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Writing American Immigration History: Notes on an Essay

Writing American Immigration History: Notes on an Essay

The border wall at Nogales
The border at Nogales, Arizona / Sonora (May 2019). Photo by Sara Goek.

I recently wrote a bibliographic essay titled “Writing American Immigration History” for Choice, a book review publication for academic libraries (read it here for free). I started it while Trump shut down the federal government over funding his border wall and finished when he declared a national emergency to try to get that funding. It’s an interesting time to be an immigration historian.

The task: select about 50 books in the field and write a 5,000-word narrative that cites and connects them all. As many writing or teaching projects do, this prompted me to catch up on the new literature in the field and to extend my familiarity beyond my primary research areas. It proved especially challenging at a time of burgeoning scholarship in the field, with many new academic books as well as articles and op-eds providing historical context for current events.

I knew from the start that I wanted, and needed, to do something different than the excellent #ImmigrationSyllabus. I had to not only select good sources, but to explain why and organize them into a coherent narrative. The Immigration Syllabus is organized chronologically into topical “weeks.” I decided that my primary narrative would be not the history of immigration, but the historiography – in other words, the history of immigration history. The way in which the writing of that history has evolved over time itself constitutes a historical phenomenon.

As I selected texts to include, I sought input from other historians in an open call here and on social media. Most responses came from people I know, but I did get a couple suggestions from others whom I’ve never met. I realized after the fact that my work with academic librarians in a membership association had influenced that decision. In that setting sharing work for feedback is something I do all the time, but I’m not sure it’s something I would’ve done in such a public forum previously. Librarians have many quirks (one of which is a dislike of non-librarians commenting on their quirks, so I won’t specify further!) and among them is a genuine tendency towards collaboration and openness. Coming from a field where work tends more towards the individual and competitive, that attitude has been a welcome revelation.

No doubt there will be historians who criticize this essay for not including the book they think is more important. I can’t please everyone, nor could I include every text in an essay with established parameters. Since completing the essay, I have heard of three more new books that I would have liked to include. As with all the scholarship referenced in the essay, the end result represents my particular perspective and my own time.

I decided after the fact that it would be interesting to analyze the composition of the bibliography. It includes 60 items, 58 of which are discrete publications. Monographs dominate – unsurprisingly – with a few multi-author and multi-editor works. Articles are beyond the scope of this assignment, though I did squeeze one in. The works were published between 1951 and 2019, skewing towards the more recent end of the timeline. (Click on the chart for an interactive version.)

While recognizing that gender binaries are problematic, nonetheless examining the gender breakdown is interesting. History remains a male-dominated field. Approximately 45% of new Ph.D. graduates are women, but that percentage used to be much lower. I don’t know if a standard methodology for analyzing bibliographies by gender exists. For example, if an author appears twice, are they counted twice? How do you count multi-author works? I tried both methods. Counting each author each time they appear in the bibliography led to a breakdown of 53% male to 47% female among these works, while counting each unique author only once means a 55% male / 45% female breakdown.

Chart of works by year and gender

The gender balance has shifted over the last couple decades. Out of the 58 works here, half fall on either side of 2006. Those in the pre-2006 group have approximately a 2:1 male to female authorship ratio while post-2006 the ratio flips. Not only do women know history, but at least from where I sit, they’re engaged in some of the most exciting new work in the field.


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who gave me suggestions based on a draft list of sources (particularly Sophie Cooper, Gráinne McEvoy, Christian Nøkkentved, and Eric Smith). Special thanks to Luke Kirwan for being my go-to editor and proofreader since the good old days in Sheraton Court. And thanks to Bill Mickey and the staff at ACRL and Choice for the opportunity to write this piece.

Revisiting E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

Revisiting E.H. Carr’s What Is History?

My most-read post on The Dustbin of History so far, from 2 November 2013.

Carr What Is HistoryMy first introduction to historiography came in the shape of E.H. Carr’s 1961 text What Is History? in a European History course in my final year of high school. I had long been interested in history and had the benefit of excellent teachers but had never read anything specifically on what it meant to do or to write history. Carr’s book, based on a series of lectures delivered at Cambridge but aimed at a much wider audience, is clear and thought provoking and its central ideas have stayed with me ever since. (I still have the original essay I wrote about it for the high school class so that provides accurate evidence of my perspective at the time!) I recently bought a newer edition of the book and decided to revisit it, to see if my training as a historian has altered my perspective. The purpose of this piece is not to evaluate him in relation to contemporary thinking but to reflect on his core ideas, many of which have remained the subject of historiographical debate in the subsequent decades, though the language we use to discuss them may have changed.

