The HistoryAccess.com Interview:
By Harold Frost
“In the world of academic scholarship, this kind of book, a general textbook, doesn’t have the same standing as a monograph on a specific historical issue. I think I was a little ambivalent about that fact as I thought about the prospect of getting involved with this book – if I do this kind of work, will I be taken seriously?”
The book is widely used in colleges, universities, and high schools, and has been translated into 10 languages. Sales of the work since its inception are “approaching two million,” reported the New York Times in 2002.
R.R. Palmer (1909-2002), the book’s original author, taught history at Princeton, Washington (St. Louis), and Yale Universities. He brought a co-author to the book in the ’50s, historian Joel Colton of Duke University. The Palmer & Colton team welcomed Kramer to the enterprise in the late 1990s; the book’s 10th edition was published in 2006, and an 11th is expected in the next few years.
Q. Please give your basic life story, Prof. Kramer, the 10-minute version of how you got to be sitting in an office in the history department at the University of North Carolin.
A. I was born in Tennessee, grew up in Arkansas and Indiana, and attended Maryville College as an undergraduate – it’s in Maryville, Tennessee, where my family was from. My grandfather was president of the college when I was a child.
I became a history major at Maryville. I enjoyed the subject but I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to go into the academic profession. I graduated and went to Boston College where I received a master’s degree in history. But I was still uncertain about what I wanted to do. I left American academe for a while and taught in Hong Kong at Lingnan College – I taught Chinese students about American and European history, in English, from 1973-75, using the Palmer/Colton book as a resource.
Everyone was saying in those days that it was impossible to get a job as a historian; I thought that the practical career route was law school. But I discovered in Hong Kong that I loved teaching history. I decided I would try to make it my career. I eventually enrolled at Cornell and studied European intellectual and cultural history, focusing on France from roughly the end of the French Revolution to the late 19th century.
Before going to Cornell I lived for almost a year in Paris. I lived in a tiny room; I studied French and explored the city. I loved that experience.
I later wrote my dissertation about intellectual exiles in Paris – how the experience of expatriation, of living in an unfamiliar culture, can change a person’s understanding of his or her own identity and culture. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my travels, especially in Asia, had given me an interesting perspective on this topic, a feeling for it – how people’s ideas are influenced by the social and cultural context in which they live; how they engage with a new culture and make sense of it. In my dissertation at Cornell I focused on Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, all of whom lived in Paris in the 1830s and ’40s.
I finished the dissertation in 1983. I wasn’t able to get a permanent job at that point, a tenure track job, but I was offered a three-year post-doctoral appointment at Stanford, and I moved to Palo Alto.
I taught in the Western Culture program at Stanford. The program had several tracks including history, literature, and science. In the history track we basically did the intellectual history of Western civilization. A senior professor gave lectures, and the post-doctoral fellows, including me, led discussion seminars. The readings were classics of Western culture – we began with early medieval writers, St. Augustine and so forth, and worked through to the 20th century. I again used Palmer/Colton as a textbook. I learned a great deal at Stanford about the value of a broad, synthetic approach to historical teaching and knowledge; not just focusing on a few decades.
In 1984 another opportunity came along, a three-year appointment at Northwestern that offered me more opportunities to teach my own courses. I moved to Evanston and taught European history for two years. I found it very interesting to be in Chicago; I got to know a number of people not only at Northwestern but also at the University of Chicago, where I participated in a reading group on intellectual history for faculty and graduate students. During my second year there I learned of a tenure track opening in modern European intellectual history at UNC in Chapel Hill. That was exactly what I was looking for. I applied, and was very fortunate to get the job. I came here in the fall of 1986 and have been here ever since.
I was able to come up for tenure early at UNC because I re-worked my dissertation and published it as a book at Cornell University Press a year after I got here – “Threshold of a New World: Intellectuals and the Exile Experience in Paris, 1830-1848.” So in my third year at UNC I was able to come up for promotion to associate professor and was granted tenure.
Meanwhile I worked on my second book, “Lafayette in Two Worlds: Public Cultures and Personal Identities in an Age of Revolutions,” which was published in 1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. There is a bit of background to this. When I was at Cornell in the late 1970s I had a job editing Lafayette’s letters; I got very interested in the relationship between the American and French Revolutions and wrote articles about this. This led to my book about Lafayette.
