Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1

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The Speech

On January 3, 2009, Hopkins' Gabrielle Spiegel will ascend the steps to the stage at the Hilton New York hotel… and take her place in history.

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Every year for the last century and a quarter, the president of the American Historical Association takes the podium at the group's annual meeting and addresses the historians gathered on the major issues facing the field.

This is no ordinary speech. The AHA, founded in 1884, is the largest historical society in the United States. Dedicated to promoting historical studies, preserving historical documents and artifacts, and disseminating historical research, the group has more than 14,000 members—people ranging from kindergarten teachers and history buffs to Pulitzer Prize winning historians. To date, the AHA presidential address has been delivered 122 times, by such noted figures as Theodore Roosevelt ("History as Literature," 1912), Carl Becker ("Everyman His Own Historian," 1931), and Arthur M. Schlesinger ("What Then is the American, This New Man," 1942) and taken on such issues as the historian's part in a changing world (Charles McIlwain, 1936), history as a moral science (Gordon Wright, 1975), and the power of history (Joyce Appleby, 1997).

On Jan. 3, 2009, at 9:15 p.m., Krieger-Eisenhower Professor Gabrielle Spiegel PhD '74 will ascend the steps to the stage at the East Ballroom of the Hilton New York hotel, stand before a crowd of about 500 colleagues, and take her place in history.

This speech is not just the culminating event of Spiegel's year-long tenure as the 123rd president of the AHA; it's also the culmination of her career. This is Spiegel's big opportunity to weigh in on what she considers the pressing issues facing historians today, her chance to make her case as to why the medieval historiography and contemporary theory she's pursued for the last 35 years matter, why her scholarship is important.

"It's a very significant moment," says Teofilo F. Ruiz, a medieval historian at the University of California at Los Angeles who is the vice president for the research division of the AHA. "This speech is a summation of her scholarship, something that grows from her work, and yet it has to be new. It's a statement as to where she stands methodologically and historiographically. It's a form of intellectual legacy."

There, in front of the group that saw fit to recognize her as the best medieval historian of her generation by electing her its president, she has the floor. And because Spiegel's presidential address will be printed in the February 2009 issue of the AHA's journal, American Historical Review, her words won't be forgotten. "This is probably the essay by you that will be read by more people outside the field than any other," says historian David Bell, dean of faculty of the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and an Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities. "It's a big deal."

On that evening, after AHA president-elect Laurel Thatcher Ulrich of Harvard University has finished her introduction, Spiegel will take her place behind the lectern. As she waits for the applause to cease, she'll look out at the expectant faces of her fellow historians sitting before her and take a deep breath. "Oh my God," she'll think. "Why did I agree to do this?"

January 2008: Twelve Months Out

Spiegel begins her official duties as president of the AHA during the first week of the new year, at the group's annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Her presidential address, which will close her term as president, won't take place for a full 12 months.

A year seems like ample time to write the speech. However, from the first days of her term as AHA president, she's worried about it. In fact, Spiegel has been anxious about the address since becoming president-elect of the organization in January 2007.

"Anything worth doing is worth obsessing over," she says, her voice erupting into laughter. She's kidding. Sort of. No matter how hard she works, or how much she achieves, she worries.

Spiegel is an accomplished medieval historian who specializes in historiography, the theory and practice of writing history. She's published four books and more than 50 articles, and is regarded as one of the most thoughtful, innovative, and creative people in her field.

"Gaby has an incredibly sharp intellect," says Bell. "She has an absolutely astonishing capacity for thinking things through as she reads, analyzing them and looking at things from different angles and thinking very carefully about them." Bell jokes that Spiegel, who has a twin sister named Nicole, reads so much that he suspects that she is actually a triplet, and the third sibling just keeps up with all of Spiegel's reading.

 

Her career-defining work is an intellectually provocative article published in the medieval history journalSpeculum in 1990 called "The Social Logic of the Text in the Middle Ages." In it, she analyzed the postmodern philosophy of language known as the "linguistic turn" and explained how it applied to the study of medieval history. The article has been reprinted and translated into many different languages and has been cited as one of the most important analyses of medieval historiography ever written.

"There used to be this expression that history should be told as it really was," says David Nirenberg, the Deborah R. and Edward D. Jannotta Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the Department of History at the University of Chicago. "Gaby is the medievalist who has taught us the most about why this is not only an impossible goal but also a false one. She showed us that our historical sources are themselves tissues of language, works of metaphor, trope, and artifice, not stable and unambivalent remnants of a past whose true meaning awaits recovery. And she showed us that the same is true of our own writing as historians. The history that we produce is not a notation of what was. It's a cultural artifact."

