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May-June 2009: Guy Ortolano

Guy Ortolano
Assistant Professor, Department of History, New York University

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

I’ve been interested in history since I was a little kid. I can vividly recall, when I was in the fourth grade, reading a book about the Civil War while visiting my sister Lisa at college. [I grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia, so this particular book was, of course, about the American Civil War.] Already at that age I was excited by this combination of history and college, but it never occurred to me that history could become a profession until a friend told me during our freshman year that he wanted to go to graduate school in comparative literature. At the time I didn’t know what he meant by either graduate school or comparative literature; I’m still not sure what comp lit is, but once Kevin told me about grad school I knew I wanted to give it a try.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

I’ve had so many wonderful teachers, especially my English teachers in high school: Mr. Maxwell, Ms. Porter, Ms. Hoose, and Mr. Griggs. And my graduate advisors at Northwestern, Bill Heyck in modern British history and Ken Alder in the history of science, continue to provide me with my models of scholars as well as scholarship. But the person who had the most profound impact was surely my undergraduate advisor at the University of Georgia, Kirk Willis. Dr. Willis’s lectures in an undergraduate survey first drew me into European history, and his subsequent seminars kindled my interest in modern British history, intellectual history, and the history of science.

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

I suppose – with an apparently unerring nose for struggling professions – I would have become a print journalist. [I can already hear the jokes of my medievalist friends, not to mention my early-modernist wife, who take pleasure in telling me that, as a post-1945 historian, that’s exactly what I’ve become!] I edited the sports page of my high school’s newspaper, and planned to become a sportswriter for no better reason than a desire to get into all the big games. But it didn’t take long covering the men’s golf team for the Red and Black at Georgia before I began looking for a more satisfying line of work, and thankfully at the same time I happened to be taking Kirk Willis’s survey of modern European history.

4. What project are you currently working on?

I’m writing a paper about Walt Rostow, the economic historian and advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and particularly about the function of British history in his version of modernization theory. I’m interested in how the example of British history was being read into supposedly universal schemes of human development, at precisely the moment that British power was becoming marginalized geopolitically.

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

I’m beginning a project about the New Towns in postwar Britain. The British state built more than thirty towns and cities from scratch after the Second World War – more than any other European state, including the Soviet Union. It was an audacious program of urban development, and what especially interests me is the way that these New Towns, which are so readily derided today, provide us with a glimpse into a world of very different ideals and assumptions, a world that is really very foreign despite being so near us historically.

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

That seems like a question for someone who has published more than one book! But one aspect of my dissertation research that was a lot of fun was uncovering the role that C. P. Snow (the scientist-turned-novelist who delivered the famous “two cultures” lecture in 1959) played in establishing the arts side of the new Churchill College, Cambridge in the early 1960s. In nearly three years of reading about Snow I’d never encountered anything about this work, until I learned from his personal papers in Austin that Snow was responsible for recruiting arts fellows to Cambridge’s new science college. He was good at it, too: he successfully recruited such scholars as Jacques Barzun, Harry Levin, and George Steiner. I began to think about how I might tell the story of these efforts, depicting them in part as an attempt to translate ideological ambitions into institutional forms, and in order to do so I followed the trail of sources from Austin to Cambridge to Boston. This was the part of my research that felt most like following the clues in a detective story.

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

I think there’s no question that the research program driving British historiography today is imperial history. And it’s a good thing, too: imperial history constitutes this generation’s equivalent of social history from the 1960s, and cultural history from the 1980s. I’m speaking primarily (although by no means exclusively) of the profession in the United States, and one of the many factors pushing the field in this direction is the way that imperial history gives British historians ways of participating in conversations about transnational and world histories that are energizing the American profession more generally. At the same time, I also think that a healthy field must sustain, through its conferences and journals, genuine diversity in its topics and approaches: we can’t predict what’s going to energize work in the humanities and social sciences in the coming years, but whatever directions it takes we want British historians poised to contribute. And it’s also useful to bear in mind that the leading sectors of a field never claim a monopoly on its most important work: remember that Peter Clarke published Lancashire and the New Liberalism during the heyday of class-centered social histories, and that Peter Cain and your own Tony Hopkins published their work on British imperialism while much of the field was being driven by the turn towards cultural history.

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

It would seem a little presumptuous for me to say, since I myself am a beginning academic, and in any case your previous interviewees have already emphasized the importance of identifying a topic of genuine intellectual interest. So I’ll close instead by saying thanks very much for these questions: I’m delighted to have been included, and very much enjoyed it.

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