This presidential address was delivered virtually on January 6, 2021.

Slow History

We all recognize just how much COVID-19 has interfered with our scholarship and teaching. Everything has slowed down, from preparing for classes, to doing research, to completing the simplest tasks of everyday life. Yet in the upheaval we are currently experiencing, as we struggle to remain productive, and we quite justifiably bemoan projects delayed and teaching made more difficult, perhaps we should also seize the opportunity to reflect on the “doing” of history and to isolate what really matters in research, writing, and instruction. Indeed, “slow” has suddenly become fashionable as much as inevitable. A recent article in the Times Literary Supplement by a well-known scholar of Victorian literature, Annette Federico, related her experiences teaching a course called “Slow Dickens.” By “de-accelerating,” by reading Dickens slowly, “there would be no reason to skim, skip, or skimp . . . we’d allow ourselves time to scrupulously enjoy Dickens.” But the payoff was greater: slow reading, as Frederico put it, “activates our own facilities.”1

But slow wasn’t always so fashionable and we as a society have not always appreciated its virtues; indeed, they were often denigrated. Speed is the legacy of the nineteenth century, a function of faster transportation (the railroad, the bicycle, and later the automobile), faster communication (telegraph, then telephone), and the “fast” living of the Bohemian avant-garde. Electric lighting, too, collapsed night into day and made hours “hasty.” Ever more, time became money and the speed-up and specialization of Taylorism the watchwords of efficiency and modernity.2 Stephen Kern in his history of The Culture of Time and Space devoted an entire chapter to “speed,” charting the ways in which technology had transformed 19th- and early 20th-century life.3 But speed not only altered communication and transportation, equally important, and perhaps even more so, was how speed inserted itself into culture and morality. It is interesting to note that Roget’s Thesaurus, first published in 1852, lists mostly negative synonyms for slow: indolent, languid, late, reluctant, stupid, uninteresting.4

Of course, the virtues of speed did not sweep everyone along. As Kern also points out “there ran countercurrents” and tensions always existed between a “speeding reality” and “a slower past,” the latter often expressed in “sentimental elegies about the good old days.”5 Be that as it may, speed was here to stay and could be valorized in new theories about time and space—Einstein’s famous work on relativity—but also in doggerel verse.

There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was faster than light;
She set out one day
In a relative way,
And returned home the previous night.6

Since the middle of the 20th century, and with accelerating velocity over the last 20 years, computer technology and the proliferation of devices that collapse time and distance even further and that often reduce speech to sound-bites, Instagrams, and tweets dominate our lives. For so many of us the most frequent form of human contact and communication over the last few months has been the eponymously named Zoom. We now “zoom” around everywhere in a universe where the whizzing speed of electrons through the ether has obliterated distance.

Yet, and despite the undeniable impact of these enhanced, if also slightly disturbing and disorienting, forms of human interaction, or perhaps because of them, a new emphasis on “slowness” has set in as a direct response to the perceived negativity of speed. Some of it comes from Zoom-fatigue and the strains of distanced learning, some of it bears strong elements of nostalgia and longing for older and putatively better ways of doing things. One root of this attitudinal shift, however, lies in the “slow food movement” born in Italy in 1986 and that has since spread worldwide.7 “Slow food” may seem to have little connection to my topic of “slow history,” but bear with me for a moment and think of the many culinary terms that pop up in academic writing: savor, taste, flavor, relish, tempt, tantalize, simmer, stew.

Slow food might be seen, and has been seen, as something of a limited phenomenon and profoundly elitist. Yet it is also part and parcel of a much broader slow movement that has gained speed in the late 20th century, that is more academic in focus, and that touches more immediately on scholarly practices. In the second decade of the 21st century many scientists, worried about the implications of speed in scientific research, promulgated a series of deliberatively provocative manifestos now collectively understood as “The Slow Science Movement,” of which the most widely known is the one published in 2010 by the “Slow Science Academy” in Germany.8 In a pointed attack on scientific superficiality, celebrity-worship, and media-mongering, they trumpeted: “We are scientists. We don’t blog. We don’t twitter. We take our time.” Of course, the purpose was to shock and to provoke debate; in this, the authors were successful. Contributors to major journals, including Nature, The Scientist, Scientific American, and The Atlantic. soon joined the fray.9 The manifesto directed its criticism at universities and research scholars who chase after grant money without “spending nearly enough time mulling over the big scientific questions that remain to be solved.”10 Of course, not everyone was thrilled with the idea that science should “slow down” and the proponents of slow science were characterized as Aesopian foxes who, unable to participate in the rewards of “fast science” (read: a science often practiced in universities and scientific institutes), cried sour grapes. Moreover, many critics found their arguments muddled, vague, impractical, and unrealistic.