Q. I’ll insert here a relevant quote from a review of “Lafayette in Two Worlds” in The Journal of Southern History by Matthew Mancini in 1997. I’ll also mention that the book won a couple of prizes. Mancini writes,
In the last fifteen years, Kramer has written numerous articles and a book in which his central preoccupation has been the role of cross-cultural mediation and communication in the formation of individual and group identities. In the person and symbol of Lafayette he has achieved an ideal convergence of theme and subject. Lafayette was to play a mediating, dialectical role, not only in the revolutions (1776, 1789, 1830) but also in the intellectual and political life of his era. His mediations encompassed nations, classes, generations, genders, and, indeed, two great cultural eras: the Enlightenment and Romanticism.
A. Lafayette is an important and intriguing historical figure. And, as the excerpt suggests, yes, my second book was an effort to extend what I had explored in my first book: cross-cultural experiences and the relation between the lives and ideas of people who move among different political and social worlds. “Mediations,” as they’re called.
It was through Lafayette that I first met Bob Palmer. We both attended a conference at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania in 1984 on the 150th anniversary of Lafayette’s death. I had several good conversations with him there about the French Revolution. He was a leading American scholar of the French Revolution and he was quite familiar with Lafayette. He was a student of Louis R. Gottschalk, who had written the standard multi-volume biography of Lafayette.
Q. Did the Palmer/Colton textbook come up in those early conversations you had with Palmer?
A. I don’t think so, although I may have mentioned that I had used and admired the book. I had no thought then of ever working on the book, it never crossed my mind.
So, jumping ahead, after 1989 I devoted myself to this study of Lafayette. I was awarded a fellowship to work on the book at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for the 1991-92 school year. Bob was then a senior fellow at the institute. Every few weeks at least, we would have lunch in the institute’s dining room and talk about all kinds of things – new approaches to history, people in the profession, the books we were writing. Also, Bob and his wife invited my wife and me over to their home. I got to know Professor Palmer pretty well over the course of that year.
Meanwhile, Joel Colton was at Duke, which is eight miles down the road from Chapel Hill. We met through mutual friends. So by the early ’90s I was friends with both Palmer and Colton. I had probably spent more time with Palmer at that point. Again, though, I had no idea that I would one day have a connection with them through their textbook.
I finished the Lafayette book and it was published in 1996. My other project at the time was a history of nationalism from the time of the French Revolution to the latter part of the 19th century; this too turned into a book, which was published in 1998. Meanwhile I was teaching a lot of European history and developing new interests in historical education.
In 1996, around the time the Lafayette book came out, I got a letter from Joel Colton. He said, “We are beginning to think about a new edition of ‘A History of the Modern World’” – the eighth edition had just come out, they were looking ahead to the ninth – “we’re thinking we need to bring somebody into the book.” Bob Palmer was getting to an age where he couldn’t work on the new edition; Joel needed additional help; would I be interested in getting involved? He was not asking me at that point to be a co-author. He simply wanted to know if I would read the most recent edition and write a description of how I thought the book might be revised or expanded or reworked, with particular attention to new methods and perspectives in historiography. They were interested in developing a bit more cultural history in the book and paying more attention to social history and women’s history and so forth.
I did what they asked of me. I don’t know to this day if they were asking several people to do this or if this critique was part of the selection process for picking a new co-author. I never asked. I wrote a commentary, 10 pages probably. One thing I discussed, among several topics, was the under-representation of photographs and images; I felt more could be done in that realm.
I sent my comments to Joel in the fall of ‘96 and didn’t hear anything for awhile. Then Joel contacted me on a winter day and asked me to meet with him at the faculty club at Duke to discuss the possibility of my getting further involved with the book. We talked over the various issues and he invited me to become the new co-author.
This process was handled entirely by Joel. Bob didn’t feel he could actively participate in our discussions. He was well into his 80s at this time and his hearing was not good. He and his wife Esther had left Princeton by then and were living in a retirement community in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, an hour west of Princeton. His mind was active, he was able to do certain things, but as I say, his hearing was failing.
