- Rethinking American History in a Global Age
In the opening sentence of their contribution to this collected volume, Charles Bright and Michael Geyer ask, "What could be more American than a move to reposition U.S.-American history in the path of world history — to frame a new historical imagination appropriate for a transnational polity in a global age?" (p. 63). It is indeed the case that historians in the United States have been leading practitioners of world history. But I don't think that this is what Bright and Geyer had in mind. In this collection of sixteen essays, I found only three references to the work of world historians, and only two authors (neither based in the United States) referred to more than one work in a non-English language. The "global" in this new historical imagination refers less to the expansion of historical methods and empirical knowledge than to the imagination of a conceptual space from which to reinterpret familiar material. Many of the chapters revolve around two questions: to what extent should we subsume American history under global narratives, and to what extent can recent world history be understood as the extension of American hegemony? Opinion seems to lean toward "not much" and "quite a bit" as the respective answers.
Despite these reservations, many essays offer stimulating insights and syntheses. The first three essays offer critical perspectives on national histories. Prasenjit Duara (whose phrase "rescuing history from the nation" is cited repeatedly throughout the volume) applies his skill at desconstructing national narratives to an analysis of Manchurian and American novels. After the nation has been unraveled before our eyes, Akira Iriye suggests how to weave new international narratives through the use of multiple national archives and the study of non-governmental organizations. Bright and Geyer then develop their seminal work of the past fifteen years by situating the United States within their complex understanding of the global history of the twentieth century. The differentiation of nations and peoples is as significant a global process as convergence, and the forms of interaction between the United States and the world are still highly contested. It is the most successful article in the volume in developing the context of a "global age."
The last section of the book, written mostly by scholars based outside the United States, focuses on the institutional challenges of writing U.S. history with a global perspective. François Weil argues that the narrow specialization of American historians has caused them to [End Page 398] have little impact on other fields. Winifred Fluck suggests that while individual authors may have had little impact, the broader tendencies toward fragmentation of topics, specialization, and "expressive individualism" has had a deep impact outside the United States, with the ironic effect that the diffusion of American intellectual culture has helped engrain a belief in the incompatibility of national narratives. David Hollinger and Ron Robin both offer well-formulated critiques of the overenthusiastic internationalization of national narratives, although they are responding more to the hyperbolic assertions of globalization theorists than the work of world historians.
The middle of the book contains nine essays about substantive aspects of U.S. history. Daniel Rodgers and Ian Tyrrell summarize their recent work on social policy formation across the Atlantic, and comparative environmental policies in Australia and California. Both essays are rich in empirical material and reflective of the potential and limitations of comparative and connective histories. Karen Kuppermanrecasts the history of colonial North America as an encounter between Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish, English, and Native American polities, rather than as the teleological expansion of English culture. She effectively synthesizes processes that stretched from Newfoundland to Florida and New Mexico, although, significantly, she does not move south across the contemporary border with Latin American countries.
Rob Kroes and Marilyn Young write on the diffusion of U.S. cultural and political power in the second half of the twentieth century. Kroes emphasizes how the cultural messages and fantasies of rampant individualism have spread and been...