Is there then any sense in thinking about slow history or even postulating its existence? Or is history always slower than fields where a real payoff—in terms of prestige, jobs, and money—comes more immediately? Perhaps. Yet as I thought about historical research, it seemed to me that there was much to say—and that a good deal has already been said—about the many ways in which history is slow and wondered why the subject is not quite so brisant among historians as in other fields; to my knowledge no “slow history” manifesto exists with perhaps a single exception I will discuss later. Indeed, one might argue, such reflection is unnecessary because history is always slow.

Yet, very slow history has often been the target of satire and parody. We are all acquainted with the perfectionist scholars who tremble forever on the cusp of finishing “their great books.” In his brilliant social satire, Point Counterpoint, Aldous Huxley used a historian as the model for the procrastinate, idle rich.

Ever since the publication of . . . [his] first book Mr. Quarles had been writing, or at least had been supposed to be writing, another, much larger and more important one, about democracy. . . . He had already been at work on it for more than seven years and . . . as yet he had not even finished collecting the materials.

Seven years to work on a book does not suggest to me a particularly languid pace; I would judge that many in this audience have taken much longer to produce good, thoroughly researched books and even articles. Here the problem is not being slow, but rather indolent and indeed rather silly, unable to separate important study from frivolous pursuits. Quarles will never get it done, not even with the help of his card indices, steel filing cabinets, “very professional roll-top desk,” and “three typewriters” with a large selection of “alternative types.”11

While Sidney Quarles took seven years to produce absolutely nothing, the very prolific Robert A. Caro is still, at age 85, hard at work on the fifth and final volume of his monumental and multiple award-winning biography of Lyndon Johnson. Volume four of The Years of Lyndon Johnson appeared nine years ago in 2012. Six years later, in an interview with the New York Review of Books, Caro estimated that it would be anywhere from two to ten years before he wrapped up the last installment.12 That’s a lot of time spent “working on” an admittedly huge subject.

Caro has recently reflected at some length on his career as a journalist and a writer of history and biography. Significantly, he chose the prosaic and humble title Working followed by an equally prosaic subtitle: Researching, Interviewing, Writing. Taking the advice of an early mentor to “turn every goddamn page,” Caro became a relentless, even obsessive researcher and something like an archive junkie.13 Even earlier, while Caro was still a student, a wise professor advised him that he would never be as good as he could be until he stopped “thinking with his fingers,” that is unless he realized that just because writing came to him so easily, it was easy.14 And what did he do to break that bad habit?

I decided . . . to slow myself down . . . That was why I resolved to write my first drafts in longhand before I started doing later drafts on the typewriter.15

Many exceedingly accomplished historians have mused on the interlinked processes of research and writing in ways that emphasize the virtues of going slow. I recently read John Elliott’s “coming of age” story that forms the first chapter of his History in the Making. It is a deeply personal account of how and why he became interested in Spain and Spanish history. Much seemingly occurred by chance: a youthful summer vacation, inspiration from teachers, and, of course, the intellectual currents of 1950s Britain. This confluence of circumstances appears familiar to many of us. His process of researching the dissertation and the path to the final product twisted and turned. His initial immersion in the Simancas archives proved exhilarating, but exhilaration soon turned to frustration. Calling up “bundle after bundle of state papers,” he soon discovered that “none of them contained the kind of material that I had confidently expected to find.” It was a greenhorn’s mistake for a person who eventually became one of the premier scholars of the late twentieth century. Yet, in retrospect, it was perhaps the best thing that ever happened to him professionally and taught him, and teaches us, an especially pertinent lesson about research; things never go as planned and that is a good thing as Elliott later realized, although he was probably far less calm at the moment he watched his dissertation and perhaps his career go off the rails.16

The other lesson to be learned here is one by no means unique to Sir John Elliott, but forms part and parcel of how really good history takes shape: it is always “in the making” and, like Penelope waiting for the return of Odysseus, often what we weave during the day, we pick apart in sleepless nights. Like Robert Caro’s relentless search for the roots of power and the sense of place that explained men like Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson, Elliott’s quest for a historical understanding of Spain’s decline, or Natalie Davis’s decades’ long pursuit of people on the margins, were ever-evolving. Moreover, the archival experience—the slow struggle with the documents—molded the interpretations and the histories they created.

