What I’m Reading: An Interview With Historian Carla Pestana

tags: interview, Carla Pestana

Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor.


Carla Gardina Pestana is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles and the Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America in the World. 

What books are you reading now?

I have a number of different books going at the moment. Disaffection and Everyday Life in Interregnum England by Caroline Boswell, a book I agreed to review, came to me because I listed myself as a military historian (among other categories) on the website, Women Also Know History. This site makes available information about women’s expertise as historians in order to promote the expertise of women historians. Since it was the first request I had received that mentioned having found me there, I felt compelled to agree. Otherwise I seldom review books these days. 

For recreational reading, I just finished Tigerbelle, The Wyomia Tyus Story, an autobiography of an Olympian. I don’t generally read either auto/biographies or modern history, but Ty is a family friend so I made an exception. It’s an interesting account, especially for what it shows about her world, which became dramatically wider (she was raised in the rural south but traveled extensively as a result of her athletic expertise) as well as for the gender dynamics prevailing in the era when she was coming up as an Olympian. 

More work-related but equally enjoyable has been reading Elena Schneider’s The British Occupation of Havana. I’ve been awaiting this study of the 1762 occupation of the supposedly impregnable Cuba port city. Through Schneider’s treatment we can see clearly that imperial boundaries were frequently crossed (in wartime as well as during periods of peace), and regional residents routinely failed to cooperate in efforts to close off one empire from another. That and her treatment of the role of slaves and free people of color in the defense and subsequent occupation of the city are profoundly illuminating. Her’s is one of a spate of excellent new books on the early Caribbean. 

All this is not to mention the doctoral dissertation on Haitian independence and land that I just finished or the many books and articles I am rereading in order to decide if I should assign them for my winter quarter class. There’s always too much reading to do. 

What is your favorite history book? 

This seems like an impossible question, because there are so many amazing books. I have recommended certain books to many people, so I guess that is one measure. Mr. Bligh’s Bad Language is a great book, and Greg Dening was a scholar I always admired as well as a lovely person. I used to teach Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, along with the related debates. I liked that book for how it shows the way the historian does her work. When I was a graduate student I read (in the same week in my first term) Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside and Perry Miller’s The New England Mind: From Colony to Province. This conjunction set me to thinking: how could both these realities have coexisted. My M.A. thesis (which was published in the New England Quarterly in 1983) represented my first attempt to answer that question; and my dissertation—on religious radicalism in early New England—followed and extended my effort to understand how England produced Quakerism and other forms of radicalism even as newly-founded New England embraced orthodoxy and policed its borders with violent results. 

Recently, I have read a number of wonderful books about Caribbean history: Elena Schneider’s book on Havana, but also David Wheat’s Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean, 1570-1640and Molly Warsh’s American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700. I’m preparing to teach a new course on Atlantic history, so I have an enormous stack of such books to go through.   

Why did you choose history as your career?

The simple answer: my undergraduate teachers suggested I try graduate school. Growing up I knew no professors, indeed nobody with a Ph.D. But I loved reading and history, so I was amenable to the suggestion. I have never looked back: I went directly into graduate school from undergrad, and carried right on through M.A., Ph.D., and—somewhat miraculously—to a first position that was a tenure-track job at a good school. It all worked out amazingly well, although it seemed a crazy path, an unimaginable future, at the time when I took it up. If I had known I would become so passionate about being a historian that I would go live in another state for decades, away from family and my beloved Los Angeles, I wonder what I would have done. But, after a long haul, I managed to come home, and take a position at my graduate institution. I now work 15 miles from where I was born, and not too many academics can say that. 

The more complex answer: I find entering an alternate world an interesting way to use my intellectual abilities. Immersing oneself in a particular time and place in order to come to know it well is a fascinating process. At times in my career I have become so thoroughly immersed in my research that I have gotten mixed up about the number properly assigned to the current month; during the era I study, the first of the year was in March, which made December (quite sensibly) the tenth month. On the rare occasion that I can stay in the seventeenth century for an extended time, I have to remind myself that September is not in fact (any longer) the seventh month. 

I once read an essay by Edmund Morgan who suggested that we focus our research questions on what doesn’t make sense. That insight and instruction strikes me as apt in that it’s the disjunctions, the perplexities, which draw the eye and demand to be explored. When we complete that exploration, we so often find something unexpected and revealing. I would take his observation one step further, to say that as we come to know a time and place well, we become more sensitive to the unexpected. Some projects, of course, dig into unknown topics and archives but most re-consider (through deeper research or new questions) already studied topics. I find my work always shifts back and forth between verities (often contained in the historiography) that need to be challenged, and archival sources that open up the possibility of answers. That tension keeps the intellectual life of the historian interesting. 

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Well, I don’t know about all historians, but I am tenacious, organized, and detail-oriented. I have trouble taking no for an answer, so I just keep digging and trying to figure out what I want to know. While I have never minded (indeed I cherish) time spent alone at my desk or in an archive, struggling with writing and with research, I also thoroughly enjoy the opportunities that my work gives me for thinking with others. I enjoy talking to people—students, colleagues, or the public—about ideas and about the past. I am equally pleased by the solitary and the communal aspects of this work. Ideally you can do both, work alone and with others. I feel that being able to support oneself through work as a historian is a great privilege. 

