The Coastal History Blog 2: “What Makes Coastal History Distinct?” (part 1 of 2)


I’ve been asked for my thoughts on this one: Is coastal history an offshoot of maritime approaches, or a distinct approach in its own right? 

I’m a little reluctant to answer.  It’s early days yet for coastal history, so I’m not sure we know whether it passes muster as “a distinct approach.”  A popular textbook in methods courses is entitled Houses of History, each proud house in its own walled-off chapter.  That’s one way to talk about “distinct approaches,” and there is nothing more distinct than the Montagues and the Capulets.  Hard to write honestly about divisions without sounding divisive, isn’t it?

I think there is a more constructive way to talk about both houses and distinctiveness, but it will take longer to explain and I hope you’ll follow me through some twists and turns.

I’ll start with a statement that everyone can agree on: I did not come out of maritime history.  My historian heroes as an undergraduate were Natalie Zemon Davis and Carlo Ginzburg, and really, they still are.  The chair of my dissertation committee had herself recently finished her doctorate under Judy Walkowitz. [1]

Perhaps coastal history is what happens when people with a non-maritime background become interested in watery subjects, bringing a different set of research questions, methods, and priorities along with them.  I’m not unique; consider the academic pedigrees of John Gillis, Michael Pearson, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Kathleen Wilson. [2]

Other labels are possible, to be sure.  Wilson did her work under rubrics such as the new imperial history and transcultural studies; Clancy-Smith might prefer gender history, transnational history, or migration history; others may identify with mobility studies.  Yet if we wind up with a cluster of work in those fields that refers back time and again to islands, beaches, waterfronts, and port towns, we probably need an appellation of convenience, as a useful search term or keyword if nothing else. More seriously, if we treat each incursion as unique or eccentric, we will miss the larger historiographical trend, not to mention the chance to learn from each other.

“I don’t write for them, I write for you”

Does coastal history have a message for naval and maritime history?  It’s important to bear in mind that we may be looking at a diverse array of scholarship that has water in common, but almost nothing else.  Insisting that these disparate approaches must battle it out for a single slot (as in The Highlander, “there can be only one”) does an injustice to all the contenders.

Consider what would happen if you tried to shoehorn everyone who has ever published peer-reviewed scholarship on railroads into a field called “Railroad Studies.”  There might be an interesting exchange of ideas, but there would also be considerable rancor and mutual incomprehension.  Two authors of classic works on railroads are Robert Fogel (Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History) and Wolfgang Schivelbusch (The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century). [3] Each of these books is cited over 1,000 times on Google Scholar (though most of the hits for Railway Journey appear under a strange glitch entitled Schivelbusch), so it’s a fair guess that each is a work of sturdy and useful scholarship, considered on its own terms.

Yet there aren’t too many books that cite both Fogel and Schivelbusch, and with good reason.  Fogel was the great paragon of quantification, who forecast that History would be shortly remade into a statistically-driven social science, while Schivelbusch’s interest in emotion, urban space, architecture, and visual culture foreshadowed the cultural history of the 1990s.  If someone had asked Fogel to write a review of The Railway Journey (or vice versa), I imagine the result would have been a 500-word non sequitur, if not a 3,000-word apoplectic screed.  What sorts of conversations can we ever hope to have across the chasms that separate us (short of smiting the bridge and quoting Gandalf: “You shall not pass”)? [4]

Worthwhile dialogue across radically different academic paradigms may be nothing more than a pipe dream.  A couple years ago, I asked a senior academic for advice.  How should I think about bad reviews?  Her reply came with a shrug, and a reflection back on her own run-ins with hostile readers over the years: “I don’t write for them, I write for you.”

She had a point.  If we value academic civility, maybe it’s best to avoid conversations that are likely to be both acrimonious and, in the end, unproductive, down the lines of: “Your mainstream is my fringe” and “As far as I’m concerned, the field is defined by my preferred method.”  As a faculty member, I’ve attended plenty of meetings with colleagues from Economics and Chemistry, but never yet heard anyone say, “We can’t proceed until we sort out why you people persist in your absurd disciplinary pursuits.”  If you think this analogy doesn’t apply to historians and their various cliques and shibboleths, then you need to get out more often.

I’m not satisfied with her answer, though.  I do my own specialized scholarship, but I also teach survey courses and methods courses, write textbooks, chair searches in subfields that aren’t my own, sit on the program committee for large conferences with diverse participants, mentor junior faculty, and supervise student research in various shapes and sizes.  However generously I may define “us,” my working life as a historian involves me in thinking about “them” and engaging with “their” work all the time.

The experience of giving a keynote address at the National Museum of the Royal Navy taught me this: No matter our original intentions, we are always writing for “them,” because we do not pick our readers. They pick us.

Neighborhoods of History

If we concede that historians really do read outside their subfields (however grumpily), then the interesting question is not whether we have a complete and accurate enumeration of the “houses of history,” but whether we have those houses properly arranged into streets and neighborhoods.  Which houses are nestled close together, and which are so far apart that they might as well be located in a different town?  How neighborly are the neighborhoods?  When I have a backyard barbeque, who gets invited?

Wearing my cultural geographer hat, there’s a potential here to define coastal history not so much as an invasion of naval and maritime history’s ancestral turf by a motley band of trespassers and heretics, but as a vacant lot happily situated somewhere in between several different subfields that don’t interact very often.  Contact won’t proceed all in one direction.  It’s in a place like this, though, where you can cross paths with unexpected interlocutors, and unlikely conversations become just a bit more likely.

If I’m right about this, then here is one quite plausible, if paradoxical, answer to the original question:

One of the most distinctive things about coastal history is the company that it keeps.

However, coastal history is more than an academic borderland.  Even at this early stage, it already has some characteristic themes, concerns, and subject matter.  Without—I hope—becoming the fashion police, it’s possible to describe some typical coastal history projects.  I’ll discuss those in my next post.


[1] Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); Carlo Ginzburg, The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983); Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1975); Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the Archives: Pardon Tales and their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987); Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

[2] John Gillis, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Michael Pearson, “Littoral Society: The Concept and the Problems,” Journal of World History 17, no. 4 (2006), 353-373; Julia Clancy-Smith, Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration, c. 1800-1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Kathleen Wilson, The Island Race: Englishness, Empire, and Gender in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2003).

[3] Robert Fogel, Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1964); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).  Schivelbusch’s book appeared first in German in 1977 and then was translated with at least two different English titles.  For some context on Fogel, see the thoughtful discussion in Pat Hudson, History by Numbers: An Introduction to Quantitative Approaches (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 191-217.

[4] N.A.M. Rodger, review of Isaac Land, “War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850,” Victorian Studies 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011), 544-546.


One Response to The Coastal History Blog 2: “What Makes Coastal History Distinct?” (part 1 of 2)

  1. Patrick October 27, 2023 at 8:34 am #

    Dear Professor,

    I have recently joined an MA course in Naval History, having retired after 25 years of history teaching to pre-university level.

    Your blog has been recommended as part of the research skills section of the MA.

    I was wondering if type of history and ‘house’ is in the eye of the beholder?

    Thank you for your interesting insights into historiography.

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