Expectations, surprises, and creative liberation

Guest post by Daniel Kilbride

I suppose that every historian approaches a research subject, even a new one about which he or she might know very little, with certain expectations. Some of us do much more: several years ago, a young historian shocked me with his very ambitious itinerary for research, writing, and publication. When I asked him how he expected to conduct his research so quickly, he replied that he knew what he wanted to find; not worried about finding contrary evidence that would contradict his preconceptions, he would simply record what he needed to confirm his thesis and move on to the next collection, the next library. Few historians, one hopes, are so mercenary (or, as my students like to put on their resumes, “goal-oriented”), but certainly it is the rare researcher who approaches a new project with no preconceptions.

I had some of my own assumptions when I began work on Being American in Europe. I feared that I might be very bored. More than one person has asked me if reading the letters, diaries, and travelogues of early Americans isn’t unlike watching the interminable slide show of your niece’s Disney vacation. Thematically, I knew that the spread-eagled nationalism of the pre-Civil War era makes our era’s sometimes cringe-worthy patriotism seem mild by comparison. I thought the paradoxical combination of excessive self-regard and sense of inferiority vis-à-vis the Old World would produce among Americans abroad a positively belligerent attitude toward Europe.  Sometimes I was right on both counts. In my worst moments with the sources, I pined for something as banal as an album of photos with Mickey, Minnie, and the Princesses. There is nothing that makes an afternoon seem quite so endless as a folder full of dull travel letters. I also came across quite a few figures that in a later era would be described as “ugly Americans.” Being American in Europe opens and closes with such a figure, Philadelphian Harry McCall, who sat in cafés across Britain and the Continent, writing letters that shot venom at the men and women who passed by his table.

More often, though, I was wrong (and was delighted to find myself mistaken). Many of my sources were not only vividly descriptive of European scenes, but marvelously opinionated—and opinions are a cultural historian’s bread and butter. Additionally, apropos of my second fear, these opinions were also surprisingly self-critical. Travelers, it turned out, did not solely venture abroad on a mission to vindicate the United States against the corrupt Old World. They were certainly anxious to justify their young republic, but they were eager to do so on Europe’s terms: they wanted not to separate themselves from western civilization, but to situate themselves within it.  The central theme of Being American in Europe is how travelers navigated the tension between the nationalist impulse to define a distinctive American identity against the secular and religious despotisms of the Old World and the post-colonial wish to orient the United States within western civilization.

This brings me back to the question of expectation. The discovery that Americans were not implacably hostile to Europe set me free. It forced me to abandon the hypothesis that had governed my early research. It compelled me to allow the sources to determine my thesis—a commonsensical orientation, I know, but one (see the anecdote above) that historians oftentimes resist, to their peril. Admittedly, I should have known better. I came to the topic of travel by way of my first book, An American Aristocracy, in which I studied southern travelers to Philadelphia in the era of the sectional conflict. Then, following the scholarship, I expected to find planter women and men interpreting Philadelphia through a haze of prejudices culled from proslavery literature. Instead, I found cosmopolitan people who thrived amidst the energy of America’s second-largest city. I suppose that experience should have cautioned me against putting too much stock in preconceptions. But, when preconceptions fall, they fall hard—and the result can force a writer to let the sources speak candidly to him or her. As a result, I was able to see that the task of being American in Europe was a lot more complicated than I had imagined it to be.

kilbrideDaniel Kilbride is an associate professor of history at John Carroll University in Ohio. He is the author of An American Aristocracy: Southern Planters in Antebellum Philadelphia.