history teachers convinced me at an early age to become a teacher; however, it was while writing my senior thesis in college that I became enamored with the idea of research and writing history professionally, and I decided that I wanted toor rather needed tobecome a college professor. There is no other job on earth that I would enjoy more, though, truth be told, if any NBA team was interested in a 44-yr. old shooting guard I would definitely consider the opportunity.

JF: What is your next project?

MC: I am currently working on two major projects, though the one much closer to completion is a narrative history of the Battle of Negro Fort, a bloody conflict between hundreds of fugitive slaves, Indians, and American soldiers under the leadership of Andrew Jackson at an abandoned British fort in Spanish Florida in the aftermath of the War of 1812.

JF: Thanks, Matthew!

And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner


American Dreams

What did dreams mean for Americans before Sigmund Freud?  Andrew Burstein has tackled this subject in his forthcoming book, Lincoln Dreamt He Died: The Midnight Visions of Remarkable Americans from Colonial Times to Freud.  Here is a taste of a recent Burstein essay on the subject at Salon:

I have found in my research that while Americans claimed, even then, to be a practical-minded people, they were actually mired in superstition, haunted by their dreams, and no less delighted by the invention of the Ouija board than by the cotton gin. It is their unsupported claims to wisdom that adheres most to our ancestors, and renders them intensely interesting as historical subjects. After the American Revolution, dreamers did not immediately regard dream life as a form of autobiography. It took decades before they knew their dreams as we know our dreams – as a facet of longing for which the imagination serves as a delivery vehicle.

Today’s dream scientists speculate that the function of dreams may be to restore body and mind, helping the brain to manage threats and disturbances. They say that our remembering dreams may in fact be nothing more than an evolutionary fluke. For the cultural historian, however, studying the extant dreams of past societies holds out the promise of unearthing new clues to the collective identity of entire generations.

I feel comfortable in concluding that you cannot fully appreciate the 20th century’s fascination with psychoanalysis until you first appreciate the 19th century’s fascination with dreams. The road that brought them to Freud is paved with colorful imagery and soundscapes, hauntings, illusions and echoes of love. Their footprints may be gone from our world, but in these most personal of texts they still speak to us.

John Lukacs and the New Age of Historical Thinking

We are happy to feature a guest book review from Seth Bartee.  In addition to being a faithful reader of “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” Seth is a Ph.D student in Virginia Tech’s interdisciplinary ASPECT program. (In case you are wondering, ASPECT stands for “Alliance for Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought).  Seth is working on a study of post-war conservative intellectuals and the communities they formed.  Today he offers a review of John Lukacs’s recent work, The Future of History (Yale, 2011).  –JF

John Lukacs is one of the most remarkable figures of post-Second World War conservatism that many have never heard of.  He immigrated to the United States from Hungary after the Second World War and became associated with the founding post-war conservatives such as Russell Kirk.  Lukacs has remained geographically and intellectually close to conservatism’s most formidable intellectual organization, The Intercollegiate Studies Institute located in Wilmington, Delaware (formerly the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists). He taught at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, which solidified his relationship to the conservatives at ISI. Nevertheless, Lukacs remains unique because he created a truly distinctive kind of conservatism, which he terms “reactionary.”

At 87-years-old, Lukacs has recently published his 35th book, The Future of History.  It is a small book—seven chapters and an apologia–and serves as a rejoinder and an addition to another small book published in 2009 titled Last Rites, in which Lukacs attempted to cash out reactionary conservatism.

In an earlier book, Confessions of an Original Sinner, Lukacs defined a reactionary as someone who understands the more sublime, and often unpopular, elements of the age despite resistance. While this sounds somewhat gnostic, Lukacs assures us that an aspect part of a reactionary is understanding human limitations. “Near the end of an age there occurs a heavy accumulation of accepted ideas and institutionalized ways of thinking, against which thinking men and women must react,” he wrote.(Confessions, xiv). At the end of the modern age, Lukacs thinks that a bonafide conservatism should preserve this reactionary element of society. Therefore, he aligns himself with bourgeoisie thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt and lesser-known literary types, Gyula Krudy and Agnes Repplier who were reactionaries in their own right. Similar to well-known historian Hayden White, Lukacs’ hero is the historically-minded literary figure.  This explains his fascination with Winston Churchill and George Kennan as genuine reactionaries too. What is worth conserving, Lukacs demonstrates over and again, is the perspective of the outsider.

Two key themes resonate throughout The Future of History. First, post-humanism is now the most formidable opponent of conservatism, both intellectually and politically. Second, our fascination with history has seeped into our very blood. This is the birth of what Lukacs terms historical man. Historical man, consciously or not, finds the past always illuminating the present. Lukacs demonstrates why historians must recognize the very humanistic elements of historical man, and the historicity of the process of thinking and writing.

