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Holiday Season 2007-08: Eric G.E. Zuelow

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

EZ: I developed an interest in British history during a trip through Britain with my folks when I was eleven or twelve years old. While it might be a little cliché, imagining what it was like to inhabit an Anglo-Saxon hill fort, an Edwardian castle, or an eighteenth-century estate was addicting. Once I started thinking seriously about life in the past, it was hard to stop.

My transition to academic history came later, in the shadow of York Minster. A friend and I were enjoying a pint before taking one of the ghost walks that are now ubiquitous in York. A Scottish couple came in and the four of us started talking about various things. At some point I asked them about their opinion of Scottish nationalism. The man became extremely animated and he was clearly pro-SNP. This event took place in the early 1990s before American politics became really divisive and I had never seen such political passion. From that point forward I wanted to understand the dynamics of identity in the British Isles. I’ve spent most of my time since then exploring the matter.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

EZ: This is really an impossible question to answer definitively—there have been so many influences going back to high school and even before. Most relevant to British Scholar, my research and teaching was shaped principally by people that I worked with at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. George L. Mosse, Rudy Koshar, Robert Kaiser, and my advisor James S. Donnelly, Jr. to name a few. Mosse was both a brilliant historian and a splendid man. There is often an assumption among academics that
you can be either a teacher or a researcher. Mosse was both. He genuinely cared about students, just as he cared about understanding the history of nationalism, racism, and gender. On an intellectual front, Mosse’s work demonstrated to me that culture plays a pivotal role in shaping national consciousness. Rudy Koshar perpetually asks interesting questions and helped me realize the potential of social and cultural history. Finally, Bob Kaiser and Jim Donnelly both helped me craft my approach to research
questions—each in his own way. Bob taught me a tremendous amount about nationalism and he really helped me to shape my dissertation project. Jim taught me an incredible amount about Britain and Ireland, as well as about how to write history in a compelling way. When I sit down to write, I constantly ask myself: “What would Jim do?”

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

EZ: Before making the decision to pursue history, I was actively chasing a journalism or public relations career. During college I wrote for a Seattle-area cycling newspaper. After graduation, I worked for a public relations and advertising firm during the early days of Internet advertising while also doing pro-bono work for major cycling events in the Pacific Northwest. It was great fun and I’m sure that I would have enjoyed a career as a foreign correspondent or even as an event promoter, but the truth is that I love what I do. I get to learn new things every day and to share these things with students and colleagues. Can you imagine doing anything that is more fun?

4. What project are you currently working on?

EZ: My major project at the moment, and for the next few weeks, involves preparing my first monograph, Making Ireland Irish: Tourism and National Identity since the Irish Civil War, for Syracuse University Press. The book traces how tourism-related discourse helped to shape Irish national identity from 1924 through 2007. Tourism-centered debate began shortly after independence when people from across Irish society considered whether tourism development should be a top priority during a period when much of Ireland’s infrastructure lay in ruins and when the country remained deeply divided over its recent civil strife. As more and more people agreed upon
the importance of tourism, Gaelic language activists, historians, interested citizens, politicians, and others used tourism as a tool for advocating their own particular views of Irishness. The result was an ongoing dialogue about the meaning of Irish identity that assured the perpetual evolution and vibrancy of Irish national consciousness while also creating new traditions, re-shaping the Irish landscape, and creating a widely acceptable version of the Irish past.

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

EZ: At present my research agenda is moving in two directions. My first project examines how English immigration into Scotland sparked a radical-nationalist backlash during the 1990s that, in turn, largely reshaped the national discourse about Scottishness. The article, detailing the so-called “White Settler” incident, will explore how Scots, both active nationalists and others, dealt with the perception of being an “internal colony,” the concern about the loss of native culture, and the desire for political independence. Where once debate focused on economic issues, now many Scots articulated difference with England in racial terms that echoed nineteenth-century conceptions of race.

My second new project, which I had the chance to talk about at the recent British Scholar Conference, is entitled Drinking to Remember: Real Ales and the Public House in English Memory, 1800-2006. This book will challenge the thesis that average English men and women imagined their identity through the ideas and institutions created for them by their social superiors. Ultimately, this project examines how groups within England sought to physically reshape identity by perpetually recasting the pub to
reflect changing ideas about nation, gender and class, while also illustrating the role played by a larger trans-national dialogue about the national differences embodied in English, Irish, Scottish, Belgian, and even American drinking establishments.

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

EZ: My Irish tourism research was really enjoyable. I had the opportunity to interview fascinating people such as Kevin O’Doherty, who was 92 years old when I talked with him in 2002. His parents were Irish revolutionaries during the War for Independence and he told me about coming home to find Michael Collins in his kitchen, to say nothing of myriad other stories. Beyond that, I loved going to the archives every day where every box contained new treasures.

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

EZ: Of course, this is an impossible question to answer. Historians are pretty good with the past and much less reliable predicting the future. As a graduate student I took numerous European history courses and was always struck by how rarely Europeanists engaged with any British or Irish historiography. E.P. Thompson’s Creation of the English Working Class was always mentioned, of course, as was Trevor-Roper’s essay on Scottish tartanry. Linda Colley’s Britons came up. Judith Walkowitz’s City of
Dreadful Delight
caught people’s attention, but that was about it. British/Irish history was considered parochial. I think that this is starting to change because British and Irish historians are engaging with historiographical issues that are of interest well beyond the British Isles in a way that I don’t think was as true in the past. There’s more environmental history being done, more on identity, more on consumer culture, more on car culture, more on collective memory, etc., etc. There seems to be more
engagement with new and very interesting historiographical approaches as well. This can only be a positive trend.

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

EZ: At the risk of sounding like Joseph Campbell, you need to follow your bliss. Listen to the advice of your mentors, read extensively around subjects that interest you, and then settle on something that you are absolutely passionate about. You will be intimately involved with your topic for at least 5-10 years. Remember that even when you’re done researching and writing you will still need to “sell” your project to a publisher and then undertake required editing and revision. It’s a long process. If you get tired of your subject, those years will not be as much fun as they should be. I feel very fortunate to have hit upon a topic that I still find utterly fascinating, even six or
seven years after I initially started researching it.

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