I signed on as a co-author with great pleasure and anticipation. Joel and I turned to the ninth edition, which came out in the fall of 2001.
Q. Alongside your pleasure as you signed on, did you have any trepidation, along the lines of, “Gee, this thing could take over my life”
A. Yes, I did, I had some trepidation. In the world of academic scholarship, this kind of book, a general textbook, doesn’t have the same standing as a monograph on a specific historical issue. I think I was a little ambivalent about that fact as I thought about the prospect of getting involved with this book – if I do this kind of work, will I be taken seriously? Also I felt somewhat intimidated by the sheer size of the project. It’s big, needless to say, and in terms of one’s time and effort, it’s never over – there’s always a new edition on the horizon. On the other hand, I have a deep interest in helping people understand the past, in helping students understand their place in the modern world. Here was a powerful, far-reaching way to do that, more far-reaching than almost any other book I could think of. So even though I had concerns, this was a challenge I wanted to take on.
Q. As you and Joel Colton began to work together, how did you proceed, in terms of nuts-and-bolts tactics?
A. One of the first things we did was engage in conversations with the publisher, McGraw-Hill, about how to organize and improve the book. The publisher solicited input from a group of people who teach history and use the book – college teachers and high school teachers with advanced placement classes – asking them for comment on the text, the maps, the bibliography, any inaccuracies. It’s very helpful for us to have these reader reports. I think the readers get a modest stipend for their work, but mainly I think they do it as a labor of love, and to fulfill a certain professional obligation among scholars. We received input from 10 different readers and kept these suggestions in mind as we proceeded.
The revision process for the ninth edition took off in 1999 just as I was going to Europe for a year to direct a Study Abroad program in Montpellier, France. The publisher supplied me with tear sheets from the eighth edition – a sheaf of printed pages – and I took this material to France and went through the sheets page by page, editing out certain things, and inserting material, writing in longhand. If I wanted to make a lengthy addition, I would attach a whole page of printed material, which I composed on my computer. I remember spending a lot of time on pronouns – the eighth edition still used “he” and “his” a lot, which of course was standard for many years – I would change these to gender neutral references. For example, “A peasant in medieval France often found his crops affected by the weather” became “Peasants in medieval France often found their crops affected by the weather.” I made substantive changes too, focusing especially on cultural themes.
Joel asked me to focus on the early modern period, and the 19th century, while he focused on the 20th century. I sent him chapters from France by FedEx. We also communicated by e-mail.
Joel read everything I sent and made suggestions to me – for example, “I think this is too much detail about Louis XIV’s cultural policy” – and he sent me the chapters he was re-doing, and I made suggestions. So although we had a division of responsibilities in terms of periods, we looked at each other’s proposals for changes. When I returned to North Carolina we went over everything in detail and made sure we agreed on the changes we were each proposing. The process went smoothly.
Meanwhile I also worked on illustrations. For each chapter I made a list of about half-a-dozen ideas for new illustrations. For example, for a section on 18th century France I suggested an image of peasants tilling the fields. We sent our list of proposed illustrations to the publisher. They have an agency that helps find appropriate images in various collections and archives. They would find, let’s say, five or six images of peasants in the field and send us the package, and we would go through those and choose the one that fit best.
Q. Did you and Joel have any major disagreements about historical interpretation?
A. We did not really have any major disagreements. We sometimes had different views on some questions, such as,“Which of these two images works better for our themes in this chapter?” or “Should we include this book in the bibliography?” But these are the kinds of issues that arise whenever two people are working together on a project. We were able to resolve each of our questions without major disagreements because we held the same basic views on how the edition needed to evolve.
Q. Was the publisher supportive in terms of expanding the image budget?
A. Very supportive. They saw it was needed; they know that students today expect more images than students in the past.
Q. Does the publisher impose a page limit on the book?
A. We don’t have a specific page limit, but we’ve tried to keep it somewhere around 1150 to 1200 pages, which is a long book, even for a subject as big as the history of the modern world.
Q. Do you have a staff to help you with the book? Does Joel?
A. I don’t, no, nor does Joel. Bob Palmer never did either. There’s a trick to keeping up with the book, and it’s very simple – do a little bit of work on it all the time, and then, when a new edition is due, work on it intensively, basically every day for a period of months. When I’m working intensively on the book with an eye toward an imminent new edition I devote probably half my work week to it. Meantime I also do my teaching, and a lot of administrative work now that I’m department chair.