Historians tend to be conservative; they don't readily adopt new theories or new ways of looking at things. Not Spiegel. "Gaby has a commitment to thinking about history in as philosophically complex a way as possible," Nirenberg says. "She questions not only the boundaries of the discipline but the very basis of the discipline … what makes history, history. I think of her as the discipline's psychoanalyst. She puts history on the couch, and interrogates every certainty it has about its identity. The history that leaves her office is not the same as the history that went in. Of course, it hasn't got rid of all its fantasies, its projections, anxieties, and dreams. History can never do that, any more than people can. But [her work] leaves us vastly more aware of them, and more sensitive to their workings."

The AHA address is hardly Spiegel's first speech, or her biggest audience. Throughout her years as a historian, Spiegel has taught hundreds of classes and addressed groups large and small at academic symposia and conferences. But the AHA speech is different. "The problem with this speech is that there's no natural audience for it," says Spiegel. "This is an audience of 500 to 600 people who work in every possible field of history. It's not like you can write with a certain kind of confidence that the things that interest you are interesting to other people," she says.

She knows writing the speech won't be a problem. But she is worried about finding the right topic. She is worried about setting the correct tone. And she is mindful of what she calls "the weight of the past." Hopkins has the oldest history PhD program in the United States, and the early days of the department and the AHA are linked.

Hopkins history professor Herbert Baxter Adams was a founder of the AHA in 1884 and is credited with establishing the history seminar at Hopkins. "The model for the professionalization of history based on the scientific method was dominantly a Hopkins model," Spiegel says. In addition, past Hopkins historians who served as AHA presidents or were nominated for office include such notable scholars as Frederic Lane, Philip Curtin, John G.A. Pocock, and Jack Greene (see "An Illustrious Lineage," p. 23).

Spiegel had hoped to start work on the address by this point in January. But until the end of the spring semester she will be busy serving as chair of the History Department at Hopkins, writing the seven papers she has agreed to give, and writing a long introduction for the book Representing Medieval History. She will also be working on AHA business, which includes establishing the association's first capital campaign and planning the theme and program of the 2009 annual meeting.

"Even I can't worry about this a year in advance," she realizes. "The speech is going to have to wait until June."

June 2008: Seven Months Out

Sitting at her desk in her small cottage on Martha's Vineyard, a view of a meadow visible through her window, Spiegel spends the first few weeks of the summer carefully reading all 122 past AHA presidential addresses. She hopes this will give her a feel for what others have done and help allay some of her anxieties. Maybe it will even help her figure out a topic.

Will she tie the address to her current research, a book she's writing on how Americans do medieval history called In the Mirror's Eye, or link it to the "Globalizing Historiography" theme she set for the annual meeting? Or will she use the opportunity to speak about the mission of the AHA? She isn't sure.

It's not long before she discovers that other historians in her situation have faced the same dilemma. At a Mellon Foundation meeting in New York this month, she runs into Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn, who was president of the AHA in 1981 ("The Challenge of Modern Historiography"). She tells him how worried she is about the AHA address and how she is preparing to read all of the past speeches. "Bud, am I crazy to be so anxious about this?" she asks.

"Gaby, everyone is nervous about this speech," Bailyn tells her. "Everyone reads through all of the past speeches before they start writing theirs."

Hearing that makes Spiegel feel better. "Even Bernard Bailyn worried about the AHA speech and his was really good," she says. "And whether it helps or not, everybody reads all of the past speeches."

In fact, more than one historian saw fit to mention the difficulty of writing the speech in their AHA address. In his 2001 AHA presidential address, "The Dissolution of the British Empire in the Era of Vietnam," William Roger Louis said:

"There is no particular form or set purpose to the presidential address. Some seem to have been born in desperation. Many resemble exemplary scholarly articles, while others in one way or another wrestle with the problems of the AHA. Presidential addresses are frequently autobiographical. They sometimes read like sermons…By studying past presidential addresses, I have become painfully aware that the quickest and surest way to make a fool of oneself is to move beyond one's area of specialization, yet I also know that the most certain way to be deadly boring is to stick narrowly to one's subject."

"Sums up the dilemmas rather adroitly," Spiegel says.

A speech in 1889 by sixth AHA president Charles Kendall Adams that chronicled the early days of history scholarship at U.S. colleges and universities caught her eye because it called attention to the Hopkins History Department as a leader in educating students in the scientific method of the study of history.

