Today, we are happy to bring you our conversation with Trevor Burnard, author of WRITING EARLY AMERICA: From Empire to Revolution.
What inspired you to write this book?
I have always been interested in why historians choose the topics they do and what these choices say about the relationship between changing patterns of scholarship and the influence of contemporary concerns on areas of historical interest. The 2020-21 pandemic, when archives were closed, gave me the opportunity to do a different kind of historical research where I could read widely in journal literature and understand what subjects and themes early American historians were interested in. My project is a quixotic one but it is a project that I think worthwhile. It shows the directions in which early American historiography is traveling, speculates on why these trends are occurring and helps readers, from students to experienced scholars, appreciate the evolution of a historical field.
What did you learn and what are you hoping readers will learn from your book?
When you read nearly 400 recently written articles on early American history, the American Revolution and eighteenth-century British history, you get an appreciation of excellent current scholarship and an understanding of major historiographical themes. It turns out that historians in this field have three particular areas they exhaustively explore – Indigenes, slavery and empire. I hope that readers use my book as a useful guide to the evolving nature of a vibrant if narrowly focused field and understand what can be gained by looking at historians’ writing at a particular, perhaps peculiar point in time. It will be very useful for students of early American history and the American Revolution and perhaps scholars of other historical periods and themes.
What surprised you the most in the process of writing your book?
What I found most surprising in my research for this book is that the geographical centers of early American history have moved decisively from where it used to be centered – mainly New England with a secondary orientation towards the Chesapeake – to be much more widely based. The hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica is indicative of the move toward seeing early America as spatially expansive, Indeed, there is more attention now paid to Jamaica, the place I have done most of my research, and to indigenous-controlled places in the North American interior than to the traditional heartland of early America and the American Revolution, Boston. Our idea of eighteenth-century British America is not our grandmother’s notion of colonial North America.
What’s your favorite anecdote from your book?
I find it revealing and a little sad that early American historians remain quite parochial in their approach to history. For example they have yet to engage seriously with what John McNeill and Kenneth Pomeranz have written about world history in this period and to date have shown little interest in the concept of the Anthropocene or in exploring Pomeranz’s notion of a `Great Divergence’ where, led in part by the wealth of the British colonies in the Americas and the newly formed USA, the West became for the first time richer and more geopolitically important than the East. In short, the next step for early Americanists and scholars of the American Revolution is to move their attention away from the Americas towards a truly global perspective.
I am in a historiographical moment at present. I have written a short book for Cambridge Elements that is called `Writing the Global History of Slavery.’ I like working collaboratively and have some projects with my Hull colleague, Sheryllynne Haggerty, on women and the colonial economy; with Andrew O’Shaughnessy on an imperial perspective on the American Revolution; and with John Coffey on a book on the 1823 Demerara slave revolt. One project, closely connected to Writing Early America, is editing with Marie Houllemare of Geneva and Emma Hart of the University of Pennsylvania The Oxford Handbook to the Seven Years’ War.