DK. The far-from-inspiring truth is that my interest in British imperial history may have originated with my juvenile enthusiasm for the Tarzan novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and my decision to memorize Kipling’s “Gunga Din” for a sixth-grade poetry reciting contest. My fate was sealed as an undergraduate at Berkeley during the height of the Vietnam War. There was no doubt in my mind that this was an imperial war, and thus the subject of empires acquired a contemporary relevance for me. British imperial history allowed me to marry my fascination with the exotic aspects of empire with my dismay at its political and military costs.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
DK. How’s this for a cliched answer?—my parents. Though neither of them went to college, they were—and remain—voracious readers who have great intellectual curiosity and respect for education. What else could I do to please them but become an academic? Well, maybe become a lawyer or a politician, but I lacked the talents for either of those options. My academic proclivities were also nurtured by my high school Russian teacher, Mr. Gerald Hays. I was a lousy linguist who never learned much Russian, but Mr. Hays (I still can’t speak of him without the Mr.) opened my eyes to the wider world with his interest in art and literature and much more (including Chicken Kiev).
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
DK. At this stage in my life it’s hard to imagine a different career path. And at the time I entered graduate school, that decision was as much an attempt to postpone any real commitment to a career as it was a belief that history was the right path for me. In other words, serendipity drew me into a career as an historian, and saved me from having to make any hard decisions about what to do with my life.
4. What project are you currently working on? Will this appear in book form?
DK. I’m currently working on a study of British exploration in the 19th century. At this early stage in the project I’m intrigued by the way exploration shifted from oceans to continents, and in particular by the way the scientific protocols of sea exploration (exemplified by Captain Cook’s voyages) were adopted to land exploration—with very problematic results. I certainly hope it will appear as a book, but I have years to go before that’s likely to happen.
5. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
DK. The one I enjoyed the most was the project that resulted in my book The Magic Mountains. It seemed to take on a life of its own, going indirections I never could have anticipated. The research seemed to fall into place and it gave me an opportunity to see a good deal of India, which was revelatory.
6. Where do you see the field of British imperial history moving towards in the next few years?
DK: I’ve ridden the wave of the ‘new’ imperial history’s growing popularity for a good decade and a half now, and for much of that time I’ve figured it had reached its crest and would soon recede into some academic backwater. Well, so far it continues to go from strength to strength. I do suspect, however, that it will alter in tone and substance as a result of the
Iraq war, which has reminded us in the starkest possible terms that empires are not merely discursive cultural constructs but matters of in-your-face military and political force. It also has reminded us of the limitations of imperial power. Both of these points are likely to figure more prominently in future scholarship on the British empire than they have in recent years. So, does this mean the revival of the ‘old’ imperial history? We’ll see.
7. What advice to you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
DK: My advice is pretty simple—find a topic that you can get really excited about. If you do so and if you’re able to communicate your excitement, you should do ok.