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January 2011: David Rock

David Rock
Professor of Latin American History, University of California Santa Barbara

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

I discovered an unusual predilection for history far back in childhood. At the time of the last coronation in 1953, one of the banks created a poster that was pinned on the wall of my classroom. It showed Elizabeth II as the centerpiece and pictures of all her predecessors back to William I along the margins. Aged 7 or 8, I knew the dates of the English and British monarchs and still know them today. My favorite kings or queens? I used to feel sorry for Lady Jane Grey and Charles I because of their dismal ends. Before reading Shakespeare, I had a liking for Richard III because the poster made him look like a decent clean-cut fellow (as it were). George IV did not seem to me as bad as some make out, but then the picture of him on my poster disguised his unseemly figure and failed to inform me how he had treated his wife. (Also I like the Regency period). At about 12, I grew fascinated by the First World War as I discovered a vast illustrated history in a local library. I used to chat with veterans on long Sunday afternoon rambles organized by the local church and learnt at first hand about life in the trenches. Like nearly everyone else in Britain I discovered I had several ancestors listed on the local war memorial. One of the books I have most enjoyed reading in recent years tells the story of the “Accrington Pals,” the boys who enlisted together in August 1914 in response to Lord Kitchener and who died together at the Somme on July 1, 1916. Later I developed a strong interest in United States, Russian, and Italian history, though my CV provides no proof of such enthusiasm. I’m aware too of becoming fascinated at an early date by Latin America—lands of color, drama, and romance. On summer visits to my childhood home in Lancashire I love to unearth stories from old newspapers from the days of the cotton mills. I can just remember the mills and the people who worked in them before they closed around the mid-1950s. I venerate my home county for its countryside and because of its role, through the Industrial Revolution, as a crucible of modernity (though confess I prefer the weather here in southern California).

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

The best break of my life (except for the girl I married) occurred when I won admission to St. John’s College, Cambridge. As a northern grammar school lad, going up to Cambridge represented an enormous challenge and a mighty transition. In the first year, I had a problem with my landlady and went to my tutor for help. Ronald Robinson (Dr. R.E. Robinson), that extraordinary figure in historical studies, sorted her out and got me somewhere else to live. A friend claimed that Robby was an offspring of a Battersea barrow boy. Certainly he was a war hero having served in bombers as a rear gunner. He was the most charismatic (literally “touched by grace”) person I ever met. According to Cambridge legend, he and Gallagher created their immortal paper on free trade imperialism on the back of a beer mat in Southern Rhodesia. I remember two special things about him, one playing cricket in his Cambridge rooms using an air ball and the other his personal advice to look for a career in the United States if I wished to work on Latin America. We had two other spectacular History dons at “John’s.” Harry (F.H.) Hinsley grew famous in his later years for his history of British wartime intelligence. I knew him best when he was scrabbling on the floor with a piece of paper explaining through diagrams the differences between France and Germany based on pre-medieval land tenure. As a worthy successor to his father Denis Brogan, Hugh Brogan became the leading British expert on the history of the United States and another of my college teachers. My girl friend and I got engaged in 1967 and thanks to Hugh we had a spectacular party in his rooms. Ah! Cambridge days! In my last undergraduate year I began moving into Latin American history. I took a class on the Conquest of Mexico taught by J.H. Elliott, by far the most distinguished British historian of Spain and colonial Spanish America. I draw upon Elliott’s lectures to this very day when attempting to recount the story of Cortés and Moctezuma to my own current undergraduates. In 1967-1968 at the height of the student revolution, I wanted to attempt something on the modern history of Latin America. I took the advice of John Street, a lesser known Cambridge historian, who had written on Argentina and Uruguay and who advised me to work on the Rio de la Plata. Where, I thought? I know we beat Argentina in the 1966 World Cup, (when their captain marched off the field in a tantrum), but beyond that knew nothing about the place. The adventure turned out a fantastic success. I received a Parry Grant for Latin American studies. My wife and I married and we set sail by ship from Tilbury Docks to Buenos Aires, via some wondrous places. We stayed 18 months where we learnt Spanish and I collected data for my dissertation. We experienced unforgettable times that have kept me contentedly tied to the Argentine Republic throughout my career. During our first visit, my wife Rosalind taught English in several local schools. I found a warm welcome from the local academic community in Buenos Aires, whose members guided me intellectually in new directions. Leaving British empiricism behind, I grew familiar with Latin American “structuralism.” (It starts, I think, with Marx’s 18th Brumaire). In Argentina, I acquired another great mentor of ineffable charisma who assisted me perhaps more than any other person. I had first met Tulio Halperín Donghi in Cambridge where he had taken refuge after the coup d’état of 1966, before I went to Argentina. Subsequently, he accepted a Chair in Oxford but stayed only a short time before moving to Berkeley. Adjectives that spring to mind about Tulio are: prolific, extraordinarily subtle and phenomenally challenging. Some years later in 1977 he told me about a position in the History Department at UC Santa Barbara that by some miracle I managed to land. I have looked back at England with heavy nostalgia over the years, but I could never have found a better place to work than Santa Barbara.

