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Book Review

 

Curtin, Philip D., On the Fringes of History: A Memoir. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005). 216 pp, $24.95.
 



      On the Fringes of History
tells the story of the unique, exhilarating, frustrating, and altogether interesting life of historian Philip Curtin.  Known for his work in African history, and during the latter portion of his career, world history and Atlantic history; Curtin's professional journey illuminates the highs and lows of academic life and offers both a balanced look and honest encouragement for those willing to don the cap of academician.

     Curtin begins with a history of his privileged West Virginia upbringing; shares the exciting and eye-opening experiences of travels to Latin America as a college student (during which time he developed his love for history); describes his undergraduate career at Swarthmore College; his service in the Army during and after WWII; and then opens to view Harvard's academic life, the university at which Curtin received his Ph.D.  Interestingly, Curtin twice champions the rigor of his undergraduate coursework at Swarthmore over and above his training at Harvard. 

The second portion of On the Fringes recounts Curtin's numerous research trips to the Caribbean and to Africa including an interview with Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah.  Curtin also describes the search for and acquisition of his first teaching job at Swarthmore, discusses his employment at Wisconsin and Johns Hopkins, reflects on the creation of a program in Comparative Tropical History (Wisconsin) and involvement with an Atlantic Studies program (Johns Hopkins). describes his role as president of the American Historical Association and African Studies Association, notes the controversy over his figures related to the Atlantic slave trade, and details the travels to conferences during the twilight of his academic career.  Also worthy of note is Curtin's affiliation with the ASA's Oral Data Committee project that archived a number of African oral traditions.

     Philip Curtin's career straddled important moments in the evolution of the historical profession in the United States especially as this evolution witnessed the rise of African Studies programs and the emergence of world history and Atlantic history as formal academic fields.  Not only did Curtin's career span important moments in the profession, his seasoned thoughts provide a great deal of material on which graduates students coming of scholarly age at the beginning of the twenty-first century may reflect.

     Observations worthy of note include Curtin's (undergraduate) discovery that úthe proper subject of history is the process of change in human societies in general ' not just change in the society you happen to belong to" (47), the evolution and development of Curtin's historical interests (from British imperial history and Latin America to African history to Atlantic history to world history and the numerous subfields in between), and the engaging reflections on teaching both undergraduates and graduate students.  Rather than pit one against the other; Curtin notes that balancing act, or healthy tension, among teaching, research, and writing.  Though he does not sufficiently explain this observation, commenting on his move from Wisconsin to Johns Hopkins Curtin writes, úI found that the Hopkins teaching load resulted in about the right balance of contact with students in order to give perspective to my research" (176).  This is something, it seems, that graduate students and professors at the earliest stages of their academic careers might do well to hear more about, although, perhaps, Curtin displays keen wisdom by not elaborating on this point as the best learning often comes with experience.  Curtin is also frank about certain aspects of his personal life as he describes the changes in his údomestic arrangements" (92) during the course of his academic career.  Not only must one strike a balance between teaching and research/writing, but also, as Curtin subtly suggests negotiate the complexities of academic and personal/family life.

     Finally, Curtin also comments (only briefly) on the process of writing.  In addition to his advisor, Curtin submitted a draft of his dissertation to an editor at Harvard University Press for comment and critique.  Though Harvard University Press did not publish Curtin's dissertation, he did receive crucial feedback: úIt was not enough that she [editor Chase Duffy] was a severe critic; she also showed me that it was not enough merely to put down what you knew ' that you should try to think of what readers might want to know and tell them putting the search for clarity ahead of literary flourishes" (62).  These reflections echo those of fellow historian William H. McNeill whose The Pursuit of Truth: A Historian's Memoir appeared the same year as Curtin's.  About the process of writing McNeill notes: úIts main importance for me was that in preparing the typescript for publication, I was surprised to discover how much I could improve my prose by systematically converting sentences from passive to active voice.  This simple editorial device also clarified my own thinking by attaching a definite subject to every verb.  This was, I believe, the first time I set out systematically to revise my writing and strive for clarity and conciseness, instead of being satisfied with whatever came first to mind.  It is a habit worth cultivating, and, I trust, improved the clarity and grace of all my subsequent publications" (95).

     While Curtin's memoir is well worth the read, the only blemishes come with three typos (pp. 64, 67, 156; mistakes both surprising and unnerving for work associated with such an eminent historian (and surely an editorial oversight).  Nevertheless, historians of tomorrow will benefit greatly from engaging the past through the life and times of Philip Curtin.

 

 

Phillip Luke Sinitiere
University of Houston

 

 
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