One thing Joel pursues all the time is his reading of book reviews. He is a very energetic reader, clipper, and filer of book reviews from places like The New York Review of Books. He is constantly on the look-out for new books and new approaches to different topics, with an eye toward revising the bibliography. Then we try to look into those books to get a sense of how useful they might be for students. We don’t put highly specialized monographs in the bibliography, but if a book has a broad scope, and/or if it changes the reigning view and is of excellent quality, it’s more likely to get put in. I think of the bibliography as one of the most useful aspects of the book. With the most recent edition, the tenth edition, we’ve added a section on useful Websites. Most students now seem to begin with that.
We put out a new edition every four to five years. Some textbook publishers want new editions every three years but we have never done that. My feeling is, about five years is right in order to gain perspective on what really changes in the world, and what really changes in terms of what we need to include in the bibliography. I know that one time, before I became involved with the book, Joel and Bob brought out an edition just before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and they then decided to put out a new edition pretty quickly, more quickly than usual, because all of Russian history and Eastern European history suddenly seemed to be transformed. But this short time between editions was the exception rather than the rule.
It’s difficult, of course, for historians to write about events and trends that are unfolding, and to decide what matters profoundly. Our ninth edition came out in September of 2001. In the wake of 9/11, the publisher said, “Everything’s changing!” Joel and I talked about it and decided not to rush out with a new edition. The next edition, the 10th edition, had, of course, a new section about terrorism and the attack of 9/11 and the start of the Iraq War.
It’s always a question – what is really a world-transforming event? What events fundamentally transform the way people understand their place in the world? How much time needs to pass before one gains historical perspective on an event like 9/11?
Q. You mentioned earlier the goal of helping students understand their place in the modern world. I wonder if you could elaborate on that. Perhaps I could put the question to you this way – what do you say to high school seniors who wonder how a knowledge of Prussia in 1700 will help them understand their place in the 21st century?
A. In other words, why study history?
A. This question comes up a lot from students – the past is so different from today, they say – no computers, no televisions, no cars. What can we learn from the past? I believe that no matter what period of history you study or what culture you study – Prussia in 1700 or any other period or culture – you can learn something about other human beings, and the more you learn about other human beings, the more you learn about yourself. When we look at the way people organized their lives in 1700, and thought about themselves and their families, how they made a living, what their governments were like, and so forth, we gain useful insights into how we do these things in the 21st century. It’s amazing, really, how some of the same issues come back over time, in terms of human relationships, politics, reform, the exercise of power, the difficulties of maintaining a standard of living.
It’s sort of like taking a trip to a foreign country. As you travel, you notice that people do some things that are similar to what we do in our own culture, but they also do some things that are different. They eat food every day, they need shelter and clothing, they have families, religions, political institutions. But in other respects, the foreign country seems very different from yours. They speak a different language. The food is different. The shelter and clothing are different. They perhaps organize their social lives differently, according to different hierarchies and values. By exploring the similarities and differences between your own country and this other country, you’re going to understand more about what it is to be a human being, and you’ll understand new and interesting things about the culture and society in which you happen to live. The study of history works in the same way. You encounter a different world.
The quality of your life will be enhanced as you learn history. You’ll be able to examine and reflect critically upon your life and your work and your relationships with other people. Historical knowledge becomes a valuable tool for analytical, conscious thinking about the clichés and unexamined assumptions that flow constantly through our society.
Q. Do you ever feel daunted by the textbook? By the task you’ve undertaken, compressing the history of the modern world between two covers?
A. Not daunted, but challenged. One of the main challenges is to provide a coherent narrative that also conveys the complexity of historical change. On the one hand, we want to preserve the main theme of the book, the development of the modern world; we want to present that story in a coherent, readable, understandable narrative. So, as we consider a period or an event, we emphasize changes that influenced the emergence of the modern world. On the other hand, we also want to convey the open-endedness of the past, the fact that people of the past could not know where their efforts were leading. We want to get across that sense of uncertainty, confusion, anxiety – they had no idea where things were going. Balancing these two strands is an interesting challenge. We must always bear in mind that the apparent coherence of history is retrospective.