Archival work is necessarily slow and painstaking, but its slowness has little to do with being mechanical or dull. Sources are not “dead,” even ones hundreds of years old and often preserved in a dreadfully mutilated condition. There is nothing transparent about an archive or a document; the archive masks as much as it reveals. We wrestle with documents that, despite the imprisonment of words on a page, keep taking on new, and often surprising, shapes. Even those that seem the least ambiguous are filled with nuances, complexities, contradictions, and, at the risk of anthropomorphizing, exhibit their own little deviltries. In a conversation with Denis Crozet, Natalie Davis caught the dilemma. She related how “having documents and manuscripts in my hands,” immediately produced a feeling of connection. But she also perceived the dangers. “Whenever,” she warns, “I have the impression that I have met, touched, seized the past. [I say] Watch out, . . . You’re are being taken over by a romantic fantasy.”17

There exists, therefore, a real danger that one can fetishize the archive by treating the traditional archive, filled with books, papers, and iconographic materials as somehow the only legitimate source of historical knowledge and the only true place for historians to set their spades. Archival sources are anything but transparent. For that reason, work in the archives can simultaneously be incredibly satisfying, fulfilling, exciting, and rewarding but it is also often difficult, confusing, humbling, and perplexing. There is no truth there, but there is history, especially when one recognizes, as we all should, that the bricks-and-mortar archive by no means serves as the sole depository of historical records.

Archives teach us valuable lessons in slowness that we probably never lose. Robert Caro’s life turned around when he was left alone one night with the records of the Federal Aviation Administration. “I will never forget that night,” he reminisced, “it was the first time I had ever gone through files. . . somehow, in a strange way, sitting there going through them, I felt at home.”18 It was love at first sight. Caro’s experience is hardly unusual and it would not take me long to find many others to match it.19

Few people, however, have offered a more elegant hommage to archival joys than Arlette Farge. The Allure of the Archives is a sustained love-story for the dirty, dusty, promising yet often maddeningly complex and obstinate materials found in archival and manuscript collections.20 Despite uncomfortable seats, smelly co-users, bad lighting, cold rooms, and the often bizarre rituals that govern archival life, she loves it and that love is reflected in language that is positively sensual, that conveys the smell of the paper, the crinkliness of it between your fingers, the very dust that arises, and the almost sexual thrill of a great find. Archives inevitably slow you down and not only because of the crabbed hands and shaky orthography of the long-dead. Far more important is the link between document and thought process. Farge again: “One cannot overstate how slow work in the archives is, and how this slowness of hands and thought can be the source of creativity.21 She never denies that the many tasks archival work requires are often boring and banal, but nonetheless generative.22

Farge communicates no sense here that documents are transparent or obvious, nor even the breath of a suggestion that they can convey by themselves what Leopold von Ranke’s “wie es eigentlich gewesen” has often been taken to mean: “how it actually was.” The history produced by such a creative archival experience can also not be sneeringly dismissed as “crass empiricism.” Rather, a thoughtful, prolonged, and, above all active, archival encounter produces a richly documented and rigorously analytical history, and helps us avoid a simple recitation of “facts.” Robert Darnton referred to it once as “marinating in the sources,” picking up this apt culinary metaphor from a consummate stylist (and gourmand!), Gustav Flaubert. Darnton emphasized the importance of artisanal work, reading “slowly through the documents, summarizing their contents, copying out key passages, and writing an interpretive note to yourself about their importance, you absorb a great deal.”23

Archival work, as Farge, Caro, Elliott, Darnton, and others understand it is by no means mechanical nor is the archive a supermarket where researchers rush along the aisles pulling off the meats, vegetables, sauces, and spices that they believe will eventually result in a harmonious blend of flavors. All too often, that method cooks up a meal lacking taste, substance, and essential ingredients that have been missed in the hurry to get something on the table, that is, in scholarly terms, to produce a published work.