"The staff of instruction [in history at Johns Hopkins] is not large, four men doing both the graduate and undergraduate work. And yet so completely are the resources of the university at the service of the student, and so confident is the student that whatever good piece of work he may produce he will be able to place before the world in a manner to attract the attention it deserves, that the department of history, in spite of all rumored pecuniary distresses, has steadily grown until during the present year there are forty graduate students in history working with a view to the doctor's degree."

Spiegel was struck by the statement "pecuniary distresses" and by the 40 graduate students the department had in 1889—similar to the number it has in 2008. "We are training the same number of students, and we have the same problems with funding today," she says. "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Perhaps the most famous AHA address Spiegel encountered was one by Carl Becker in 1931 in which he put forth the theory of relativism, the idea that some aspects of one's experience are dependent on other elements or aspects. "It wasn't a new idea, but Becker was the first president to state it so forthrightly," she says.

While her actual speech doesn't need to be completed until Dec. 1, the title of Spiegel's address is due Aug. 1.

Glancing at the titles of past addresses, Spiegel notices that many of them were incredibly general. One, delivered in 1952 by J.G. Randall, was called "Historianship." "What does that tell you?" she asks. "Nothing." Another was called "Whatever Was, Was Right" (Lynn Thorndike, 1955). And one was simply called "History."

Having such a general title is smart, she thinks, because it gives a writer so many opportunities to take the speech in whatever direction he or she desires while still making the initial mid-summer deadline. With Aug. 1 fast approaching, Spiegel reads, thinks, and writes. "Whatever the speech is about, it's going to have a general title," she says.

August 2008: Five Months Out

As July draws to a close, Spiegel knows she doesn't have much more time to come up with a title. She had spent much of the first two months of the summer in her office on the Vineyard, considering possibilities for a title to the address, but still has not decided on one.

If she was looking for a speech that was more personal than most, she could have delved into her own experiences with history.

"Really, I became a historian because I felt very strongly that whatever history [my family] had had been taken away from me," says Spiegel.

She was born in the United States to a family that had immigrated to New York from Antwerp, Belgium, and was fleeing Hitler's Europe. Her father was Belgian, her mother was Viennese; Spiegel and her siblings went to school speaking French. Originally, her family had hoped to return to Belgium after World War II, but "By war's end, everyone who had not left was dead, and there was no thought of returning to Antwerp," Spiegel writes in an autobiographical essay in Why France? American Historians Reflect on an Enduring Fascination (Cornell University Press, 2007). "For better or worse, we became Americans."

In moving to the U.S., Spiegel's family had lost their homeland, their language, and their history. Looking back years later, she realized that's why she became fascinated by the study of history. "Really, I became a historian because I felt very strongly that whatever history we had had been taken away from me," she says. "We were supposed to be Belgian. We never felt American. History itself had conspired to change our destiny."

Spiegel discovered an affinity for medieval history in eighth grade, when she asked a teacher for extra reading and he recommended Mohammed and Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne. The author, like Spiegel, was Belgian, and she found his writing captivating. "Something about the way he structured his argument matched the way I think," she says.

She earned a BA at Bryn Mawr College and an MAT at Harvard University and got married at 21 to journalist Adam Spiegel. Spiegel moved to Baltimore when her husband got a job at The Baltimore Sun and she came to Hopkins for her PhD. With two small children at home, she was unable to travel to archives in Europe for research, so she decided to study historiography.

"Hopkins was the perfect place for me," she says. "It was a place that let you do what you wanted to do. It was not a highly formalized program, but you could do well if you were willing to work."

Spiegel, who taught for 19 years at the University of Maryland before joining the faculty at Hopkins as a full professor in 1993, had always been interested in studying history that was textually based, but she soon became fascinated in the more intellectual and philosophical issues of writing history. "When I started working on medieval historiography there was almost no work on it," she says. Spiegel found herself wondering what she could legitimately believe in the medieval texts historians were using and started reading books on literary theory like Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe by Hayden White and thinking about how they related to medieval historiography. "I started feeling there was much more going on in those texts, and that's what led me into doing theory," she says.

With the deadline for a speech title upon her, she decides against making the speech about herself. "Too personal," she says. She also doesn't want to focus on the work of the AHA. "It's been done." And she doesn't want to write about the theme of the conference, "Globalizing Historiography," either. "It's not my field," she explains, plus, the topic will be covered extensively in conference workshops.

Spiegel knows the speech should focus on her research, but which aspect of her research? Her work divides between two fields: medieval historiography—how people wrote history in the Middle Ages in Latin and French—and contemporary theories of historiography. Questions she attempts to answer in her theoretical research include: Why does a certain historical text have the shape it does? How does the shape of that text influence it? What are the text's rhetorical strategies?