Who was your favorite history teacher? 

Another difficult question since I have benefited from the teaching and guidance of so many great history teachers. Besides my father who was not a history teacher but was prodigiously intelligent and would answer all my childhood questions about history, a high school teacher leaps to mind. Milton (Mickey) Sirkus was a great teacher. When I think back now about his pedagogical approach, I have to laugh. In an honors history class I took with him in high school, he used teasing each of his students about her or his heritage as a way to engage us in U.S. history. It is hard to imagine a teacher today who would use such a hook, and even at the time it struck me as rather edgy. It was the case that we defended our immigrant ancestors or relatives, and their contributions to U.S. history more energetically than we might have otherwise, since he engaged us on a personal level. I never thought much about what my ancestors and older relatives had faced because they were the children of immigrants until that class. He used sarcasm and teasing in a way I would not feel comfortable doing. As one example of that, when I wrote to him many years later to explain that I had gone on from his history class through college and graduate school to become a historian, he wrote back to welcome me to the ranks of the unemployed. It was in fact a terrible time for finding a history position in a university, but luckily he was eventually proved wrong on that score.  

Since my high school history class, I had excellent teachers at my undergraduate alma mater (people who pointed me toward graduate school) and in my graduate program too. I was fortunate to go to UCLA to pursue a graduate degree in early American history in the 1980s. I started working with Gary Nash, who was an amazing lecturer, galvanizing the undergraduates in his big classes, and an excellent editor, giving the best readings of my written work that I have encountered anywhere. My second year at UCLA, Joyce Appleby joined the faculty, and she was stunningly accomplished in all aspects of the work we do. She served as a role model for so many of us—so smart and no nonsense. I am so pleased to have a chair at UCLA now named in her honor. 

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

I used to employ a first-day exercise in smaller classes that both the students and I enjoyed. I’d ask them to write down and pass up their earliest historical memory, and then I would write all their answers of the board. Then we’d discuss the list from numerous angles, starting with what criteria they had used to decide an event was historical. We discussed what guides us in making that sort of a call, and what examples of formal historical writing might align with their choices. The exercise always resulted in a great first-day discussion, one that often ranged widely. I have to say, doing it also brought home to me the ages of my students, as I watched their earliest events move forward in time. I haven’t done that in a while, but I do remember it fondly. 

These days I am enjoying the work I do at UCLA with transfer students. Some of the best undergrads I have taught here have been from the local community colleges, transferring in as juniors. They undergo a bit of culture shock, but at the same time they are eager, smart and enthusiastic. I have thoroughly enjoyed overseeing undergraduate honors theses with a handful of them.  

What are your hopes for history as a discipline? 

I work with so many smart, engaged young people that I am able to remain hopeful. It is easy to bemoan these anti-intellectual times and to worry about what will happen to the American university system and to our ability as a society and a culture to engage intellectually. Yet many people care deeply about learning, including learning about the past, and they work at the thinking and writing that we—whether as producers or consumers—need to keep history going as a discipline and as a form of knowledge. So in spite of the gloomy prognostications, I remain hopeful. History is a foundational component of a humanist education, and it is something that many people beyond the academy know to be valuable. I’m toying with writing a book for a popular audience in part to try to make some of the work we do in the academy more accessible and interesting to those outside it.  

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?  

I don’t own any particularly rare or collectible books, although I do still have my beloved print copy of the OEDThe Oxford English Dictionary—in two volumes, with its magnifying glass in the little drawer that allows me to read the many pages printed on each sheet.  

As for artifacts, I have received some fun items as gifts from former students. One gave me an old nautical sextant—appropriate to my work on maritime history and privateers—while another gave me a framed sheet out of an early edition of John Foxe’s The Actes and Monuments (better known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)—a gift relevant to my work on religion. I also have a counted cross stitch sampler that replicates one from the late seventeenth century. The original maker was a New England girl who grew up to join the Quaker meeting in Lynn, Massachusetts, a meeting and a community that I wrote about in my first book. My mother stitched it for me as a gift while I was writing a dissertation that included this girl, Hannah Breed, and other people from her community. 

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

When you ask about my career, I assume you mean my own personal triumphs and trials. If that’s the intention, I have to admit that I have been extremely privileged and lucky, so both the high points and the low occurred in that context. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of my privileged position has been being able to take all the time I wanted and needed to write a second book. I got tenure based on the first book, so despite the pressure to publish again quickly (and the harsh strictures from one department chair in particular about “frozen associate professors” who didn’t finish a second book promptly), I produced a second book (The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661) that differed drastically from my first. It took me forever to learn all that I needed in order to be confident about that book and to send it out into the world, but it was a better book for it. I am glad I did not bend to the pressure (whether self-inflicted, institutional, or otherwise) to be fast, and the tenure system allowed me that opportunity. That book might still be my personal favorite of those I have so far written, because of how far I had to stretch to write it. It didn’t help matters that I had two children over the course of researching and writing it, either. 

