More than a half-century ago, the Cornell Daily Sun interviewed me as an exemplar of a graduating senior with no idea of what to do for the remainder of his/her life. I don’t think I ever knew, and I certainly don’t remember, why and how the reporter chose to feature me. Yet the article’s premise was not wrong. My father had been an attorney, and although I felt no great attraction to the profession, by default it seemed the most likely career path for me to follow. I reflexively decided to major in political science (government at Cornell) because friends and family told me it was appropriate. Besides, the government department at Cornell had a sterling reputation (I was ignorant of its politics). I never changed my major. To do so required more effort than I was willing to expend.
Category: Formation Essay
I learnt the scholar’s craft through my membership of the British Communist Party (BCP). Born into a working-class family in Deptford, London, I joined the party and the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1969, aged 17. Crucial to that life-changing decision was the party’s opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Like many idealists of my generation I was captivated by the Prague Spring and Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubček’s slogan of ‘socialism with a human face.’ I was also moved by the Czechoslovak people’s peaceful resistance to the invasion, which I found far more edifying than rioting bourgeois students in Paris.
I went to college in 1972 and I had no idea I would eventually specialize in history. I had grown up in families with a decent, though not high, degree of education. My mother and my grandmothers were well-read, the men less so. To all of them, the intellectual world was a fascinating but distant one, and they had a reverential respect for it. In the upward mobility ethos that defined urban middle class (and working-class!) life in 1950s and 1960s Italy, I was brought up to imagine no other future for me but a professional one based on university education. I was not too proficient in the hard sciences, though, and my struggle with math was a hopeless one. Thus, I enrolled in a four-year degree in Humanities, which at the time meant primarily Literature, Philosophy and History, at the University of Torino.
Some historians study the past because they are fascinated by how different it is from the world they are living in, others do so because they want to understand that world better. I am one of the latter sort, which is a good part of the explanation for my choice to work in the field of American history when I had the opportunity to pursue further study after receiving my BA from Cambridge in 1962. The United States loomed large in the world in which I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. It was clearly a much more powerful player in global politics than my own country, Great Britain, and so its actions had a greater significance. Beyond that, it figured prominently in our own lives. We read in our newspapers and heard on the radio a good deal about American politics and culture. America was both the source and the setting of many of the films and books that stirred my imagination. So the United States was not only more important geopolitically than Britain, it also seemed more interesting. I saw it as somewhat romantically exotic but at the same time, through the shared language, apparently more accessible to being learnt about and understood than other foreign countries.
I grew up in a small town named Jackson (population about 2,000) in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Northern California. My father was a car salesman and my mother was what used to be called a ‘homemaker.’ The town was in the middle of ‘Gold Rush country.’ The two gold mines on the outskirts of town, the Kennedy and the Argonaut, yielded some of the most impressive amounts of gold in the country, until they were shut down during World War II. My maternal great-grandparents arrived in Jackson in the early 1850s from Italy. The next two generations of grandfathers worked in the mines.
I arrived in New York Harbor in the autumn of 1942 as part of a group of 100 Jewish refugee children from France. We were off-loaded furtively at night after the immigration officials made themselves scare. Once ashore we were dispersed to orphanages. I had been kicked around and was in poor health and stunted in growth. To assist in my adoption the agency assigned me a birth date commensurate with my size. It worked. I was quickly adopted by a Jewish couple who had married in 1927 and were unable to have children. They were wonderful parents and I was extraordinarily fortunate in every step of my war-time journey, especially the final one.
I was born of working-class, French-and-English-speaking, Catholic parents on 14 December 1941 at French Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. When they were youngsters in the late twenties at the onset of the rural economic depression, my parents, Pearl Roy and Burnett Kimball, had separately fled rural Avoyelles Parish (north of Baton Rouge) in search of a better life in the Crescent City. They later met during at a dance party of fellow and sister economic refugees in the city’s Ninth Ward. At the time, both worked at the Chase Bag Co. factory on the west bank of the Industrial Canal, which links Lake Pontchartrain with the Mississippi River. After they married, they ran a small start-up grocery in the Mid-City district but could not make a success of it. My father then went to a welding school just before U.S. entry into the Second World War and subsequently worked constructing Liberty and Victory Ships at the Poland Ave. dock on the Mississippi riverfront. He later became a union foreman for Dixie Machine Welding and Metal Works, repairing and upgrading cargo ships berthed on the river. My mother worked outside the home at varying intervals at Chase Bag Co. and Morrison Cafeteria. My grandmother, Lydia, stayed at home doing house chores, cooking, and caring for the three young children.
Chance seems to have played a very big part in the accounts of fellow historians who have been writing reflective pieces for H-Diplo on their formative years. So it has been for me. But I am aware that chance and serendipity are less likely to shape the careers of younger scholars today, for the formal and informal demands upon young scholars are much more relentless. A while ago, I gave an informal talk to a group of young female scholars, post docs and lecturers in Humanities and Social Scientists based at ETH Zurich. They were genuinely shocked that I had not paid more systematic attention to my career trajectory and ambitions. It made me rather embarrassed, but also very grateful that the cards had fallen in the unplanned way they did.
My home town in Texas has two claims to fame. Cotulla, founded in 1881 and located halfway between San Antonio and Laredo, quickly became notorious for its feuds, shootouts, and murders: it was, the El Paso Times reported five years later, “the toughest place” in the state. In due course, though, it settled down, and by 1928 when the twenty year old Lyndon B. Johnson arrived to teach in its segregated “Mexican” school, Cotulla was on the way to earning its second claim—its very own chapter in Robert Caro’s epic biography. It was, by then, a placid backwater. Or would have been if it had rained more often.
When I entered Colgate University in 1956, I arrived with the vaguest of vocational goals. In secondary school, I had picked up a love of history, in part prompted by assiduous stamp collecting, and I entered college with the nebulous aspirations (in order of preference) of being a high-school history teacher-cum-track coach, journalist, lawyer, or Protestant minister. Not long after my first term began, I set my sights on teaching on the college level, thanks in large measure to a remarkable group of professors: Rodney Mott, who could argue both sides of any Supreme Court case with equal rigor; Charles Ray Wilson, whose dynamic lectures on the Gilded Age gave me a lifelong fascination with the subject; Arnold Sio, a sociologist whose knowledge of the American past made him the peer of many in the discipline of history; and William Askew, whose excitement about Europe’s diplomatic past was contagious. (Askew loved to describe ‘secret papers’ he had found in the Italian archives).