As a scholarly method archival marination may seem unacceptably iffy or rather a mysterious process that prestidigitates history into existence, or too “touchy-feely” to be rigorous and respectable. It is not. Rather it is anchored in Caro’s sense of work; a humble, sweaty, hard, and, yes, imperfect endeavor. Likewise, serendipity plays a strange role in this process. We all know stories of “great finds” in the archives, such as Darnton’s discovery of the records of the Sociète typographique in Neuchâtel. It was indeed a treasure trove, but the documents alone did not make the history; the historian did. Similarly, one is not hard pressed to think of cases where the existence of materials was long known, but discounted as “unimportant” or “unworkable.” One thinks immediately of Martha Ballard’s diary. For decades scholars regarded it as too repetitive and too mundane to be useful except as a gleaning ground for tidbits about frontier life in the early republic; until Laurel Thatcher Ulrich wrote A Midwife’s Tale.24 Likewise, “accidental” discoveries in the archive—the diary of a Spanish tailor, the account of an urban magistrate during the Thirty Years War, the many “other voices” of early modern women, of minorities, and Indigenous peoples, and, of course, the obscure and often fragmentary narratives preserved as ego-documents were not merely chance discoveries.25 Those famous finds usually result, however, from weeks and months of slowly and laboriously turning pages and then following up on what may be hunches, but hunches informed by deep reading in the sources.

Archives are, of course, as Alexandra Walsham wrote in 2016, “the factories and laboratories of the historian,” and to use them skillfully requires knowing how they were created, by whom, and for what purposes. “Too often,” Walsham warned, “we mine the documentary sources they house without scrutinizing the decisions about selection, arrangement, presentation and retention taken by those responsible for the care of their contents. . . . We still fall into the trap of approaching them as if they provide a transparent window through which we can view societies remote from us in time.” Archivists always choose what to keep and what to cast aside or where and how to catalog materials. As scholarly tastes evolve, the task of identifying sources requires delicate detective work into the organization of archives to force them to yield up their secrets. This observation signals the necessity for another, equally vital form of slowness: the time taken to learn the archives “not merely as the object but also the subject of enquiry.”26 Indeed, over the past decade a study of the archives qua archives has challenged scholars to “rewrite archival history.”27

Traditional archives, those located in imposing edifices, or those professionally curated, do not necessarily offer the only, or best, avenue for historians to explore or even the richest sources. Over the last decades, scholars have substantially altered and expanded the idea of an “archive”; the classic form of the state archive no longer adequately fills the definitional box. A partial list of new archives includes non-governmental records, oral histories, material objects, memories, the city as archive, the body as archive, the plantation as archive, the archive as art and art as archive. Some have even asserted that it is perhaps silly to try to define “archive” or “archives” at all as Eric Ketelaar, Professor of Archives and Information Studies at the University of Amsterdam, proposed: “Let anything be ‘an archive,’ and let everyone be an archivist.” While I find the implications of an archival multiverse somewhat confusing, Ketelaar’s statement reflects recent thinking about where historical documentation exists and his perception pays off in several fields, for example, in the history of enslaved peoples, of people without a written record, and especially those who communicate in pictoral or other non-verbal or non-scribal forms.28 Likewise, several historians have broadened the idea of archive to include literary works. Contemporary literature serves as an archive of past imagination. Such literary texts are not merely fictions. Rather, they are the repositories of the way people in the past understood themselves and the culture in which they lived; like all archives, this one, too, must be read, deliberately, critically, slowly.29

This more recent understanding of what constitutes an archive developed in lock-step with the growth of multi- and interdisciplinary, intersectional, and global histories. As scholars became cognizant of deficiencies in mono-disciplinary history and as historians experimented with new forms of writing and drew on other disciplines, we also were forced to learn about and exploit new archives as well as to acquire expertise or at least gain familiarity with differing fields, disciplines, theories, and methodologies. That imperative, too, slows us down or certainly should so as we cautiously enter these strange new lands. In enumerating the perils of working in disciplines other than one’s own, Marshall Sahlins urged caution and humility: it is “the process by which the unknowns of one’s own subject are multiplied by the uncertainties of some other science.” To do so effectively, however, takes time: time to learn from our fellow researchers, time to evaluate the worth of perspectives and forms of analysis that may be alien to us, and time to incorporate those perspectives with at least a modicum of expertise. Here, too, archival research and interdisciplinarity combine to retard progress, but they also enrich and deepen, if also complicate, our histories, while frequently transforming our original topics into something wholly unexpected.

