American History, British Historians: The Trans-Atlantic Perspective

By Grant, Susan-Mary | The Journal of Southern History, May 2005 | Go to article overview

American History, British Historians: The Trans-Atlantic Perspective


Grant, Susan-Mary, The Journal of Southern History


"What should they know of England," Rudyard Kipling famously asked, "who only England know?" In a recent U.S./U.K. collaborative volume devoted to exploring the enduring legacy of the American Civil War, Charles Joyner invoked the sentiment--and in some ways the context, given the ongoing debate over the Confederate flag--of Kipling's query when he observed that "any history studied only by insiders, or any history studied only by outsiders, is only half studied" (Joyner, "'Forget, Hell!': The Civil War in Southern Memory," in Susan-Mary Grant and Peter J. Parish, eds., Legacy of Disunion: The Enduring Significance of the American Civil War [Baton Rouge, 2003], 18). British academia's interest in the United States has a long history, and British scholars, as Michael J. Heale has noted, enjoy "the peculiar condition" of being "simultaneously members of two academic worlds, British and American, and have to give heed to both." In some ways, this mitigates the existence of any uniquely British approach to the study of the United States, something that Heale identified as a feature of the scholarship of the 1950s but already in decline twenty years later. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, he noted, that American history became popular in British universities, and initially the vast proportion of books and articles focused on "Atlantic history," with an emphasis on the "common democratic, libertarian, and cultural traditions" that the two nations shared. This approach defined the scholarship between 1945 and 1965, but since then, he suggested, it has been difficult, if not impossible, to detect any identifiable "British" angle on the subject (Heale, "American History: The View from Britain," Reviews in American History, 14 ]December 1986], 501-22 [quotations on pp. 501-2]).

The links between the British and American academic worlds have been strengthened over the years by the trans-Atlantic nature of the job market, with academics moving in both directions, but perhaps more so by the opportunities afforded by the World Wide Web. America's dominance of that medium, and more importantly the willingness of its government, its historical societies, and its various academic institutions to share substantial amounts of primary historical material through it, have transformed the research experience and opened up opportunities for scholars working on the British side of the Atlantic who may not live and work in geographic proximity to a major research library. Above all, the fact that virtually all British Americanists now seek to publish their research with American presses, which are both more committed to their subject and more professional at promoting it, makes it increasingly difficult to differentiate between an American and a British author, since both write for the same audience, in the same historiographical context, and, in light of the changes that the British academic world has undergone in the last two decades, under the same career pressures.

Although all these factors mitigate any identifiably British approach to the study of the United States, there are still distinguishing features that separate the British scholar from the American. The most obvious is that, even within the academic community, there is a far greater awareness of America in Britain than vice versa. …

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