Aaron Sachs, 37
Aaron Sachs is this week's Top Young Historian!
Assistant Professor of History and American Studies, Cornell University
Area of Research: 19th century US, Intellectual history, Environmental history
Education: Ph.D., American Studies, Yale University, 2004
Major Publications: Sachs is the author of The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism(Viking, August 2006); based on his dissertation, The Humboldt Current: Avant-Garde Exploration and Environmental Thought in 19th-Century America. A paperback version of the book is due out from Penguin in August 2007. There is also a British version of the book: The Humboldt Current: A European Explorer and His American Disciples (Oxford University Press, February 2007).
Sachs is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Andrew W. Mellon Short-Term Fellowship, Massachusetts Historical Society, 2006-7;
Humanities research grant, Society for the Humanities, Cornell University, Summer, 2006;
John Addison Porter Prize (for PhD dissertation), Yale University, 2005;
George Washington Egleston Historical Prize (for PhD dissertation), Yale University, 2005;
Prize Teaching Fellowship, Yale University, 2003-4;
Mrs. Giles Whiting Dissertation Fellowship, 2003-4;
Graduate Affiliate Fellowship, Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, 2003-4;
John F. Enders Research Fellowship, Yale University, 2002;
Jacob K. Javits Fellowship, U.S. Department of Education, 1998-2002;
Huntington Library Research Fellowship, 2001-2;
Howard R. Lamar Center for the Study of Frontiers and Borders Research Grant, Yale University, 2001-2;
Beinecke Library Research Fellowship, 2001;
Honorary Mellon Fellowship, 1998-9;
Project Censored Award in U.S. journalism, for an article on Nigerian playwright and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa, 1997;
Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, 1992;
Best Senior Thesis in History and Literature, Harvard University, 1992.
Sachs is a member of the Advisory Board for the website"Humboldt in the Net" www.uni-potsdam.de/u/romanistik/humboldt/index_eg.html, fall 2004-present.
Sachs was also a former environmental journalist, and a regular contributer to the magazine"World Watch."
When I was a senior in college, I wrote my honors thesis in History and Literature without really thinking about who would read it. I considered it a historical research project, a creative writing project, a thought-piece about where the environmental movement was going, and a collaboration of sorts with my adviser, who over the course of about two years had become a close friend. In short, I considered it a true"essay": not a comprehensive or definitive study (if such a thing has ever existed), but simply an attempt. Little did I know that, a couple of months later, I would be initiated into that strange academic rite so misleadingly referred to as"peer review."
I'll never forget the Reader's Report on top of the pile. It was penned by someone who had won the Pulitzer Prize in History—twice. And it seemed to me to be, well, kind of mean-spirited. Fifteen years later, I've of course seen much nastier, but what struck me at the time was how rule-bound the writer's perspective was. Apparently, there was a Code of Conduct for Academic History Writing, and I had ripped it up and trampled on it. My sins were many, but the one that this particular reader simply could not abide, the one that compelled him to rail against me for the bulk of his Report, the one that confirmed ineluctably my identity as an arrogant, pretentious, indulgent, opposite-of-tough-minded Student Who Would Not Be Governed, was my use of the first person. The thesis, by way of reference, was 139 pages long. I had used the first-person singular exactly four times.
Now, I don't want to pretend to have been more naive than I actually was, and I should certainly note that my adviser warned me about all the rules I was breaking (and then, excellent adviser that he was, encouraged me to do whatever I wanted). But, ever since 1992, I have been continually shocked at the virulence with which academics will lash out at those who break what they perceive to be The Rules. Honestly, I have always thought that it was part of the job of an intellectual and a writer to question professional assumptions and to push the limits of whatever genre one might be working in. But I guess if you attempt to write history using what Gibbon called"the most disgusting of pronouns," you are automatically lacking good taste and fostering the general breakdown of"objectivity."
With all due respect to my interlocutors, I have been asking for 15 years why it is that academic historians insist either on erasing their personas or on turning to the ridiculously royal-sounding"we" or the awkward, self-deluding formality of"the author," but not once have I gotten a compelling answer. Needless to say, then, ever since I received that first Reader's Report, I have been trying to use the first-person singular in my historical writing as often as possible. This practice has generated its share of rejection, scorn, and misunderstanding, but it has also allowed me to maintain a sense of self in the all-too-impersonal world of academia, and I also think it has made me a better teacher. Certainly, my students seem to appreciate the encouragement I give them to develop their own personal relationship to essay topics rather than simply prove they have understood the course readings in a particular way.
I'll readily admit that I sometimes use the first person rather selfishly. I hope that it adds a layer of depth to my analysis, but what I care about most is that it allows me to tap different aspects of what I take to be my core identity. Or, if you were my therapist, you might say that the first person allows me to express my schizophrenia. I enjoy being a historical scholar, but I also want to be a teacher, an environmental activist, and a writer of creative non-fiction—preferably, all in the same essay, however short or long. I doubt I'll ever succeed at wearing all of those hats simultaneously, but no set of rules is going to keep me from the head-spinning joy of trying.
By Aaron Sachs
About Aaron Sachs
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