Many interpretive “turns” have strongly influenced historical research and writing over the last several decades. While these often lead us to new insights and interpretations, they also slow our progress, albeit fruitfully. The linguistic turn urged us to question historical objectivity and argued that the past only exists in our textual representations of it.30 In the 1990s, the spatial turn highlighted the shaping powers of place and landscape and affected, among other subjects, gender studies, social, labor, and political history, and the history of science.31 Most recently, an Organization of American Historians virtual panel examined the “archival turn.”32 The proliferation of such “turns” is dizzying and, in addition to these, and the now familiar, almost venerable “cultural turn,”33 we are spun on a carousel of other turns: the pictorial or iconic, sensory, material, and, finally, the resource turn.34 We may accept, reject, or partially integrate such perspectives but it is the process of thinking each one through in respect not only to our research but also our teaching that makes us slower historians but also better ones, even if, at times, we may feel led astray.

Repeated false starts and recoveries have characterized my own research and it took me quite a long time to realize that what I first considered a “problem” was instead “a good thing” and not the embarrassing revelation of ill-preparedness or naive misconception. I have come around to regarding false starts, dead-ends, and confusion not as mistakes that I should have avoided (well, sometimes they were!) but rather as opportunities. I can honestly say that no research project I have ever launched comes out in the end looking remotely like anything I originally planned.

A few years ago, I embarked on a new project, now well advanced, that began by looking at the recovery of Brandenburg after the Thirty Years War in an age of what I characterized as “unending conflict.” At first, I knew little about the relevant archives. I had never worked on Brandenburg or Prussia. Other scholars had already told the story in one key as the “rise of Prussia,” a well-worn interpretation that focused on the government initiatives to recover Brandenburg from the ravages of war. Even at the outset, I had little interest in repeating or merely adding nuance to a well-known narrative that granted the lion’s share of credit to the hyperactive electors, and later kings, of Brandenburg-Prussia who, supposedly almost single-handedly, had rescued their territory from the war-time wreck. I was pretty sure that analysis was incomplete and perhaps even wrong-headed.

The political or even economic track I thought I was following twisted beneath my feet and soon led me to something very different, to a recognition of the effect of war on the landscape and the vast multiplicity of agents involved in what is facilely termed “the rebuilding process.” I soon realized that this research needed to be more focused on village communities, small towns, and individual estate proprietors. These people whom historians have often ignored in fact transformed Brandenburg. Even the essentially administrative and political documents I first consulted produced wisps of information that soon beckoned me into very different paths and suggested to me an analysis not only about the interaction of government initiatives and localities, or that stressed the tensions between central dirigism and local intransigence, but that considered seriously the many far smaller initiatives taken during thirty years of war and its long and turbulent aftermath. Contact with these documents―often fragmented, execrably written, and sometimes reduced to lacy fragments by the working of time, mold, and voracious insects―produced another “aha” moment: what mattered was the manipulation of local resources and the very landscape that numerous actors inhabited, managed, and altered, and in which their their identities rooted. I suddenly was becoming a different historian, one whose interests centered on the constant reshaping of fields, waterways, borders, and forests, a reshaping vastly accelerated and transformed by the experience of war. Had I become an environmental historian, or at least a historian of landscape? Well, perhaps, but not intentionally. The documents made me do it.

As these examples also suggest, the more we work globally, interdisciplinarily, multidisciplinarily, and intersectionally, the slower we are bound to become. That retardation extends to writing and editorial processes. I admit that I have not found many explicit statements on “slow history,” but one that I did locate was a blog by an early Americanist and historian of Native American and Indigenous peoples. Christine DeLucia. Such scholars often collaborate closely with their subjects and not only at the stage of research but also in the editorial process, which is DeLucia’s point. “I have come to insist,” she wrote, “upon the importance of creating time and space within scholarly processes for the types of responsiveness that ought to be integral to any work that pertains to Indigenous communities.” What happened, she notes, not only reoriented her “ethical compasses,” but also, perhaps more important in this context, produced “a sharpening of critical intellects,” through collaboration, editorial feedback, and the writing process itself. If a published piece results, she noted, it “reflects some exceedingly slow ways of ‘doing history’.”35

DeLucia casts her “web of relationships” widely, but most historians construct similar webs with those “friends” we never meet: the colleagues whose books we read. I have often been struck by how expansively and intricately woven are the meshworks we knit from wide reading, reading so often done not for our research but for teaching. Here, too, one should point out how teaching itself greatly contributes to slow history. I am not speaking here of the obvious the need to “put our research aside” to get on with our day jobs. The supposed dichotomy between research and teaching—expressed in the hackneyed phrase, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach”—is fallacious as well as pernicious. The interaction of research and teaching is synergistic and mutually productive.

