Publication Date

August 28, 2018

Perspectives Section

Member Spotlight, Perspectives Daily

Sarah E. Gardner is distinguished professor of History at Mercer University. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and has been a member since 1991.

Twitter: @bookhistorian

Sarah E. GardnerAlma maters: BA (history and political science), Miami University, 1989; MA (history), Miami University, 1990; PhD (history), Emory University, 1996

Fields of interest: intellectual history, literary history, 19th-century America

Describe your career path. What led you to where you are today? I was fortunate to attend a college that had a particularly robust and energetic history department. Jack Kirby encouraged me to pursue history. Michael O’Brien helped me develop and refine my research interests. And Elliott Gorn taught me the value of constructive criticism. He still does. Without these three, I never would have considered pursuing a PhD in history.

What projects are you currently working on? I am currently working on a manuscript that examines reading during the American Civil War. I am particularly interested in the ways in which the war’s participants (both combatants and witnesses) strove to maintain their sense of humanity in the face of destruction and loss. These are abiding concerns. The conditions of battle and the manner of wars’ prosecution might have changed over the past 150 years, but questions of our capacity for inhumanity remain.

Reading proved one way for Civil War-era Americans to remind themselves that they were connected to others, that they were still capable of maintaining bonds of affection even as war’s destructive elements threatened their continuance. In its exploration of the ways in which soldiers and those on the home front coped with war’s exigencies through reading, it elucidates the human experience of warfare. As I finish up the manuscript I have begun working on a few journal articles and essays, each of which focuses in some way or another on the literary marketplace in the latter half of the nineteenth century. And I am co-editing two volumes of essays—one with Steven M. Stowe, the other with Natalie J. Ring—that pertain to intellectual life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Have your interests evolved since graduation? If so, how? I have always been interested in intellectual and literary history. That said, my research interests have evolved as the profession has evolved. The history of the book, of print culture, and of reading have become increasingly vibrant over the past few decades. These subfields have put me in conversation with scholars whose disciplinary training differs from my own. They have encouraged me to read widely and consider alternative approaches to my subject.

What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve ever found at the archives or while doing research? That is a tough question to answer. With a new project, it is often hard to know what is fascinating until one has worked in a collection for a while. The context makes the anecdote, the memo, the diary entry, or the name in the records book fascinating. I try to read as much in a collection as possible given time and financial constraints, even if the material might not seem immediately pertinent. What once seemed prosaic can become fascinating. New avenues of inquiry open up.

I once came across a thick folder that documented a contretemps about a book review. The row seemed consistent with the personalities involved. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. But I still had questions. Those questions led to a book. On the flip side, I remember coming across diary entries from a Civil War soldier who raved about a British domestic novel that he was reading in camp. That struck me as odd. Then I read entries from countless soldiers who had similar responses to the same novel. What had seemed unexpected and idiosyncratic, I learned, turned out to be quite common. New questions emerged, which led me to my current project.

What do you value most about the history discipline? As with any field of humanist inquiry, history appeals to reason and evidence. We each ask different questions and reach different conclusions. And that is what keeps things interesting.

Why is membership in the AHA important to you? The AHA is the public face of the profession. Its advocacy of our discipline, and of the humanities in general, seems especially crucial given the current climate. And its promotion of the work we do as scholars, as teachers, as public intellectuals, reminds us that we have important parts to play in the academy and in civic life.

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, Perspectives Daily features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series.

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Matthew Keough
Matthew Keough

American Historical Association