Learning from the History We Don’t Study

Joel Wolfe

Today's post on what we can learn from other fields comes from Joel Wolfe, professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Wolfe "studies the impact of modernity, industrialism, and trade on Latin American societies and their politics. His primary focus is modern Brazil. He is the author most recently of Autos and Progress: The Brazilian Search for Modernity (Oxford 2010). He also published Working Women, Working Men: São Paulo and the Rise of Brazil's Industrial Working Class, 1900-1955 (Duke 1993). His articles have appeared in the Latin American Research Review, Hispanic American Historical, Radical History Review, Review, Luso-Brazilian Review, and Revista Brasileira de História. He is at present working on a book tentatively titled, '100 Years of Trade in Latin America.'"

And now for something completely different. . . .

To those of us of a certain age, hearing those words meant we were about to see something absurdly funny. This isn’t so much funny as it is completely different from what’s been on this blog. Unlike most of the folks who post here, I’m a historian of Latin America. What exactly constitutes “Latin America” will be the topic of a future post, but only if people like this one.

What interests me today is our collective ignorance about the things we don’t study. I recently read Gordon Wood’s magisterial Empire of Liberty, and I had to balance the awe in which I hold Wood’s work with my panicked sense of ignorance about key aspects of American history. How deep is my ignorance? I’m just now starting Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought and I have James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom on the shelf in the “on deck circle.”

A friend and colleague expressed a similar sort of ignorance about the country that I study. She told me she had recently seen a map of South America and was truly stunned by Brazil’s enormousness. I agreed. It is big. She continued to express her extreme surprise, her complete perplexidade. So, I did something only a historian would do. I sent her a map. It shows that every country of Europe fits comfortably within Brazil’s borders. (Click to enlarge.) Neat, huh?

Brazil’s great size is important for a lot of reasons that should interest U.S. historians. Brazil, for example, has been expansionist at the expense of many of its neighbors. Indeed, Brazilians are comfortable with some aspects of U.S. notions of manifest destiny because they see themselves in a similar light. Brazil is literally the opposite of Mexico, the region’s second largest and second most populous nation, in this regard because Mexican history has been marked by invasion and annexation that led to the loss of more than half its territory to the United States.

Latin America’s geography has shaped these nations in ways much more significant than their relationship to the United States. Mexican history has long involved attempts by the center (Mexico City) to gain control over the periphery, including the northern states in the nineteenth century, Yucatán in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and Chiapas more recently. Brazil, on the other hand, has been trying to move off the coast to know, claim, and control its interior spaces. The 1960 opening of Brasília, its modernist capital in the interior, is only the most obvious manifestation of a history that includes wars against far-away millenarian communities (Canudos and the Contestado) and endless schemes to control the vast Amazon from an ill-fated attempt to build a telegraph line through the jungle to Fordlândia and Belterra (Henry Ford’s modernist interventions in the jungle) to doomed settlement schemes advanced by the nation’s military dictators in the 1970s and 80s.

We can never know everything in our own fields, let alone even the basics of others. Returning to some of the activities that drew so many of us into history as children, such as playing with globes and studying maps, can help us begin to know other countries and fields. Maps are great tools for thinking about a country’s size, what region or regions it helps constitute, and how it relates to other parts of the globe. Thinking about maps, space, and place should remind us of how geography is central in history and it can help us start to bring our disparate fields a little closer together.