Historians: Missing in Action

By way of an update (and evidence that, yes!, I’m still alive): As I near the end of the Project From Hell, I finally understand why it has taken so. damn. long.

Well, okay, one of the reasons. (*1) And, hey, it’s connected to one of my favorite subjects --- how historians work --- and, hey, it allows me to rant, and bonus! break my rule about no blogging until I’m finished. (*2)

Here’s the deal: 

For the last two years, I’ve been at first surprised, and then outraged by my fellow historians, who, I have discovered, to my dismay, have zero interest in exploring the history of contentious contemporary issues. 

Or, as I now phrase it: WHAT THE HELL ARE HISTORIANS DOING? Besides, apparently, nothing?

Let me give you an example. It may seem trivial, but it makes my point:

For reasons that aren’t worth going into here (I’m trying to be brief), in the book’s last chapter I needed to discuss the microwave oven. That device, which can be found in 98% of American homes (and widely used in restaurants, too) is the single most important cooking tool to enter the American kitchen in the past century. 

So I needed to write two, maybe three sentences about it. But I couldn’t write those sentences until I first educated myself about the microwave oven’s history, and especially about the speed with which Americans adopted it.

Obviously microwave ovens are not my central topic. So this is a classic example of where it’s appropriate to rely on “secondary sources.” In this case, those secondary sources would be work by historians whose main topic was the microwave oven. 

So I conducted a “literature search”: I looked for other historians’ research on the microwave oven, its introduction into American kitchens, and its impact on Americans’ diets. 

Nada. Zip. Zero. Gotnuthin’forya.

Translation: in order to include those two or three sentences about the microwave oven, I had to drop what I was doing and do my own research into the history of the microwave oven, a task that would require at least a full day, but more probably two or three, just so I could write those two or three sentences.

Okay, so maybe a two-day detour isn’t such a big deal. Unfortunately, I encountered these research gaps over and over and over again --- for Major Big Deal Topics.

Consider the matter of livestock confinement, which is the practice of raising meat animals inside instead of outside on pasture. 

This is a hot button political/social issue in the US and has been for years. So it’s a no-brainer for historians, right? Surely, I assumed, someone has researched the history of confinement farming (which is now more than fifty years old). 


Here’s another Big Deal Topic: corporate-owned hog farms. For the last forty years, these farms, which consist of buildings that contain hundreds of thousands of hog, have provoked controversy, lawsuits and legislation (both state and federal), and have shaped environmental policies. Corporate hog farms are a BIG deal.

You’d think historians would be interested in researching the history of these farms.

Nope. Nada. Nuthin’ there.

Here’s another example: In the last 40 years, chicken has gone from being an afterthought to the number one meat in America. The lowly chicken toppled steak from its throne. Don Tyson built a mega-global corporation based on that change. 

You’d think someone would have researched that change, right?  

What did I find? Three short articles and one dissertation, each focusing on a narrow aspect of the American broiler industry in the mid-twentieth century. (“Broiler” is the industry term for meat chickens.)

In this case, that dearth of research translated into a month in the library --- working seven days a week, eight hours a day --- digging through poultry trade journals and newspapers and research bulletins piecing together the history of the broiler industry. 

And that didn’t include the separate topic of when and why Americans fell in love with chicken. (Which historians have also ignored.)

That’s the way it’s been for three years: one time-consuming detour after another to conduct substantive research that, by any measure of professionalism, should have at least been started by someone. 

At this point you’re thinking “Wait a sec. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? You’re writing a book about meat, so, shouldn’t you be doing the research?”

Yes and no. Yes, when I began this book, I expected to spend most of my time conducting primary research on dozens of meat-related topics.

But, again, those topics aren’t relics stashed in the dustbin of history. These are Big Deal issues NOW, right now in contemporary America: Corporate hog farms, the shift to chicken, the use of confinement, “corporate” farms versus the family farm.

These are matters that have generated controversy and legislation and environmental and agricultural policy for more than fifty years.

Because these issues are so controversial and affect us everyday, directly or indirectly, I was right to assume that some historians would have engaged in research that contributes to our understanding of them. Bare minimum, historians who specialize in agricultural history should have been working on this stuff.

Instead: nothing. 

If ever there was a time to say “What the fuck???,” this is it. 

What the fuck are historians DOING with their time (and, often, taxpayers’ money)? What? Tell me. I want to know.

In the meantime, however, historians’ do-nothingness sent me on one lengthy detour after another.

Which is why a) this book has taken sooooo much longer than I expected; and b) why, about a year ago, I decided that the back of the book will include a short essay titled “A Note To Historians,” in which I will pose that question (leaving out the “what the fuck” part).

End of rant. 

Oh, wait! Almost forgot the update: On or before January 15, 2012, I will finish this book, and it’ll show up in print (probably) a year later. 

I’ll be back --- soon.


*1: The other being the two-year nightmare of dealing with the temporary lack of a right arm and more pain thanI could have imagined possible.

* 2: But---this counts as an update, so I’m not really breaking the rule.