Admittedly, not all our scholarship dovetails neatly with our classroom teaching. The slowness teaching imposes on us has a very different quality. It is time we take, or should take, to think about what we teach, how we teach it, to prepare in detail for our classes, to assimilate new ideas and technologies. Furthermore, thinking about how we teach schools us how to present our ideas in print. Moreover, it constantly reminds us that while detail is important, well-conceived and well-presented interpretations are what stick.

Bill Cronon’s 2013 Presidential Address, simply titled “Storytelling,” raised the question “How can we make the past come alive?” His answer: “By telling stories about it.” He named a series of well-known historians, familiar to all of us as consummate story-tellers. For me, the centerpiece of his address (as I believe he intended), was the personal story he told about an instructor of his at Wisconsin. Dick Ringler, now emeritus professor of English and Scandinavian Studies, Cronon admitted, “changed my life forever, and may well be the reason I am delivering a presidential address to the American Historical Association.” What made Ringler so unusual and so wonderful was the brilliance produced by being “slow.” Bill Cronon didn’t phrase it that way, of course. Rather in recounting how Ringler rehearsed his lectures, word for word, before each class, Cronon pinpointed Ringler’s pedagogic genius. Brilliance is scripted and that scripting took labor (or Robert Caro’s “work”), repetition, and, of course, time.36

A lecture is one thing, but exactly the same sort of work goes into making a historical narrative and a historical analysis effective and convincing. Careful reworking, rethinking, and recasting over time does the trick. It is slow, it is meticulous, and it is incredibly successful. This observation brings me to my final point, my final argument for the virtues of slowing down and it also circles me back to Robert Caro: the process of writing. Is there anything more destructive of confidence than writing? Does it ever “go well”? A recent and somewhat frivolous discussion online involved a number of scholars in the question of how much one wrote in a day. Surely the better question is: how much should one write in a day? Few of us are like James A. Michener who could reel out thousands of words at a single sitting; few of us probably wish to imitate his style. Most of us, I believe, are far more like Caro: “I am not sure I ever think the writing is going well.” “It is a real mistake to get too confident about what I’ve written. I do so much writing and rewriting. . . I’d rewrite the finished book if I could….” Nonetheless, he produced on average what he described as his quota: “at least three pages a day.”37 Most of us would be tickled pink at achieving that goal. But there is little value in simply writing at warp-speed. Yet in the more we write, and, for that matter, the more we teach, we achieve ever-greater facility with language and become adroit in crafting thoughts into words. Still, good prose takes an awful lot of time; we write, we rewrite, we organize, we reorganize, and then we do it all again. Words are elusive and dangerous creatures. Even Gustav Flaubert mulled over the “single appropriate word” (le seul mot just) as he reclined on his sofa. Writing to Guy de Maupassant, he expressed his relentless search for words: “there is but one name for a thing, one verb to set it in motion, and one adjective to describe it.”38

Most of us are not quite so finicky, but wisdom lies in the idea that how you say something is as important as what you say (Flaubert again: “Writing well is everything” [“Bien écrire est tout!”]). Coaxing substance and style to march in unison, however, proves a ticklish task and it is often painfully slow work as well. The sensitivity to selecting words and shaping sentences that effectively convey our thoughts is not inborn but something gradually, even painfully, acquired. Yet, it remains imperfect, always becoming, never quite there. But, take heart! Historians are, after all, long distance runners not sprinters.

In the end, these many “slows” make us successful story-tellers, historians, writers, and teachers. I drafted this talk rather quickly, during the month of April as social distancing confined me to the square footage of my house. In approximately three-and-a-half weeks of pecking away at my computer and devoting about half time to the task, by early May, I had a rough draft of the long version. That was my goal. And I was, more or less, satisfied with the piece and perhaps in a moment of weakness even thought, “well, that’s almost done.” But it wasn’t, of course. Days were spent in tinkering, adding new materials, discarding what seemed extraneous or off point. Almost every day I asked myself: Does this really say what I want it to? Over the awful summer and early fall of 2020, I repeatedly returned to the draft and was never, and am not now, totally happy with what I have wrought. But perhaps that’s right, and like confusion, dissatisfaction is probably the first step towards doing good history.

Mary Lindemann is professor of history and chair of the Department of History at the University of Miami, where she has taught since 2004 and where she offers courses on the history of early modern European, urban, and medical history. She was previously professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University. She earned her BA, MA, and PhD at the University of Cincinnati. She has held a number of grants and fellowships, including, among others, from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the Fulbright Foundation, the Humboldt and Thyssen Foundations in Germany and has been a resident fellow at the Davis Center (Princeton), the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study, and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. She was president of the German Studies Association from 2017–18 and of the Frühe Neuzeit Interdisziplinär (Early Modern German Interdisciplinary Studies Association) in 1999. Her books examine and analyze various aspects of the early modern world, including medicine, commerce and trade, politics, and, most recently, postwar societies.



