Sign up for Our Newsletter

August 2007: William Kuhn

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

WK: My parents took me to live in London for a year when I was 11 years old in the late 1960s. It was a huge trauma. There was a Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park. My mother wore a see-through blouse. My English schoolfriends asked me to defend American involvement in the Vietnam War. I have never recovered from this.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

WK: Mark Kishlansky. He taught Tudor-Stuart history at the University of Chicago before he went to Harvard. He had huge enthusiasm and made us read the “gentry controversy.” It was like an enormous wrestling match between Trevor-Roper, Tawney and Stone. I’d never thought academic debate could be that much fun.

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

WK: I worked at an advertising agency for a while after college. I could have kept doing that except that it would have sent me to an early grave. I admire people who work for the State Department, though I probably would have been ejected during a witch hunt. I like to write, so maybe I should have given journalism a try.

4. What project are you currently working on?

WK: It’s top secret. No publisher has agreed to take it yet.

5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?

WK: Something that links British and European history to an American icon.

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

WK: Disraeli thought of his different books as if they were his children. He loved them and put something of himself into all of them. I think that’s true of my books as well, though they’re not as good as his. When I think of Democratic Royalism (1996) I think of all the exotic places it took me to as a graduate student: to the library at Lambeth Palace, to Arundel Castle, to the old Public Record Office when it was just off Chancery Lane. With Henry and Mary Ponsonby (2002) I became friends with some of the Ponsonby descendants whom I love and still see in the summers. With my latest on Benjamin Disraeli, I was writing about Victorian sexuality and so that was frankly kind of erotic to work on. I’ve enjoyed them all.

7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

WK: I think over the last century scholarly British history has generally followed the preoccupations of the intellectual left in both Britain and America. In the recent past British history has concentrated on history from below, the history of trade unionism and political radicalism, the history of gender and sexuality, and lately on the history of the environment and colonial oppression. Whereas history written for a broader, more general readership has generally been of a mildly conservative character: for example, the history of warfare, of the royal family and on the glories of the colonial past. Former Tory ministers have recently been writing Victorian political biography in a big way.

8. Do you think that British domestic history in the modern era gets overshadowed by the study of the British Empire? Can the two subjects be properly studied in isolation?

WK: Sounds like a loaded question to me.

9. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

WK: The relationship of Britain to major powerhouses of the economic future, e.g. India and China, is likely to be important. However, I would stress that you have to find something to work on that you are genuinely interested in and that will sustain you through long, slow dull periods where you have insufficient funding, or are insufficiently employed. It’s a mistake to try and predict what sorts of topic will be fashionable, because like dress lengths, they change quickly. It’s never a bad idea to meet and talk with academics who are editors of series of monographs at major university presses. Nor would it be a bad idea to meet with editors who come to the major historical meetings just to find out what sort of manuscripts they’re looking for. Keep talking to people with publishing connections and find out what makes them tick. The main thing is to like what you do. Try and do whatever it is that you would do on your own anyway even if you won the lottery tomorrow.

This entry was posted in Featured Scholar. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.