Interview with Jane Kamensky, 2016 SHEAR James Bradford Biography Prize

book coverJane Kamensky is Professor of History at Harvard University and Pforzheimer Foundation Director of the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. In addition to winning the 2016 James Bradford Biography Prize from SHEAR, A Revolution in Color: The World of John Singleton Copley (2016) was awarded the New-York Historical Society’s Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize in American History and the Annibel Jenkins Biography Prize of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. It was also a finalist for PEN’s Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography, the Marfield Prize for Arts Writing, and the George Washington Book Prize.

The Republic (TR): For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?

Jane Kamensky (JK): A Revolution in Color tells an off-kilter story of British America in the age of the American Revolution through the biography of the New England-born painter John Singleton Copley. Born on the eve of King George’s War, Copley came of age in a thoroughly British Boston, with streets named Queen and King, and book stores and coffee houses touting the latest news from London. He identified thoroughly with an imperial imaginary, dreaming of a world in color an ocean away. When Boston grew heated over taxes in the 1760s, he identified as a Son of British Liberty, and hoped for a return of the status quo ante. He painted men and women on all sides of the conflict–Paul Revere and Thomas Gage, Samuel Adams and Francis Bernard–who doubtless gave him an earful while they sat for their portraits. But when shouting turned to shooting, he, like Melville’s Bartleby, simply preferred not to. Copley’s life and work make visible, literally visible, the viewpoints of that large group of early Americans whose preferred side in Britain’s American War was neither. As Yeats would say of another revolutionary conflict more than a century later, he thought “the worst [were] full of passionate intensity.” He himself lacked political conviction, focusing his own intensity on art and family strategy rather than matters of nation or party. His rise and fall show both the terrors of revolutionary fervor, and the costs of passivity in an age where people insisted on forging their own destinies. Like the Revolution itself, it’s a very ambivalent story.

TR: I would venture to say that many Americans have never heard of John Singleton Copley. What led you to choose him as the subject for this book?

JK: If they haven’t heard of Copley, they’ve seen his work. His Paul Revere is surely the second most famous face of revolutionary America, and we see a version of it every time we hoist a bottle of Sam Adams lager. And of course, Bostonians know Copley as written into the very landscape of the city: Copley Square, the Fairmont Copley Hotel, Copley T station. But the irony is, Copley’s life doesn’t support his use in contemporary culture, which follows a kind of New England nationalism. That gap was interesting to me. Plus, the evidence is very rich: in addition to his dazzling painted work, Copley and his kin left hundreds of letters, which is true for very few artists. Those letters allowed a muddled, middling character to emerge from the swirl of events in the age of revolution. Like a Copley portrait, he’s a well mottled character. We have too few of those in the literature of revolutionary heroes and villains.

TR: In 2008, your novel Blindspot, co-written with Jill Lepore, was published. How does writing a historical novel differ from writing non-fiction? Do you think that experience influenced your writing of A Revolution in Color?

JK: Blindspot actually introduced me to Copley’s letters; Fanny Easton, the protagonist I wrote for that novel, is based in many ways on Copley. Writing a novel was a wonderful chance to think about the past in sensory and affective terms. Writing history is a more distant enterprise in many ways, but Blindspot taught me fresh ways to seek the story, and to think about reading the past forward, and from the inside out.

TR: What is your current/next project?

JK: I’m working on another biography of an artist in an age of revolution: the feminist pornographer Candida Royalle (1950-2015). It’s a departure in many ways, but has surprising continuities as well. I’m still living part-time in the eighteenth century, via a number of teaching and writing projects.

CFP: SHEAR 2018 in Cleveland

The 40th annual meeting of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic will convene July 18 – 22, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio.

The program committee invites proposals for sessions and papers exploring all aspects of and approaches to the history and culture of the early American republic, c. 1776-1861. We particularly encourage submissions that

  • reflect the diversity of the past, but also address the most pressing issues of the present;
  • fill gaps in the historical narrative and/or historiography;
  • focus on pedagogy, public history, digital humanities, and other alternative methodologies;
  • foster audience participation, feature pre-circulated papers, or assess the state of a given field.

Individual proposals will be considered, but the program committee gives priority to proposals for complete panels that include a chair and commentator. Attention should be given to forming panels with gendered, racial, institutional, and interpretive diversity, representing as well different professional ranks and careers. Individuals interested in serving as chairs or commentators should submit a one-page curriculum vitae. Please do not agree to serve on more than one proposed panel. The committee reserves the right to alter and rearrange proposed panels and participants. Please employ the guidelines available under the “Annual Meeting” menu when preparing your proposal.

All submissions should be filed as one document (Word doc preferred), labeled with the first initial and surname of the contact person (e.g., “SmithJ2018”). All proposals must include

  • Panel title and one-paragraph description of panel’s topic
  • Email addresses and institutional affiliations for designated contact person and each participant
  • A title and description in no more than 100 words for each paper
  • A single-page curriculum vitae for each participant, including chairs and commentators
  • Indication of any needs for ADA accommodation or requirement
  • Indication of any audio-visual requests (please request only if A/V is essential to a presentation)

Deadline for submission is December 1, 2017. Please submit your proposals by email ( to the program committee co-chairs with “SHEAR2018” in the subject line.

