a1 University of Illinois at Chicago
When we attend academic history conferences, it has become common to hold sessions honoring important books of the moment. This makes considerable sense, as authors get to engage with thoughtful critics in a process that, we hope, advances the discipline.
What, then, might be the point of holding a session in honor of a book published long ago—indeed, one as ancient as fifty years old? The minimalist reason might be that we are historians, and so we naturally look to the past for interest and inspiration. That would make sense, except that historians, ironically more than scholars in related disciplines, tend to cannibalize their predecessors. Sociologists, of course, still actively engage Weber, Durkheim and Marx, and even—looking to the American midcentury— Richard Hofstadter's Columbia University colleagues, C. Wright Mills and Robert Merton.
Robert D. Johnston is associate professor and director of the Teaching of History Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His publications include The Radical Middle Class: Populist Democracy and the Question of Capitalism in Progressive Era Portland, Oregon (Princeton University Press, 2003), winner of the President's Book Award of the Social Science History Association. He is currently at work on a history of vaccination controversies in the United States, to be published by Oxford University Press.
1 I dedicate this essay to my fellow Jewish populist, Bernie Weisberger—a baseball fanatic who's always kept the progressive, democratic faith and who provided important criticisms of a draft. I first presented these musings as a talk at the joint meeting of the British American Nineteenth Century Historians and the Society of the History of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era at Cambridge University in October 2005, and the animated reaction I received there proved quite useful. I'd also like to acknowledge the aid of Paul Bass, Robert Devens, Gillis Harp, Laura Kalman, Jeff Ostler, Charles Postel, and, for talented research support, Milena Sjekloca and Meghan Thomas. Most of all, I wish to thank Alan Lessoff for inviting the essay and for his excellent intellectual challenges. A note on spelling: while scholars have begun to prefer “antisemitism,” most of the titles and quotes cited here use the older “anti-Semitism.”