Realizing that her work on literary theory is what she is most well known for, and that it also has the broadest audience, she decides to focus on this in her speech. By Aug. 1, she has a title: "The Task of the Historian."

Sept. 10, 2008: Four Months Out

With the fall semester at Hopkins under way, Spiegel has traded in her cottage on the Vineyard for a small, somewhat shabby faculty office on the 14th floor of Dell House that she shares with two members of the history faculty. Her office computer has been lost in the move from Gilman Hall to Dell House, and associate professor Todd Shepard is already working in the office. So she repairs to an outdoor balcony overlooking North Charles Street to explain her title for the address and what she considers to be the historian's task.

"I went through the development of my work, and 'The Task of the Historian' seemed to me to describe a theoretic arc my work has been involved in," she says. "Once you change the nature of how you view history, you change the task of the historian. The task of the historian is no longer to simply discover facts but to understand how culture and language produce a narrative and constitute historical subjects. Then a historian must look at the mechanisms of how that gets done, instead of the result."

For the speech, she wants to focus on the linguistic turn, to look at what caused it, the effects that it has had on the study of history, and how it has endured over the last 30 years. "The linguistic turn caused an enormous shift in the ways we think about history," she says. "I want to examine both what caused the linguistic turn and what remains valuable in it."

She's especially interested in looking at the psychological aspect of how historians "do" history since the linguistic turn. "It's clear the reason history is done differently in every generation is that it's influenced by life experiences and social psychology," she says. "Every generation is situated in a different way."

Spiegel has finished a first draft of the speech and sent it to colleagues for comments. She will fine-tune it over the next few months. Already, she has started looking ahead to life after her AHA term has ended. She's agreed to help with the group's $30-million capital campaign for the next five years, but she's eager to move on and finish writing her book.

When she talks about the evening of Jan. 3, Spiegel is no longer anxious. She has her topic. Her speech is almost complete. She jokes about finding something appropriate to wear. The relief she feels is palpable.

But she stops short of weighing in when asked how she thinks her speech will be received by the audience, by people like Ruiz who know Spiegel well and who expect a speech that contains challenging ideas and arguments that break new ground. "Gaby has stood on the avant-garde of general trends in the discipline, so she's expected to provide some fireworks," he says.

Her response? "I have no idea how the speech will be received," she says. "Historians look to the past. They don't predict the future."

An Illustrious Lineage

(l-r) Herbert Baxter Adams, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, Frederic C. Lane, Phillip D. Curtin, John G.A. Pocock, Jack P. Greene

Arts and Sciences' Gabrielle Spiegel is the most recent link between Hopkins and leadership of the American Historical Association, but she's not the only one. "Gaby's election as president of the American Historical Association is a sign of the continuing maturity and prominence of the Department of History at Hopkins," says John Baldwin PhD '56, Charles Homer Haskins Professor of History Emeritus at Hopkins. "She is an indication of the department's strength, that history is very well and alive here."

Herbert Baxter Adams, a founder of the Hopkins History Department and the person credited with establishing the storied Hopkins history seminar, and Hopkins history professor John Franklin Jameson, were both founders of the AHA in 1884. "Neither one was ever elected president of the association, however," Baldwin notes.

One of Adams' students at Hopkins was U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who studied government and history, earning his doctorate in 1886. Wilson served as president of the AHA in 1924, but he died before he could deliver his AHA presidential address.

Other Hopkins historians who served as presidents of the AHA, or were nominated to lead the organization include:

Frederic C. Lane: A renowned early expert on the economic history of Venice, Lane spent his entire academic career, from 1928 to 1966, at Hopkins. He served as president of the AHA in 1965 and his presidential address was "At the Roots of Republicanism."

Philip D. Curtin: Curtin served as president of the AHA in 1983 and his address was "Depth, Span and Relevance." A specialist in the areas of African history and the history of the British Colonial empire, he is the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History Emeritus at Hopkins.

John G.A. Pocock: The Henry C. Black Professor Emeritus at Hopkins, he was nominated in 1988 to run for president of the AHA. (Each year, two historians are honored with a nomination; only one is ultimately elected.) Pocock is renowned as a preeminent historian of political and historical thought and is one of the most important historians of early modern Britain of the last 50 years.

Jack P. Greene: The Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Hopkins, he has had a profound influence on the fields of the colonial Americas and the Atlantic world. He was nominated in 2001 to run for AHA president.