On the first encounter, at the tender age of sixteen, What Is History? provoked two main reactions in me: First, it reinforced some ideas about history that I had only picked up subconsciously before – that how history is written depends on when it is written and who writes it and that the narratives created are not objective because they involve the selection of facts or evidence. Second, I remember being frustrated by its somewhat theoretical or abstract nature – even though Carr uses examples, they were probably more familiar and current to his audience at the time and left me still wanting to know more about the application of his ideas.

Over fifty years have passed since Carr first delivered his ‘broadside on history’[1] and in any analysis of it we cannot escape the statement he made at the beginning: ‘When we attempt to answer the question, What is History?, our answer, consciously or unconsciously, reflects our own position in time, and forms part of our answer to the broader question what view we take of the society in which we live.’[2] This principle applies not only to texts on historical subjects, but also his own, which does indeed reflect his position in time – the atmosphere of post-war Britain and the Cold War. Certainly it’s now unacceptable to refer to the historian consistently using the male pronoun, but I’ll excuse Carr on that point given his generation! Many of the examples he uses to illustrate his points also come from the realm of political history, though there are occasional hints at the emergence of social history: ‘People do not cease to be people, or individuals individuals, because we do not know their names,’ even if he only attaches significance to these nameless individuals when they act en masse.[3]

The idea that a historian’s writings reflects his/her own era is related to Carr’s more general ideas about bias and interpretation. The term bias is often taken to have a negative connotation, but in this case it means something closer to perspective that effects interpretation. These ideas largely come through in the first chapter, ‘The Historian and His Facts.’ Carr’s argument gets a bit bogged down by his attempt to define what a ‘fact’ is and how it becomes a ‘historical fact’, but for the purpose of examining his ideas they can be viewed essentially as the raw materials of history or, the term most commonly used today, evidence. History, then, is written through selection of facts/evidence and this process is an act of interpretation. (I have found this idea one of the most difficult to instil in students, who, coming straight out of secondary school still seem to think books equal unquestionable truth.) Based on Collingwood’s ideas, Carr states three main points: ‘history means interpretation’ (historians tend to find what they’re looking for); the historian needs an ‘imaginative understanding’ of the mindset of the people he/she studies; and we can only look at the past ‘through the eyes of the present’ as even the language we use embodies that perspective.[4] However, he recognizes the dangers of complete skepticism, subjectivity, post-modernism, and all the other post-isms that this view might seem to suggest, that we could be left with either with a history that has no meaning or an infinity of meanings.[5] The way he seeks to resolve this apparent contradiction is through the idea of ‘reciprocal action’ on two levels, ‘between the historian and his facts’ and ‘between the present and the past’.[6] And thus we have the idea of historiography! For example, I don’t think any scholar of American immigration history today sees Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted and its narrative of assimilation / Americanization as the definitive text on the subject, and yet they still read it and reference it because of its place in the development of the field and to show the distance between it and contemporary work. We are in the business of constantly revising the past.

Much has changed in the world and in historiography since Carr’s time and from the standpoint of the present we recognize his shortcomings: his somewhat elitist view on the eve of the revolution brought by social history, his focus on the political and on history as a ‘science’, his belief in ‘progress’. Nonetheless, I think his ideas about the working process of the historian, with its subjectivity and continual series of revisions, remain central our discipline at all levels – teaching, research, and writing.


This post is dedicated to Dr. Christian Nøkkentved, affectionately known to generations of students as ‘Doc Nok’, a member of the history faculty at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy who retired this year. I am forever grateful to him and the other members of the department for their time and enthusiasm, which continue to inspire me today. I first read Carr’s book in his class and he is in many ways responsible for my interest in social history.

[1] E.H. Carr letter to Isaac Deutscher, March 1960, in Richard J. Evans, introduction to E.H. Carr, What is History?, 2nd ed. (Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, Hampshire, 2001), p.xix.

[2] Carr, What is History?, p.2.

[3] Carr, What is History?, p.44.

[4] Carr, What is History?, pp.18-20.

[5] Carr, What is History?, pp.20-21.

[6] Carr, What is History?, p.24.