  1. “Blessed Little Room: Re-Reading David Copperfield,” Times Literary Supplement, 26 June 2020. []
  2. Robert Kanigel, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency (New York: Little, Brown, 1997). []
  3. Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983), 108–30. []
  4. First published by Peter Mark Roget as Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (1852). This list of synonyms is taken from the 4th edition, Roget’s International Thesaurus, rev. by Robert L. Chapman (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). []
  5. Kern, Culture of Time and Space, 119, 130. []
  6. Arthur Henry Reginald Butler, “Limerick,” Punch, 19 December 1923. []
  7. []
  8. Slow Science Academy, “The Slow Science Manifesto,” 2010 at []
  9. Lisa Alleva, “Taking TIme to Savour the Rewards of Slow Science,” Letter to Editor, Nature 443 (2006); Eugene Garfield, “Fast Science vs. Slow Science, Or Slow and Steady Wins the Race,” The Scientist 18 (1990); Petri Salo and Hannu L. T. Heikkinen, “Slow Science: Research and Teaching for Sustainable Practice,” Confero: Essays on Education, Philosophy and Politics 6 (2018): 87–111; John Horgan, “The ‘Slow Science’ Movement Must Be Crushed,” Scientific American (29 July 2011); and Rebecca J. Rosen, “The Slow-Science Manifesto: ‘We Don’t Twitter’,” The Atlantic (29 July 2011). []
  10. Slow Science Movement,” University Affairs/Affaires universitaires (5 December 2012). []
  11. Aldous Huxley, Point Counter Point (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1928). I used the Perennial Classic Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 257–59, 263. []
  12. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2012); Interview in the New York Review of Books, “Robert Caro Reflects on His Career in Upcoming Book,” (12 December 2018). []
  13. Robert A. Caro, Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2019), quote, 11. The phrase “archive junkie” is actually Guido Ruggiero’s. I made it my own in Mary Lindemann, “Confessions of An Archive Junkie,” in Peter Karsten and John Modell, eds., Theory, Method, and Practice in Social and Cultural History (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1992), 152–80. []
  14. Caro, Working, xi. []
  15. Caro, Working, xii. []
  16. John H. Elliott, History in the Making (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2012), 15–17. []
  17. Natalie Zemon Davis, A Passion for History: Conversations with Denis Crozet (Kirksville, MO: Truman State Univ. Press, 2010), 4–5. []
  18. Caro, Working, 9. []
  19. Davis, Passion, 1–29. []
  20. Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013). []
  21. Farge, The Allure of the Archives, 55–56. []
  22. Farge, The Allure of the Archives, 62–63. []
  23. “ASECS at 50: Interview with Robert Darnton,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 53 (2019): 27. In a letter to Guy de Maupassant, Flaubert wrote: “I throw myself down on the green leather couch that I recently had made. As I seem destined to marinate there, I decorated the pot to my taste and lie there like a dreamy oyster.” Gustav Flaubert, Correspondence, ed. Jean Bruneau (Paris: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1973), 1: 293. []
  24. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary, 1785–1812 (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1990). []
  25. Miquel Parets and James Amelang, A Journal of the Plague Year: The Diary of the Barcelona Taylor Miquel Parets, 1651 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1991); Andreas Kothe, Die Chronik des Ratsherrn Andreas Kothe: Eine Quelle zur westfälischen Geschichte im Zeitalter des Dreißigjährigen Krieges, ed. Franz Flaskamp (Gütersloh: Flöttmaan, 1962); the series “The Other Voice in Early Modern History,” that includes more than 60 titles and is currently published by the University of Chicago Press; and on “ego-documents,” see especially, available in English and Dutch. []
  26. Alexandra Walsham, “The Social History of the Archive: Record-Keeping in Early Modern Europe,” Past & Present, suppl. 11 (2016): 10–11. []
