Sign up for Our Newsletter

May 2011: Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon

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

I was born in the seaside town of Blackpool in the northwest of England, although after a short-stint in Rochdale (Greater Manchester) found myself in the Tynedale area of Northumberland by my fifth birthday. Here I have my parents to thank for my early exposure not only to British history but also to the culture, landscape, and rich heritage of the British Isles. As card-carrying members of both the National Trust and English Heritage, weekends were spent playing hide-and-seek in the Roman ruins along Hadrian’s Wall and walking the ancient paths of Saints Cuthbert and Bede on the Northumbrian Coast. Holidays were taken in caravans and cottages in the Lake District, on Lindisfarne, and in Scotland. Belsay Hall, Cragside House, and Wallington were our second homes, and the gardens of these estates our playgrounds. Of course, at the time we did not think consciously of history or dwell on the very English up-bringing we were blessed to have. It was only as I crossed “the pond” at sixteen years of age that my instinctive if unacknowledged study of all things British became more academic and intentional. By the time I arrived at university in up-state New York two years later I was convinced I would spend the rest of my life exploring what “England” is; the only question was what tools I would use to do that. English Literature, Politics, and even Geology were all considered, but I eventually settled on history as the academic discipline that would allow me to do all those things and so much more besides.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

My greatest academic influence, particularly on my understanding of British history and the empire, was my first graduate supervisor at Duke University, John W. “Jack” Cell. Unfortunately, I worked with Jack for only a short time as he was tragically killed in a sailing accident soon after I arrived at Duke. But the lessons he gave me and the approach to history he imparted were vast and defining. Jack is best known for his biography of Lord Hailey, a colonial servant whose life spanned the years 1872-1969 and whose career took him from the Punjab branch of the Indian Civil Service in 1895, to two governorships in India in the 1920s, to the directorship of the African Survey in the 1930s and 40s. Yet it was less in Jack’s research than in his mentoring of graduate students that he left his mark on me. Jack was a stern taskmaster. In our first semester-long tutorial together I read 56 books, wrote a 350-word review on each, and composed seven 3-5 page précis drawing larger questions and finding avenues for further research. Jack expected nothing less than complete commitment, demanded excellence in all things, and was quick with criticism (his response to my use of “mystical” in a tired review has expelled the word from my vocabulary to this day!). As a naïve and hopefully unprepared first-year graduate student, Jack introduced me to the works of Vincent Harlow, Robinson and Gallagher, and Cain and Hopkins, and developed within my mind a map of British Empire historiography. It has served me well to this day. Yet this answer would be incomplete if I did not also mention John Herd Thompson, Martin Miller, and especially Alex Roland, all also at Duke University. Without a flash of hesitation and without complaint, each stepped in upon Jack’s untimely death to continue supervision of my research in a field that was not their own. If Jack was the first to teach me how to read books quickly and place their arguments within a broader historiography, John, Marty, and Alex showed me what it was to be a mentor in a larger sense, and for that I will always be grateful.

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

This is an interesting question. I think most of us have lived an alternative life in our minds, an imagined path that we might have taken but never did. It can at times be an amusing diversion in the middle of a long day to follow these ruminations and think where life might have taken us. Like counterfactual history, such imaginings can have their benefits in revealing to us something about the path we did choose. But as with much of counterfactual history, there is a danger in taking it too far, in straying too wildly from what we know to be true. This is particularly the case, I think, for those like me who are expatriates in a foreign land, where nostalgia for a life not lived in England’s green and pleasant lands can cloud the reality that may have been in England’s dark Satanic mills. But I digress. In my own imagined alternative I see myself working for the State in some capacity, whether that be in the armed forces, the civil service, or Parliament. I came close to this only once, however, when as a newly minted PhD (and fresh off the American naturalization process) I decided to hedge my bets and apply for positions beyond academia, eventually receiving a conditional offer to work for the government in Washington D.C. When push came to shove and the fantasy became reality, I turned down the offer in favor of my current position at the University of Arkansas, and have not looked back since. Having faced the decision, I have peace that the imagined path will only ever be that. . . .

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

My recently completed book, Imperial Endgame: Britain’s Dirty Wars and the End of Empire, was without doubt the most enjoyable to research and write, but also the most challenging. It is the first book I have written entirely without supervision, without a looming doctoral defense to concern me and without fears about how my topic might sell “on the job market” (and for those reading this as graduate students, you will know how very real these worries can be). I must confess, I have found this lack of supervision to be entirely liberating and in a certain sense feel that this is the type of book I have always wanted to write but for a variety of reasons could not do so until now. The archival base for Imperial Endgame is much larger than for my previous books, and took me to collections in London, Birmingham, Oxford, and Cambridge, each of which have their own unique personalities and eccentricities to explore and enjoy. As well as being an immense blessing, this process has had its challenges, though. My previous work, Turning Points of the Irish Revolution: The British Government, Intelligence, and the Cost of Indifference, was more limited both in geography and argument, focusing on a single territory (Ireland) and a single issue (intelligence collection, or the lack thereof). Imperial Endgame spans the globe from Palestine to Malaya to Kenya to Cyprus. It is a more difficult story to tell, but one which has been immensely rewarding.

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

My hope is that we will continue to see the knocking down of disciplinary walls, so that it will become impossible to see a scholar as an imperial or domestic historian, as a political or military historian, or as a social or cultural historian, but simply as a British historian with all the fullness that the term implies. There will of course be those of us more interested in questions of war than labor, or of governance than popular culture, but in general I think those within the field will increasingly see the necessity of approaching their particular question from a variety of angles, and with a more varied source-base.  In terms of subjects, I think we have only just begun to skim the surface of both the beginning of empire and the end of empire, so I expect to see many more studies on issues relating to those chronological extremes. I also think questions of identity, particularly post-imperial identity, will continue to resonate, and as the archival material becomes available we will see a wealth of new work on the 1970s and 1980s.

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

There is a temptation, particularly as a graduate student, to seek perfection, both in topic and execution. It is this urge (sometimes encouraged by those who should know better) that leads to eight or nine year doctoral programs, followed by a decade of revisions, before a book finally lands in the library market to be skimmed and (unfairly in most cases) viciously dissected by the graduate students who follow us. It is of course important to think and write well, and I would not in any way suggest that we do anything less than our best work at all times, but it is impossible to have a conversation if one participant in that conversation is silent for a decade and a half. So pick something you care about, pick wisely, but then write, write, write, and have the courage to put it before your peers sooner rather than later. You will make mistakes, but such is true in all areas of life. Better to play the game and play it often than to practice in private without ever stepping foot on the field.

This entry was posted in Featured Scholar, News. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.