In the first two chapters, Lukacs delves into the idea of historical consciousness, which is an ongoing theme he has kept throughout his career. Historical consciousness is exactly as it sounds; it is historical thinking or thinking historically. He dates the rise of historical consciousness sometime after the Renaissance. The concept is important because it serves as a compass for humans to understand their place in the world. Historical consciousness is also heavily laden, according to Lukacs, with the merits of the thinking about class from a European bourgeois perspective (again the understanding of place and limitations).  It is somewhat Dickensian too. (We might think about Dickens’ protagonist David Copperfield in the novel David Copperfield to better grasp Lukacs on European bourgeoisie perspective of class). From the first two chapters we can conclude that the work of the historian is more difficult than ever because historians can no longer be sure what exactly history is because history seeps into everything.

In the following three chapters (3-5), Lukacs explores how history and literature intertwine in the historical age. Here too his idea of historical consciousness is always present. Human —despite claims of the possibility of objectivity—are always and forever creating and participating. Therefore, literature has become a branch of history because thinking historically is automatic. Lukacs, however, does not fall into relativism despite the obvious blurred lines. He is merely claiming the process of history is beautifully, imperfectly human. For those familiar with the works of classical pragmatic philosophers William James and John Dewey (especially Dewey’s late career opus Art as Experience) Lukacs idea of the human experience as intrinsically aesthetic is Pragmatic in many respects.

In chapter five, Lukacs explores the historical novel. A new kind of genre has arrived that is neither history nor literature. Accordingly, he cites a short list of “historical fiction” that mix, and often confuse, fact and fiction. It seems, although sometimes confusing, that the new genre he describes is a kind of thick descriptive effort aimed at illuminating the inner lives of people from the past, maybe even illuminations of memory as well. We can deduce that Lukacs believes presentism and anachronism is a serious problem that historians still have not dealt with successfully. However, his solution is not more crackdowns on plagiarism but the recognition that the derivation of fact and fiction have changed dramatically at the end of the modern age. It is still too early to know what this shift means

There is more going on here than immediately meets the eye. Lukacs believes that the historian is the new philosopher; and that is a prominent theme in chapters six and seven. In past books, Lukacs has made the point that historians do philosophy on a daily basis. Whenever a historian seeks to understand antiquity, the history of ethics, science, the nation state, and so on, they are doing and making philosophic claims of the most intricate kind. This is evidenced in the work of contemporary intellectual historians such as George Cotkin, Casey Nelson Blake, James Kloppenberg, Wilfred McClay and the founders of the U.S. Intellectual History blog (Drs. Tim Lacy, Andrew Hartman, David Sehat, Raymond Haberski, and Paul Murphy among others) who work on ideas which are, at their core, philosophically motivated. At the 2010 U.S. Intellectual History Conference in New York, David Steigerwald, serving as one of the speakers in a plenary titled “Intellectual History for What?,” said that intellectual historians are always “trespassing” into areas where they do not necessarily belong. In the so-called Age of Information, who is better to ask existential questions than historians? This  is precisely Lukacs’ assertion.

In the sixth chapter, Lukacs chides American liberal historians for forcing a singular tradition on America but not for the reasons one might think. His argument is an epistemological one. Lukacs’ participant theory of knowledge is a belief that people have agency over ideas first. Historians often downplay what people do with ideas, he thinks. Meaning, it did not matter if America had a sophisticated liberal tradition because historians like Russell Kirk made conservatism American. And, that Marxists make Marxism, not the other way around. In the “Future of the Profession,” he says, “Our problems are different now. We may face new structures of events or ideas: perhaps not so much what people think and believe but why? and how? and when? –that last of these three questions having become as important as the other two,” he writes (157).

Having outlived the first generation of modern American conservatives, Lukacs gives us a glance into how they might have changed after postmodernism became the new reality. In the final chapter titled, “Tradition, Inheritance, Imagination,” he situates modern conservatism as a product of the waning European Age, which ended around 1950 or so. In other words, certain men and women realized that some thing was worth conserving from the past, the European past specifically. That thing he finds worth conserving is a certain kind type of consciousness and humanism that emanated from the European Age. We might call it the historical literary imagination, and, or, many other things too. Assuredly, this is more than a cry for a past relic. It is now a divide, he opines. “Let me repeat Wendell Berry’s chilling but truly provocative thought: that the future may be divided between men who think of themselves as machines, and men who think of themselves as creatures” (169).

Correspondingly, Lukacs offers a concluding message just for historians. History is no longer just the recorded past. It is the remembered past also. Although counterfactual history may have taken a beating in the recent past, Lukacs says all historians are in the business of speculation. In fact, speculation is the driving force behind history. It is speculation, too, that is the best weapon against post-humanism, which is rooted in social-scientific bureaucratic historiography. A properly grounded methodology is the product of imagination/speculation. The speculative imagination too, is worth preserving.  “Professional historians, perhaps even more than others, must recognize that the condition, indeed the very nature, of history knowledge is not “scientific” knowledge, not mechanically casual, and not determined” (p.172).