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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

One More Cool Report from LA

One panel that I particularly enjoyed included three members of the USC history department — Kevin Starr, former state librarian of California and a most fascinating guy. Peter Mancall — expert on early colonial America, and William Deverell, whose area is the history of California, but seen in new lights. Starr is from California, but got his doctorate at Harvard and is this odd combination of a glimpse of what an old time Harvard magesterial authority must have been like — easy command of everything, I mean everything, linked with a lively wit, twinkle in his eye, and sense of audience — mixed with a lifetime commitment to the study of California. I had one or two professors like him in college — a hint of the Paper Chase without the meaness — but when faculty were some kind of slightly eccentric, stuffy, Gods — who were born knowing everything, who drank some waters of memory that allowed then glance lightly across time, languages, people, causes, events, and with a touch of a harrumph share what they knew in that particular voice that assumed that, of course, you the student, indeed anyone, would know the same things — this is just common knowledge. History, all history, belongs to everyone and we share — as friends around a campfire passing delicious bits of roast.
I’d been in touch with Peter before on possible books, so I knew he was smart and a good communicator. We learned that he is writing the volume on early America for the Oxford History of America — and that led to a very telling comment. He said that anyone who writes about that period — Columbus to late 17th Century — can be presumed to know history of early Americans, history of the Caribbean, history of West Africa, history of Canada, as well as history of Europe and North America. In other words, we see clearly how global their experienced world was, how interconnected, so we need to know how to make sense of those connections. Of course that is precisely my own belief, so it was great to hear.
Dr. Deverell had several interesting things to say about California, but, first, he too added that global dimension. He pointed out that we usually see California as the end point of the American journey from east to west. But it can as usefully be seen as the final spot in journeys across the Pacific from Asia and Polynesia. In fact, as many of you surely know, the most recent theories of how people first came to the Americas involve sea journeys either across from Russia to Alaska and down the coast, or across from Polynesia. Think of an American history book that began three times — with a history that begins in Asia and moves across the Pacific; a history that begins in Mexico and South America and moves north, and then, finally, the familiar history that begins in Europe and Africa and moves west. Depending on how you frame the story, you have three different narratives.
As you can see, I had a blast — I felt like I was back in an old graduate seminar, learning, thinking, expanding my mind — wish you all could have been there.