Another challenge, of course, is keeping up with the latest scholarship.
Q. Please talk a bit more about how you do that. For example, the tumultuous events in England in the 17th century have been re-assessed several times over the last 50 years by leading scholars, with regard to the root causes, the impact of certain participants, and so on. How do you track this sort of thing? How do you track scholarly developments without getting inundated?
A. One of the most valuable tools for keeping up is reading book reviews in The American Historical Review. It’s impossible, needless to say, to sit down and carefully read every new history monograph that comes out, but reviews do give a sense of where a field is moving. We depend on a lot of other journals as well, including, as I mentioned, publications that are aimed at wider audiences but that discuss scholarly works, such as The New York Review of Books. Another thing that has been helpful to me has been my service on the editorial boards of historical journals. Right now I’m on the editorial board of The American Historical Review. I am able to see a lot of manuscripts as they develop. It’s one of the ways older scholars keep up with the interests of a rising generation of scholars.
Q. Do you encounter people who say, “Why is there always so much debate about history?”
A. I think that’s quite a common question among people who look at historical scholarship from the outside. It gets phrased in different ways: “Don’t we already know about this?” “What has changed?” “Surely nothing has changed since January of 1793; Louis XVI was executed; that fact will always be true.”
The meaning of the past is never fixed. That’s what makes study of history so fascinating. Every generation, as it studies events and people of the past, notices something new that previous generations failed to see or didn’t emphasize in the same way. A previous generation of historians looked at the French Revolution in terms of a set of political events, the writing of a new constitution, or the new military organization of the French army; a later generation, cognizant of women’s history, social history, cultural history, might look at the role of women, the upheavals in family life, the popularity of novels or political plays and so on. Assessing historical events is like reading a great work of literature – Homer, Shakespeare – every generation will notice something different. This doesn’t mean that former historical narratives are wrong, or ignorant, or misguided. It only means that all knowledge of history is partial and open to further analysis.
Our book probably still includes more political history or the history of public events than the social history of everyday life. Having said that, as social history and cultural history have evolved in the field of historical scholarship, our book has also moved somewhat more in those directions.
Q. Please comment further on the differences in the book today versus 50 years ago.
A. When the book began in the early 1950s there was much less debate in academic circles about Western Civilization as a category of historical thought that carried political and cultural implications. Historians were more likely to believe in the central importance of Europe and certain values that arose there. There was a confidence, an optimism, about the West, and I think the early editions of the book reflect that. The book drew implicitly on the modernization theory of history, popular in the late 1940s and ’50s, which described the world, as we came out of the horrors of World War I and World War II, as moving toward secular modernization, a story that included the rise of science, the rise of modern economies, and the spread of democracy.
The book can be seen over the years as a microcosm of how the historical profession’s understanding of Europe’s place in the world has evolved over the last 50 years. The book has increasingly discussed different regions of the modern world and Europe’s role in global history, especially as we have expanded the part of the book devoted to the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. There’s an increasing willingness in more recent editions to look at the interactions between various parts of the world, though we continue to stress that Europe played a crucial role in most of the developments we think of as representing modernity: democracy, human rights, the industrial revolution, the development of modern technology, the rise of the modern arts.
I think it’s important that we retain the emphasis on Europe. The book is used mostly by European history students rather than world history students, although we have some of the latter, to be sure. The critical new element, as I say, is that you can’t study European history anymore without this global element, especially in the modern era, but in the early modern period too.
Q. You, Colton, and Palmer are all scholars of the history of France. Is this coincidence, or is there something about studying French history that lends itself to this book?
A. I think there’s a certain amount of coincidence here – when I was being recruited, they never said “We’re interested in you because your field is French history” – but I also think that the study of France provides a strong foundation for trying to understand the evolution of the modern world. There is much in the history of France that poses interesting questions about the emergence of modern political ideas, the Enlightenment intellectual traditions, the legacy of the French Revolution, and the development of modern nationalism; the French also developed a strong interest in science, the idea of universal human rights, the economic arguments for building empires, and so on. The history of France can take you into almost every aspect of the emergence of the modern world.