Lorri Glover, St. Louis University, co-chair

Ami Pflugrad-Jackisch, University of Toledo, co-chair

Sean Adams, University of Florida

Christopher Bonner, University of Maryland College Park

Emily Conroy-Krutz, Michigan State University

Vanessa M. Holden, Michigan State University

Johann Neem, Western Washington University

Honor Sachs, Western Carolina University

Christine E. Sears, University of Alabama at Huntsville

Chernoh Sesay, DePaul University

Christina Snyder, Indiana University Bloomington

Interview with Matthew Karp, 2016 SHEAR Broussard Book Prize Co-Winner

Matthew Karp is Assistant Professor of History and Elias Boudinot Bicentennial Preceptor at Princeton University. His book This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (2016) was co-winner of the James Broussard Best First Book Prize.

The Republic (TR). For those who haven’t read your book, would you please provide a synopsis?
Matthew Karp (MK): The book explores the ways that southern slaveholders directed U.S. foreign policy in the decades before the Civil War. Slaveholders were overrepresented in every branch of the antebellum federal government, but as presidents, cabinet officers, congressional committee chairmen, and diplomats, they were especially dominant in the realm of foreign and military policy. After the shock of British emancipation in the Caribbean, the book argues, antebellum southern elites came to understand the United States as the western hemisphere’s leading champion of slavery. Slaveholders embraced an assertive, even aggressive foreign policy that mustered the full force of the federal government to help protect slave property across the hemisphere, from Texas to Cuba to Brazil. The antebellum era’s most ambitious military reformers were proslavery leaders like Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur of Virginia and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. Far from isolated reactionaries, decrying the advance of modernity, America’s most powerful slaveholders were confident that slavery — by the 1850s, more extensive and more prosperous than ever — was fully compatible with modern development on a global scale. Only the victory of Abraham Lincoln and the antislavery Republican Party in 1860 convinced southern elites to abandon the United States and found their own independent slaveholding republic.

TR: What led you to choose this topic for your book?
MK: It goes back a while. As an undergraduate, my favorite courses were on 20th century U.S. foreign policy — with class discussions that pivoted on the great ideological and strategic struggles of the 20th century, between fascism, communism, and capitalism. It occurred to me that not many people wrote about 19th century foreign relations in the same terms, even though the struggle over slavery was in some ways just as epochal and just as international. I did my undergraduate thesis on slavery, antislavery and the British response to the U.S. annexation of Texas. In graduate school, working with two historians of the South (Steven Hahn and Stephanie McCurry), I decided to focus more explicitly on the South and foreign policy. That led pretty directly to the foreign policy of slavery.

TR: Which historians and/or writers most influenced your research for this book?
MK: That would be a long list — and my endnotes probably tell the story more eloquently than anything I can say here. But to zoom out for a bit, my list should probably begin with W.E.B. DuBois, whose writings on Atlantic slavery and the Civil War era built a kind of foundation for the way we understand these things in the 21st century, even as his work was marginalized by the academy during his lifetime. The book’s epilogue is built around Du Bois’s commencement address at Harvard in 1890, which bore the provocative title “Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization.” Another legendary historian who thought in very large terms, and whose work I find myself returning to again and again, is Eric Hobsbawm. His influence on the book I think is apparent — even, or perhaps especially, when I disagree with him.

Of course, the book was also shaped by the more recent outpouring of scholarship that approaches the early American republic (and American slavery) in international terms. Rather than tick off an endless list of names, I’ll single out two younger historians whose work had a concrete influence on my own. I was thrilled to share the Broussard prize with Caitlin Fitz, whose research on US attitudes toward Latin American revolutions helped me frame and periodize my early chapters, on the emergence of a distinctively proslavery foreign policy after British emancipation. And Brian Rouleau, whose work I’ve cribbed from since grad school, helped me think about US foreign relations not just in terms of armies and territories, but steamships and oceans.

TR: Many Americans seem to accept the notion that the South was a marginalized region that threw off northern oppression in the secession winter of 1860-61. Why do you think that idea persists, despite the voluminous scholarship that historians have produced that shows otherwise?
MK: It’s an interesting question. Part of the problem, I think, is that often this is really a political battle masquerading as a historical debate. For some people, idea of an oppressed antebellum South — fighting off a bullying Northern overdog — has come to play an important role in their own personal and political identities. It’s sort of a proxy war for more complex contemporary struggles, involving race, class, and region. In that sense, I think historians are kidding themselves if they think that these questions can be resolved, or even advanced, by a non-partisan appeal “to the facts.” To the extent that this is a political struggle, it has to be fought politically. That means appealing to people with arguments that resonate with their everyday lives, not brandishing documentary evidence that proves something about secession, however definitive. I’m not saying we should stop making historical arguments — it’s our job to get the facts right, which means rejecting the bogus narrative of Southern oppression — but I don’t think we should kid ourselves that facts alone will move the ball. The climate change battle is another reminder of this.

Tracing the intellectual genealogy of that idea is somewhat easier. The notion that the South was “marginalized” before 1860, I think, really only takes off after the end of the Civil War, when ex-Confederates like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens composed their long and self-serving histories of the rebellion. For a long time, historians continued to look at the antebellum South from the perspective of Appomattox — consciously or unconsciously using the South’s wartime defeat as a way to emphasize southern weakness before the war. My book joins a host of recent scholarship that thinks we should examine the master class from the perspective of Washington DC, where antebellum southerners actually dominated American politics.

TR: What is your current/next project?
MK: I’ve begun work on a book tentatively called The Radicalism of the Republican Party. Spending a dozen years with proslavery southerners has only underlined my feeling that the national victory of an anti-slavery party in 1860 was a surprising and transformative moment in American political history. After all the recent scholarship re-emphasizing the strength and power of the antebellum master class, I think we need to reconsider the origins, growth, and worldview of the party organization that overthrew that class.