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

I never considered the alternatives. Diplomacy: too many cocktail parties. Law: too pettifogging. Grave-digging (once in student days a real alternative): too hard work.

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

I felt quite pleased that in having gone to Buenos Aires, a long way from home, I completed a Ph.D. in scarcely more than three years at the age of 26. (I had to do it, my £500 a year grant was running out). I was 30 when my first book came out and it proved a success. It was also published in Spanish and remains in print in English and Spanish today. This past year Cambridge Press reissued the book in paperback. I doubt anyone working in British history will know about this book centered on the First World War era, although one of its secondary themes examines British pressure as exercised in Latin America. The book deals with what happened in Buenos Aires as political leaders tried to develop a representative system under very unfavorable conditions. This is probably my best book in that it exemplifies cross-fertilization between Anglo and Latin American thinking. The hardest book to write was my second work, Argentina 1516-1987 that was composed in an era of military dictatorship in the late 1970s when field work became less desirable or practicable. I have never found plowing through masses of secondary literature and writing synthesis very stimulating and would rather work, sleeves rolled up, with the raw data. That preference has led me on many occasions, most pleasurably, into the game of extracting data from reluctant bureaucrats in Buenos Aires. In recent years I have worked on the British community in Buenos Aires examining the bipolarities of ethnic communities and cultural hybridization. I’m grateful to colleagues at the University of Bristol for suggesting work on this subject and refocusing on imperialism. The work has familiarized me with the renaissance in British imperial history (and taken me back to Robinson and Gallagher). I’ve even attempted Homi Bhabha, though I wish he would write English.

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

Anyone reading my responses, realizing I’m a Latin America specialist, will question my credentials. I am drawn to British history principally by my background and sense of linkage with my homeland. In English history, I love many of the traditional staples such as biography and local studies. I note the enormous popular interest in history deriving from genealogy and am astonished to see the number of websites today devoted to this form of history. Extrapolating from my own recent work, I suspect you British historians are still not giving the Irish and Scots their due (sorry the Welsh too, maybe). Looking at the way the British swept into the Rio de la Plata during the nineteenth century, I’ve noticed the importance and numbers of the Scots and Irish. The principal Englishmen, sucked in through Liverpool, were mainly Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen from the West Riding. (I see marriages taking place in Buenos Aires around 1820 between a man born in one of the Lancashire villages I know so well and a woman from another village just down the road). Irish emigrants from villages I also know largely created the nineteenth century wool industry in Argentina, which helped keep the cotton north of England afloat during the American Civil War. These “peripherals” played crucial “metropolitan” functions. Let’s therefore continue to look at the English public schools or at cricket (representing the bourgeois south of England) in the British diasporas but not forget the role of the apparent marginal peoples. As we discover in today’s world, like a man, no country is an island. I would like to see British historians focusing on British connections with external cultures, examining and dissecting their interplay.

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

From my experience, graduate studies in history are a game of chance. People need luck and effort to get grants; they have to work very hard on their topics; the outcome of graduate work depends heavily on commitment and effort as well as talent. My wife often scolds me that I still work “mill hours,” meaning morn till dusk, but I think that’s essential. We’re going through a very bad period at present for graduate studies making life even harder. Serving on a graduate admission committee recently, I saw at least twenty students applying to my department deserving both admission and top money. As I remember, we admitted about five. One very talented person wanting to work with me got nowhere near the final cut. We’re all operating in a market. When I arrived on the scene in the late 60s, Area Studies were hot but not any longer. As I originally identified with “Third World” issues, students of today have to know their Foucault, their Bhabha, or whatever our dominant culture, (which supplies us with funding and patronage) defines as its priorities and preoccupations. In sum, act smart; work hard; keep your fingers crossed, don’t give in, and remain intellectually independent.

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