Time Traveling at the OAH

Jim Marten’s recent experience at the Organization of American History conference, held in Milwaukee, reminds us of just how small the academic world can be.

My past and present collided at the Organization of American Historians conference at the Frontier Airlines Center in Milwaukee earlier this month.  On the way back from lunch with South Dakota State University professor John Miller—from whom I’d taken my first college-level U. S. history class in 1975—we paused for a moment on the corner of 4th and Wisconsin and John called a well-dressed young man over to take our picture.  That young man happened to be B. J. Marach, a first-year MA student in our graduate program.  We all got a kick out of the confluence of generations gathered on a Milwaukee street corner.

This is just the most extreme example of the kind of time traveling that is possible at a major history conference, which can be a kind of reunion of a clan of history geeks. Something like 2,000 people show up for typical OAH meeting—over 1000 were on panels, giving or commenting on papers, and several hundred other people attended.  The central gathering point of this and of all history conferences is the book exhibit. Over fifty academic publishers display the latest books in dozens of different fields in American history.  Between sessions, even during sessions, historians, students, a few spouses, and even a stroller-bound child or two, stroll and mingle, checking out the books, scanning name tags for familiar names, searching for old friends, meeting with potential publishers for future projects, killing time.  Like everyone else, the book exhibit inspires in me a certain level of anticipation—that book looks really interesting—and guilt—I have a pile of other books that I should really read before I add a new one to the list.

As I engaged in this ancient conference ritual of wandering the book exhibit, an odd but not unpleasant thought occurred to me: the book exhibit is an intellectual time machine.  On every aisle, in nearly every booth, I saw books written by mentors and professors, or new editions of classics I’d read for my PhD exams.  Other books had been written by contemporaries from grad school days at UT-Austin (yes, my classmate H. W. “Bill” Brands has published yet another big book!).  I saw books I have assigned to classes over the years (Confederates in the Attic still appears at exhibits, many years after its publication).  But the image of the book exhibit as a time machine really struck me when I noticed other books by current colleagues and students.  Coincidentally, Laura Matthew’s brand new book, Memories of Conquest, just out this month, rested next to my own most recent book, Sing Not War, at the University of North Carolina Press booth.  Harvard University Press prominently featured Andrew Kahrl’s brand new The Land Was Ours, while MU librarian and friend of the department John Jentz’s new book, Chicago in the Age of Capital, could be found at the University of Illinois Press. I’m always proud of the department I serve as chair, but I’m especially proud to see our work displayed among the books written by our peers from around the country and the world.

Perhaps the most powerful sense of the book exhibit as a portal into my intellectual past came when I spotted books written by former MU graduate students.  Ann Ostendorf’s Sounds American boasted a poster and a pile of paperback copies at the University of Georgia Press booth, while John McCarthy’s Making Milwaukee Mightier was featured at the front of Northern Illinois University Press’s display (no doubt because it’s about Milwaukee).  I’d been a reader for both of the much-revised dissertations on which those books were based (Kristen Foster and Tom Jablonsky were, respectively, directors of Ann’s and John’s dissertations).  Books by former MA students also drew my attention: since getting her BA and MA at Marquette, Heather Marie Stur has gone on to receive a PhD at Wisconsin and obtain a tenure-track job at Southern Miss and published her first book, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era with Cambridge University Press, while Pabst Mansion historian John Eastberg’s The Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion could be seen at the University of Wisconsin Press.

Each of these books, from each of these generations of scholars, brought back specific memories of seminar papers that grew into theses and theses into books, of the evolution of students into colleagues and even friends.  And from there it’s pretty easy to recapture my own memories of the joys and challenges of those intense periods of work and study, the frustrations and triumphs of the publishing process, the sense of accomplishment and bittersweet relief that comes with the completion of a project that you have lived with for years.

I’ve been to dozens of conferences large and small over the last quarter century, but this is the first time that I’ve experienced the sensation of a convention exhibit, held in a giant, sterile, fluorescent-lit hall, acting as a kind of personal archive of the recent and long-ago past.  It’s a little odd and humbling to start thinking of one’s own life as history rather than as just life.

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  His most recent book is Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America.  He frequently blogs on Civil War topics, such as slavery, veterans, and inspiring future Civil War historians.


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