In the late 19th century most young American scholars interested in becoming professional historians, who wanted to focus on Europe, were drawn to Germany and England. After the First World War, with German culture not so popular anymore, France became a second intellectual home for many historians in the United States. Some of the most innovative and interesting studies of French history have come from American historians of France.
Q. What is your view of the Annales school, launched by French historians in the 1930s?
A. It has benefited historical studies by helping historians become more aware of the social foundations of historical events. It broadened the way we think about the history of every aspect of life – not just great public events or world-shaking conflicts or wars or whatever, but every aspect of human activity. The appreciation for the long duration of social life, the deep mentalities of communities, the centrality of cultural values – I think all of that helped historians broaden the way they think about the past. It contributed to the democratization of historical studies and a re-thinking of the old Rankean view of state archives, church archives, and social elites as the repositories of historical data.
Q. Do you see a day when “A History of the Modern World” will be on the Web?
A. We have talked with people about this, with our publisher and various others. Some people say, yes, eventually all books will be on the Web. But there are also surveys that show how students prefer having a book to carry around so that they can read it wherever and whenever they want – even sprawled on the grass in a nice park. The basic view seems to be that published editions of books are not likely to disappear anytime soon, even though people complain about the weight and cost of big books. But, 50 years from now, who knows?
The larger question here has to do with the life of this book, or any book. “A History of the Modern World” has had an amazingly long life. It apparently still speaks to people, and as long as it does, the rationale for updating the book will definitely be there. I don’t see it losing its relevance, but it’s hard to predict what will happen in publishing, in universities, in historical pedagogy, or in future technologies.
Q. Will you start to take over now as the main author?
A. That’s correct. Joel is working on it less now.
Q. Do you feel a sense of deep responsibility to the book – indeed, to history itself?
A. I do. I feel a deep responsibility to honor the quality and integrity of the book even as I help update it. I feel this book has been, and continues to be, a jewel in the historical culture of American society. It’s helped thousands of people understand the history of the modern world, with much more elegant prose than many of the textbooks I knew when I was a student. I should mention that Bob Palmer envisioned the book as a coherent narrative that would reach a wide audience, not just students. People pick up this book and read it for pleasure. Some students may find that hard to believe!
The whole process of revising the book is wonderfully stimulating. I like the challenge of keeping up, and I like being able to write about so many different moments of history rather than focusing on just one culture or historical era.
Q. What are some books you have loved and been influenced by over the course of your career?
A. At a certain point in my 20s I read a lot of novels with a strong historical dimension. I was very taken with “War and Peace” by Tolstoy; I loved its scope and the way he portrayed the complexity of human beings. Also I was fascinated when I read “Notes From Underground” by Dostoevsky. In college I also read quite a bit of philosophy; Sartre’s essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” for example, was important to me.
I became fascinated with intellectual history through works like these – novels and philosophical works that show how human beings live in different places or times and how they try to make sense of the world. History, for me, was a way to explore the complexity and diversity of human life. I couldn’t be a novelist or philosopher for various reasons, but I was fascinated by the layers of thought and experience that these writers explore, the questions they raise about the world. With history I could learn from the lives and ideas of people in the past as I tried to understand the problems and relationships in my own life and society.
Q. I want to ask you, finally, the following question. Bismarck supposedly was asked on his deathbed in 1898, “What is the single most important factor in modern history?” He purportedly replied, “The fact that the North Americans speak English.” I would like to ask you the same question.
A. I would say the most significant transformative event of modern history was the European discovery of the New World. It’s as if, today, we were to discover sentient beings on another planet. So shocking. So disorienting. So full of possibilities. The discovery itself; also the subsequent expansion of economic, political, and cultural connections among people in all parts of the world – the integration of the whole world into the global systems which resulted from the discovery. Just think of it – all of that new awareness of places that no one in Europe, Asia, or Africa even knew existed. It took a long time for the people of the 16th and 17th centuries to make sense of this development in terms of geography, psychology, religion, and so on, but it eventually affected and transformed everybody, on both sides of the Atlantic. A good book on the early historical transformation is “The Old World and the New: 1492-1650” by J.H. Elliott. The history of cross-cultural exchanges and conflicts has constantly expanded and accelerated from that era until today. Human history has become a global history. ●