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April-May 2007: Gregory A. Barton

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British and, moreover, imperial history?

GB: It is somehow all tied up in my love of travel and adventure. When I was a boy, in Astoria Oregon, ships sailed in from all over the world, mostly from Asia, picking up loads of wheat and lumber. I grew up in Hammond Oregon, just as far northwest in the state as you can go, where Lewis and Clark ended their expedition, and where the Columbia and the Ocean meet. An older boy said you could bring cigarettes and exchange them for firecrackers with Chinese sailors. I loved boarding these mammoth ships and going down into the huge engine rooms. So I started making friends from around the world, from Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. I took sailors home with me, which shocked my mother, and had strange and wonderful gifts from Asia, like samurai swords and boxes enameled with mother of pearl that contained little boxes inside boxes. I was hooked on “the world.” I started putting maps on my bedroom wall, which led me to think about the world. Then before I knew it, I was a historian.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

GB: Harold Perkin. When I came to Northwestern University to study he was sage of the department. As I have since learned, many of the most accomplished people are the most accessible, and often take the time to invest in your life in a way more mediocre personalities never would. Perkin was the first social historian, and wrote “big picture” history, in his case, a bold reinterpretation of British history that took the professional elites into account. He had no pretensions, just a down to earth approach to big and difficult questions. He taught me to tackle only important questions that reach outside of any one specialty, not messing around with trivia. He urged his students to read widely. Many academics lack ideas, he said, because they fail to cross-fertilize and to ask their own questions. Usually when an elite controls the questions they control the answers as well. We need to take our own approach to writing history that crosses into philosophy, literature, politics, in fact all the humanities. I remember the trepidation I felt when I gave him my dissertation proposal on environmental history. I was proposing that environmentalism came from an entirely new and different source than imagined—that it came out of British India, an invention of imperialism. He wrote a single word on my proposal. “Congratulations.” A good idea was an event to celebrate with Perkin, and I hope I pass that on to students.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

GB: I would have opened a used bookstore because then I could meet the most intelligent people in town. When I was younger I wrote novels in the Oregon mountains, which is a chapter I still am not willing to put behind me. But it is much easier to make a living and find a rewarding career in the historical profession than it is to become a novel writer.

4. What project are you currently working on?

GB: I am just finishing up my Palmerston and the Empire of Trade, with Longman’s Press. It attempts to be a different kind of biography, one that is a cross between a standard life history and a textbook. The point is to take a life that exemplifies the big issues of the age and I think there is no better subject than Palmerston for that. He is a gutsy and impulsive historical figure, with a taste for the finer things in life and a love of conflict. That makes him interesting, and he manages to place Britain in the middle of most of the major conflicts in the world during the mid Victorian period. It also makes him controversial; and the book is fun to write because it engages all the big issues in world history at the time. I also think its time to talk about Prime Ministers again. In graduate school we never talked about them, and I mean never. Gladstone and Disraeli popped up once in a conversation with a professor but that was it. But while political history may have gone too far in the past—a catalogue of names and dates and elite actors—I do think we need to swing back a little. Social and cultural history enables you to talk about great subjects, such as sexual orientation, race, and aesthetics, which are all good themes worthy of study, and I write about them as well. But I think it is imperative not to forget the basics, like the nature of governments, economic and political infrastructure, imperialism, and how elites used structures to gain power and interact with everyday people.

5. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

GB: My book on environmental history, Empire Forestry and the Origins of Environmentalism has been fulfilling, because I was chasing down the answer to a mystery. It led me all over the world, and I enjoyed rummaging through archives on the subcontinent and visiting remote forest areas. I also made a lot of friends in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, in the process. I hope most of my future books will be that much fun.

6. Where do you see the field of British imperial history moving towards in the next few years?

GB: Let me answer that in a round about way. Right now I’m writing a general survey of the historiography of informal empire. I think this book is important to write because power has become so defuse and camouflaged. Political science had been tooling around with allied concepts—neo-colonialism, modernization theory, and so forth, and coming up with very little. Its time historians helped unravel the problem of imperial power when the formal structures are not in place. While I cannot predict where history will go in the future, I think I can say that interesting history, history that matters, will deal with elites and with power and how these impact people on various levels. While this may seem banal, I do not think it is. Questions of power are ultimately questions of governance, which in turn affects human dignity at every level. I cannot imagine a more important topic.

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