- ASECS at 50:Interview with Kathleen Wilson
ASECS at 50 is a yearlong interview series commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS). This series features interviews by junior eighteenth-century scholars with senior scholars who have been involved in ASECS over the years. These interviews offer insight into a range of eighteenth-century scholarship and address how the interviewees have witnessed both ASECS and the field of eighteenth-century studies evolve over time.
Kathleen Wilson is Distinguished Professor of History at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 1985. Her first book, The Sense of the People: Politics, Culture and Imperialism in England, 1715–1785 (1995), examined how residents of provincial towns participated in and contributed to a national political culture. It won the John Ben Snow Award from the North American Conference on British Studies and the Whitfield Prize for British History from the Royal Historical Society. In 2003 she published The Island Race: Englishness, Empire and Gender in the Eighteenth Century, a groundbreaking study on the how the British fashioned a national identity through empire building. In addition to focusing on the interplay of race, gender, class, and empire, case studies in The Island Race demonstrated how the "periphery" of empire influenced the "metropole" more than most contemporaries acknowledged, proving that the currents of empire were multidirectional. This insight was also central to her edited volume, A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840 (2004), which combined approaches from postcolonial theory, literary criticism, gender studies, and anthropology, among other fields. Wilson's introduction to the volume remains one of the clearest articulations of the importance, opportunities, and challenges of studying empire in the long eighteenth century from multidisciplinary perspectives, and in ways that incorporate the experiences of the colonized and colonizers alike. Her forthcoming book, Strolling Players of Empire: Theatre and Performance in the British Imperial Provinces, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2020. Wilson served as a vice-president of ASECS from 2012–2014 and as president in 2014–2015. [End Page 155]
Your research on British imperialism and imperial culture has led you to explore many of the "big topics" that have captivated so many students of the period: race, gender, national identity, war, slavery, citizenship, governmentality, and how the Enlightenment grappled with human difference, to name just a few. What first attracted you to the long eighteenth century, and what keeps you there?
I arrived at Yale in 1978, a refugee from the law (well, from law school anyway) and an aspiring historian of Anglo-American radicalism. That I left Yale with a Ph.D. in eighteenth-century British history was due largely, in the first instance, to John Brewer. He was by far one of the most interesting professors there, and a dazzling practitioner of a new kind of popular radical political history that engaged with both literary and anthropological perspectives. He was also one of the few professors at Yale who took the women as seriously as the men. For Brewer it was all about the ideas and the work, and he always made it clear that his support was contingent on both. He inspired all his graduate students with an infectious enthusiasm for all things eighteenth century, while also keeping a leg in the (post)modern world. Yale boasted two other players "turning" me to the eighteenth century: the Sterling Memorial Library and the Beinecke Library. Along with the Lewis Walpole Library and the Yale Center for British Art, these libraries fired up to unimaginable heights my love for archives and research, and still make Yale one of the best places in the world to do eighteenth-century Anglophone studies.
What keeps me in the global eighteenth century? First are the ideas and the work of all the fantastic scholars who write on the period's ineffably familiar, foreign, and contradictory matrices. I love the long eighteenth century's intellectualism, its insistent engagements with alterity, its motto of daring to know. I enjoy tracking...