Assistant Professor of History, Iowa State University
What are you working on?
Currently, I'm finishing my book, Power's Purchase: Masters, Slaves, and Exchange in the Old South, a study of the political economy of the master-slave relation seen through the lens of market exchange. I argue that the slaves' internal economy was the site of intense paternalist negotiation, a place in which categories of exchange—provision, gift, contraband, and commodity—were in constant flux. At once binding and alienating, such exchange was subject to constant moral and material manipulation by masters and slaves alike, serving as a vehicle through which social relations—and politics—were produced.
Once spring comes, I'll delve more deeply into my next project, entitled, Planters' Jubilee: Mastery, Honor and Agricultural Contest in the Old South. The book examines agricultural fairs and contests as places in which deeply subjective understandings of Old South honor came into conflict with ostensibly objective calculations of agricultural productivity and reform.
What do you think is the next hot topic in agricultural history?
I'll defer to my graduate students here. I had the good fortune to work with a fine group of students in a graduate course on the agriculture of the Old South last semester. In addition to delving into the rich historiography—a few old standards and some newer work too—students completed projects designed to get at the mechanics and political economy of agricultural production in specific counties and regions across the South. They did good work. The resulting discussion centered on their eagerness to understand the particulars of crop production—to understand the land—and bring it to bear on broader discussions of social, political and cultural life and institutions. In other words, they are thinking about processes—big and small—and ways to bring the lessons of cultural and social history to more traditional economic and political studies—and vice versa.
What book or article in agricultural history has influenced you the most?
As a southern historian, I've long admired Peter Coclanis's work—not only for the depth of his research but for the breadth of his knowledge and reading outside his specific area of study. He brings these strengths together in his 1998 presidential address to the Agricultural History Society entitled, "Food Chains: The Burdens of the (Re)Past." In it he asks the simple questions: Who fed the world? How and under what political and social conditions? It's our job to answer those questions, he argues to the society and, at surface, it seems, he's simply celebrating the collective work and contributions of agricultural and rural historians. But read more carefully, there's a powerful critique and an exhortation too. He urges agricultural historians to take back the study of history, reminding our colleagues of the importance of our work. More importantly, he asks us to avoid marginalizing ourselves and to not shy away from the big questions. This is tough, brilliant stuff and an essay we ignore only at the cost of our relevance as a field.
What does membership in the AHS provide you?
AHS has provided me with a venue – in print and in conference form – to think more broadly about my work. It's all too easy to hunker down amidst my antebellum southern history fellows; AHS allows me—requires me—to look for connections across time and space that I might not otherwise recognize.