  27. Richard J. Cox, “Rewriting Archival History,” Information & Culture 54 (2019): 4–11; C. Randolph Head, ed., Archival Knowledge Cultures in Europe, 1400–1900, special issue of Archival Science 10 (2010); Head, Making Archives in Early Modern Europe: Proof, Information and Political Recordkeeping, 1400–1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2019); Terry Cook, “The Archive(s) is a Foreign Country: Historians, Archivists and the Changing Archival Landscape,”American Archivist 74 (2011): 600–32; Cook, “What is Past is Prologue: A History of Archival Ideas since 1898, and the Future Paradigm Shift,” Archivaria 43 (February 1, 1997): 17–62; Filippo de Vivo, “Ordering the Archive in Early Modern Venice (1400–1650),” Archival Science 10 (2010): 231–48; Vivo, “Coeur de l’Etat, lieu de tension. Le tournant archivistique vu de Venise (XVe–XVIIe siècle),” Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 68 (2013): 699–728; Vivo, Andrea Giudi, and Alessandro Silvestri, eds., Archival Transformations in Early Modern Europe, special issue of European History Quarterly 46 (2016). See also the article by M. J. Maynes and Leslie Morris, on “Interrogating the Archive,” that reported on a same-named international seminar that “explored questions about which events and perspectives on the past do and don’t get preserved in official archives,” American Historical Association, Perspectives on History (December 2019). []
  28. Eric Ketelaar, “Archival Turns and Returns,” in Anne J. Gilliland, Sue McKemmish, and Andrew J, Lau, eds., Research in the Archival Multiverse (Clayton, Victoria: Monash Univ. Publishing, 2017), 239; idem, “Archival Temples, Archival Prisons: Modes of Power and Protection,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 221–38. I would like to thank Randolph Head for calling my attention to Ketelaar’s work and the whole field of “new” archival studies. []
  29. I thank Guido Ruggiero for this insight. See, for example, his revisionist study of the Italian Renaissance, The Renaissance in Italy: A Social and Cultural History of the Rinascimento (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014) and his forthcoming book, Love and Sex in the Time of Plague: A Decameron Renaissance (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, forthcoming 2021). []
  30. The literature on the linguistic turn is huge. The influence of Hayden White’s Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) can hardly be overstated. A very incomplete list of some influential works includes: Jean-Christophe Agnew, The Market and the Theater in Anglo-American Thought, 1550–1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986); Dominick LaCapra and Steven L. Kaplan, Modern European Intellectual History: Reappraisals & New Perspectives (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982); J. G. A. Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History: Essays on Political Thought, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985). Useful review articles include: John E. Toews, “Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn: The Autonomy of Meaning and the Irreducibility of Experience,” AHR 96 (1987): 879–907 and James Vernon, “Who’s Afraid of the Linguistic Turn? The Politicals of Social History and Its Discontent,” Social History 19 (1994): 81–97. []
  31. For an assessment, see Beat Kümin and Cornelie Usborne, “At Home and in the Workplace: A Historical Introduction to the ‘Spatial Turn,” History and Theory 52 (2013): 305–18. []
  32. “Annual Meeting Preview: Into the Archive: American Historians and the ‘Archival Turn’,” Archival studies has become its own field. See, for example, Head, Archival Knowledge Cultures and Making Archives. []
  33. Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1989) was obligatory reading for every graduate student in the 1990s and early 2000s. []
  34. W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994); Alberto Martinengo, “From the Linguistic Turn to the Pictorial Turn―Hermenuetics Facing the ‘Third Copernican Revolution’,” Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics 5 (2013): 302–12; Mark M. Smith, Sensory History (London: Berg Publishing, 2008); C. Birdsall, J.-F. Missfelder, D. Morat, and C. Schlief, “Forum: The Senses,” German History 32 (2014): 256–73; Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce, Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn (Basingstoke, UK: Routledge, 2013); Harvey Green,”Cultural History and the Material(s) Turn,” Cultural History 1 (2012): 61–82; Anke K. Scholz, Martin Bartelheim, Roland Hardenberg, and Jörn Staecker, eds., ResourceCultures: Sociocultural Dynamics and the Use of Resources―Theories, Methods, Perspectives (Tübingen: Universität Tübingen, 2017). []
  35. Christine DeLucia, “On ‘Slow History’: Decolonizing Methodologies and the Importance of Responsive Editorial Processes,” Uncommon Sense―The Blog, Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture (22 March 2018). []
  36. William Cronon, “Storytelling,” Presidential Address, AHR 118 (February 2013): 7, 12–15. []
  37. Caro, Working, 200–201. []
  38. Roland Barthes, “Flaubert and the Sentence” [1957] in The Barthes Reader, ed. Susan Sontag (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), 296–304; quote from Flaubert, Correspondence. []