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May-June 2008: Frank Turner

Frank Turner

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

I grew up in small town in southern Ohio in the 1950s. There was an atmosphere of Midwestern Anglophilia in the years following the war with veterans who had served in England. There was much interest in the coronation in 1953 among the women in my mother’s social circles. They also had vivid memories of Edward VIII’s abdication. Most of these people never visited Britain, but it was the place many of them yearned to see, curiously even more than Paris. My best teachers taught English or European history. As early as 8th grade I began to read Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples. My general interest in Britain continued when I entered William and Mary in part because my foreign languages were then passable at best. When I entered graduate school, after some flirtation with the seventeenth century, I landed in the Victorian era and in intellectual and religious history and never left.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

Three teachers were important. Daniel Gleason, who taught me American history in high school, was probably the most gifted teacher I ever encountered. He had me doing primary research in the records of the local courthouse. At William and Mary the key figure was Bruce McCully. At Yale from my graduate school days until his death I benefited from the learning and friendship of Franklin Baumer who introduced me to intellectual history.

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

I am really not sure. History was the only thing I was ever good at since 4th grade, and I just kept at it.

4. What project are you currently working on?

I have just published with Yale Press an historian’s edition of John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Six Sermons, which includes an extensive critical introduction and notes.

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

I hope to turn into a small book lectures on the Victorians and the Old Testament that I delivered at the Divinity School of Edinburgh University last autumn. I am also working on a survey of European intellectual history from 1750 to 1870 for the intellectual history series published by Yale University Press.

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

For many years I have been a co-author of a textbook entitled The Western Heritage. I have always found that work enormously satisfying because what I write about modern European history in the volume may be the only history students reading the book ever encounter. I find that an enormous responsibility and the work quite satisfying though it differs markedly from my scholarly writing. In regard to the latter, I found my volume John Henry Newman: The Challenge to Evangelical Religion the most fulfilling if also most challenging.

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

That is a very good and difficult question. I believe the field must refocus itself onto lasting important questions of the British experience. For many years as interest in British history has declined, historians have been flailing about trying to regain that interest by moving into marginal areas of study. The core of British history as a fundamental topic of historical investigation tends to remain liberty, reformation, constitutionalism, empire, science, political philosophy, and the achievement of political stability against all odds and expectations. These are the big subjects and British history will come to the fore again when the big subjects are again addressed.

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

The most important advice would be for young scholars to follow their instincts, to immerse themselves first in the vast quantity of British printed materials which remain much too unexplored as well as the obvious recourse to manuscripts, and to avoid as much as possible engagement with transitory bibliographic quarrels that arise among historians. Young scholars can choose either to write their own books or to write footnotes to other people’s work. Why should someone ever wish to do the latter?

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