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April 2008 – Melinda S. Zook

Melinda S. Zook

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

MZ: Initially, I guess I have to say I came to British history through Shakespeare (well, who doesn’t).  He was my first true love.  But the course of that love did not run smoothly.  I wandered away for a while: studied Goethe and German philosophers and I went to Europe for a year, trying to teach myself German.  But, finally, I came around and I have Lois Schwoerer to thank for that.  She introduced me to the Stuarts, the political culture of the Restoration, and early modern women’s history.  I now have the privilege of pursuing all my great loves by writing about the Restoration and teaching courses on Shakespeare and the Romantic Movement.

2. Who influenced your academic development?

MZ: After my high school English teacher, (she was to blame for the Shakespeare obsession), I would have to say the philosopher T. Z. Levine, who was at George Washington University when I was an undergraduate.  She had a tremendous influence on me in what were really formative years.  She taught a wonderful course on the philosophy of history (from St. Augustine to Marx and beyond) which still informs the way I understand history writing today.  Also, at GWU, I met Lois Schwoerer, and she made me into a historian, teaching me how to read the sources, and write the real thing.  Professor Schwoerer also introduced me to the fine folks and resources at the Folger Shakespeare Library.  At that time, the Center for the History of British Political Thought at the Folger was under the leadership of Schwoerer, John Pocock, and Gorden Schochet.  I took numerous seminars through the Center and met a host of wonderful scholars, many of whom have been instrumental to my development as an
academic and have remained my good friends.

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

MZ: This is a question that has perplexed me for some time.  And, believe me, in the dark days prior to my promotion and tenure, I really wondered what it was I could possibly do if my academic career came to sudden halt.  Mail carrying rather appealed to me; at least one would get plenty of exercise.  However, if by this question you mean the sky is the limit and I could start all over again, I think I would have enjoyed being an animal behaviorist and sit around all day observing bees or large primates, rather like Dian Fossey, only without the horrible ending.  That is what they do, right?

4. What project are you currently working on?

MZ: I am currently finishing a book-length study, tentatively titled Between Nursing Mothers and Sanctified Jilts, Women, Religion and Politics in England, 1660-1714, which is about the intersections between women, their religiosity, and political action.  It is not a survey of women’s political behavior during this period, but rather a series of portraits: studies of women whose faith compelled them into the public sphere.

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

MZ: I want to edit a collection of essays on the new history of religion in the Atlantic World during the Long Eighteenth Century.  Warren Johnston is my co-conspirator in this new project.  I am also interested in bringing more of Mary Astell’s work into modern editions and here, Hilda Smith and I are thinking of editing Astell’s The Christian Religion as Profess’d by a Daughter of the Church of England (1705).  I would also like to write about the historical contexts, both Stuart and Victorian, in the romantic novel Lorna Doone.  And, finally, I am thinking about dropping back about 100 years from my usual haunt, the Restoration, and writing about Catholic martyrs during the reign of Elizabeth.  I have always been interested in martyrdom and memory and there seems to be a real gap in the historiography here, one that so far at least the revisionists of the Reformation have not yet set straight.

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

MZ: This is a difficult question.   I have truly loved everything I have worked on so far.  My work some years ago on the aftermath of Monmouth’s Rebellion was extremely interesting, enjoyable, and certainly fulfilling, which is why I think working on Lorna Doone would be exciting.  But, all in all, I would probably have to say that my work in women’s history has probably affected me the most on a personal level.  I have learned so much from the women of the past.  It is perhaps strange to say, but Mary Astell, in particular, has taught me a lot, especially about Anglican piety and Toryism.  Aphra Behn continues to reintroduce me to the delights of royalist culture during the Restoration.  I have learned much from Whig writers too, John Locke and Daniel Defoe certainly, but they have never quite moved me in the way the women have.  I suppose that’s a bit of a sexist answer.  So be it.

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

MZ: Well, despite all the dire predictions about the future of British history, I think it still remains one of the most vibrant areas of historical study.  Of course, I can rattle off all the pat answers about the importance of internationalism: England in Europe, the British Isles in the Atlantic World, Britain and the Empire, Commonwealth studies etc., all of which are keenly important and all of which speak to the continuing importance of the study of British history and culture.  But, quite frankly, everything old is soon new again, however we might label it.  Take the history of religion, thought to be dead not too long ago.  It has taken on new life much in the same way we have seen cultural history breathe new life into intellectual history and the study of political culture revive traditional forms of political history.  Lately, it has appeared as though Marx has been resuscitated.

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

MZ: One can do it the old fashioned way which is simply a matter of reading all the secondary literature on a certain, if vague, area of interest and paying close attention to the primary sources.  This should enlighten one as to whether there is a gap or contradiction in the current literature or simply an avenue not yet pursued.  But I have found with my own graduate students that Early English Books On-line has been a great aid in finding topics as well as other internet resources such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey.  I also highly recommend the pages of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (and the old DNB as well), both of which are wonderful aids to finding sources.  I also enjoy reading through the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic, and have found a myriad of interesting topics that way.  There is still much that needs to be done and the more you know about a particular era, the more you see topics begging for investigation.

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