That is the perfect lead in to the frustrations. Like many women in my cohort, I did experience the challenges of having babies at an institution with no pregnancy leave policy. My female colleagues thought I should go ask what arrangements would be possible, but the chair of the department looked at me blankly. It was aggravating, but because I didn’t have tenure the first time around, I just thanked him and left. I didn’t become better at advocating for myself the second time, either, even though by then I did have tenure. My children are in their early to mid-20s so this was not all that long ago. Most women academics then of my acquaintance who were older than me did not have children, and if they did they often had them before they joined a department. If you found yourself in my situation, you were supposed to hope your baby arrived in the summer, best of all in early summer, so you could spend a little time at home; if the baby was born at a different time of the year, you might be allowed to teach an overload, bank some courses, and get a little time off that way. Some colleagues seemed to think that one should not try to be an academic and a mother. I managed, as did others, but the lack of support or even awareness was a source of frustration. 

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career? 

I have been at this a while, so it has changed in various ways. In my own original field of early American history, when I was in graduate school my fellow students were doing the “New Social History,” studying various groups in society often using quantitative methods. The cultural turn had already overtaken literature departments but was just coming into historians’ awareness. Soon that became the dominant approach, but at the same time areas such as Native American history were blossoming too. Today it seems that some of those early seeds of the social history scholarship—especially its engagement with race, class and (eventually) gender—has paid big dividends, reshaping the ways we think about so many topics.  

In my own historical scholarship, I have been most conscious of the shift in geographical frames. Today Atlantic history seems a bit passé, but the shift out from British North America felt startlingly true and profound at the time. When I was a graduate student, colonial America meant the thirteen colonies that became the United States and the only external links that matter were back to Britain. Most projects were framed within a single colony, and the bent toward social history meant detailed archival work within a relatively narrow geographical framework. Looking up from that narrow landscape to perceive the connectedness of various places not in North America and indeed not within the English imperial boundaries felt like a revelation.  

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I do not like the usual history sayings, because they often assume some simple connection between the past and the present that I perceive to be wrong. For instance, I don’t agree that history repeats itself. Or rather, as George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Even Karl Marx’s version, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce” doesn’t strike me as entirely accurate. The factors that shape our present are so complex and multifaceted that attempts to achieve or avoid a particular outcome usually set into motion numerous unintended consequences—that (more than the repeat nature of history or our ability to remember it and thereby keep it from repeating) is what strikes me most often as I study the intentions of historical actors. 

I am rather more enamored of the L.P. Hartley observation, which points in the opposite direction: that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The opening line of his novel could actually be read as a caution to those who look for repetition or simply lessons, since that often involves ignoring the differences. 

For the sheer pleasure of following its twisted history in our popular culture, I do rather like Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” I read it in its original context, before it developed a life of its own, in an article about what was considered proper behavior for women. Laurel meant it as a straightforward description of the cultural ideal: women were not to draw attention to themselves but to remain quietly in their proscribed roles. She was not issuing a call to revolution or advocating that women should misbehave and make history. But the quotation got picked up and flipped from its original meaning to its opposite. That reversal is fascinating, and I particularly love how people attribute it to various women (such as Eleanor Roosevelt) who purportedly said it to advocate that women make trouble and call attention to the need for change. Laurel has written a book on the whole phenomenon, in part to get all those who know her to stop sending her pictures of it misattributed on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and protest signs. 

The strange history of that history quotation makes it fun. It remains ubiquitous, and I bet people still email Laurel about its odder appearances. I’ve long since quit doing so, although I continue to see it around. 

What are you doing next?

Well, I am chair of my department, so I am doing a great deal of university service. I care deeply about my department and my university, so I don’t mind giving some of my time over to this work. But that obligation does mean that I will produce less scholarship in the short term. I do have a book manuscript on Plymouth Plantation that I am trying to finish for the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing. It differs from anything I have done before, in that it is aimed at a popular audience. I was inspired to write it by an extended visit to the living history museum that reenacts Plymouth, having been brought in along with others to help the staff there to update their historical coverage. That experience got me thinking about Plymouth and how we Americans envision it. My impulse to create this work owes something to the fact that I wrote for a few years for the Huffington Post. Writing for a popular audience about the intersections between the past that I study and current events proved a challenging discipline; 800 words are very few (at least for the historian who writes 200 page books), and the need to respond quickly and in a focused fashion I found invigorating. I am trying to bring what I learned doing that to this new project. 

As usual—as has been the case since the start of my career—I also have a little Quaker piece I am mulling over. My very first research project as a graduate student was on the Quakers, and I keep coming back to them with various questions and ideas. And finally, I mean to get back into the Jamaican archives, to follow up some of what I was doing with my previous book. So, lots to do, but not enough time to do it all. Isn’t that always the case?

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