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Talking History: An Interview with California Historian Mark Robertson

Let’s start at the beginning – what made you want to study history and what, specifically, drew you to the Gilded Age in San Francisco?


As your question suggests, it is only naturally to start at the beginning. How I became interested in the history discipline is a story of self-discovery, as much as a career choice. I suppose what drew me towards history began early in childhood having been raised in the Sierra Nevada gold country of California. Columbia State Park, reportedly one of the largest living history exhibits west of the Mississippi, was located not far from where I grew up. But this was only one shade of an immense spectrum of Californian Gold Rush legacies in which I was exposed to, taught, and felt. From not-so-urban legends, to architecture, memorials, and community celebrations, the Pioneer Myth which I discuss on my blog was pervasive throughout my home environment. Interestingly however many of these legacies were not as dominant as they might seem at first. My own exposure to counter narratives of history were formative in my interest in the past. Early on in my adolescence I learned about an area which I was told was a place I was not generally welcome – the Mi-Wuk reservation. Thankfully, life experience and adulthood had proved the warnings I received as an adolescent were completely false. In hindsight I believe my continued exposure to Native Californian culture colored the patriotic narratives of American history I was given and led me to at least question what I was being told.


The formative experience which led me to history discipline directly, was the moment it hit me that history was not one story, but a collection of stories from various perspectives. Particularly foundational was a team taught college course in none other than Columbia, California. With a combination of cultural anthropology and human geography, my instructors Ted Hamilton and Paula Clarke opened my eyes to people, histories, and life experiences in the present and in the past which I could not have possibly formulated in the perspectives on the past I was given in public school. Two books began my movement towards looking at the past as a way of understanding our present human condition: Colin M. Turnbull’s, “The Forest People,” and Dirk Van Der Elst’s, “Culture As Given-Culture As Choice.” The first presented the story of a human existence which seemed to be detached from “history,” containing a narrative of the past which could not be easily reconciled with the western history I was familiar with. The latter argued that human culture frames human experience, and demonstrates that an individual understands themselves and the world around them through culture that is either “given” or “chosen;” both representing risks and benefits of survival within human societies. The BaMbuti Pygmies of Africa for instance seemed to live in another time – literally. They had not been “given,” in Van Der Elst’s phrasing, the culture which had brought many societies out of hunting and gathering and into complex industrial societies. The BaMbuti Pygmies lived without western time, without clocks, without industry, yet it was the 1960s. What did that mean, I thought.


Being so intrigued by the difference in understanding the human existence between cultures (my own, and the BaMbuti Pygmies), led me on a “Diamondesque” quest in an attempt to understand “Yali’s Question,” presented by Geographer Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” This “question,” seeks to answer how European societies came to dominate the global economy. How, I wondered, did American culture come to be the way it is? What part did the US play in Diamond’s master narrative of world history and human societies? The next course I took was by the same team, combining post Civil War American History with a sociological examination of American Social Problems. The rest, as the bad pun goes, is history.


How I became interested in Gilded Age San Francisco was another story altogether and was the result of dabbling in human history from the archaeology of the Holy Land to the History of the World-Wide-Web. What resulted from this smattering of content was a refined sense of the past and the segments I wanted to study. While I had always known I would be a historian of the United States, my exposure to the impossibility of compartmentalizing history between formal geo-political borders led me to study not only my own country’s expansion westward, but its continued expansion beyond its territorial boundaries into some kind of capitalist empire by the turn of the 20th century. The story of California, Hawaii, Alaska, and the entire Pacific Coast is contained within a narrative of territorial empire. Often westward expansion is not characterized as imperial in established histories, however in my view, what else can the conquest of California and Hawaii mean for example, if not imperial ambitions. The Spanish-American War, America’s Great White Fleet, and other expressions of imperial power were significant influences to California and San Francisco’s development in the late 19th century. It was in these confluence of historical forces in the past of my home state that really coalesced my interests on studying the Gilded Age on the west coast.


In a broader sense you are also interested in the history of California, a much broader subject that San Francisco’s gilded age, which you also discuss in a second online blog.  I was curious as to how you easy you found it to strike a balance between these two subjects; does one ever come to dominate at the expense of another? How difficult do you find it keeping up to date with – and discussing – both topics?


In Gilded Empire my strategy evolved from my goal to present my own research on a topic that received little attention, California’s Golden Jubilee in 1898. This story led me into an investigation into how urban and regional identity works on a popular, urban level. My second blog, A California Historian, emerged as an afterthought in working out and constructing Gilded Empire as an efficient working blog. My fear was to have a site that lacked narrative focus or clarity. Therefore as I surfed and surveyed the digital history landscape, I saw two broad trends. The first trend were blogs that were more personal, political, or regarding issues in professionalism. The second trend, which was far less prominent, were blogs with historical content and some degree of analysis.


Very quickly it became clear to me why most blogs hinge towards the first trend. I found myself wanting to post on all sorts of things ranging from pedagogy to historical methodology, but I did not want to clutter Gilded Empire with lecture announcements and suggested links. The point of Gilded Empire is to produce and distribute knowledge, more than one-way communication with the public.


This led me to create the blog, A California Historian, to satisfy that primarily one-way impulse in which many may have already succumbed. Simply put, Gilded Empire is the digital repository for my traditional research project of the same title, while A California Historian represents everything else that interests me as a historian in which I wish to share. Another reason why I chose the historical content trend was that it was so sparsely populated. Few historians, it seems, presented working research online for whatever reasons we can speculate.


Balancing time spent on either is generally biased towards Gilded Empire. Much of the material that arrises on Gilded Empire has been in process for at least two years facilitating more frequent postings. A California Historian on the other hand is much more sporadic and circumstantial. In a way my personal blog (A California Historian) represents a companion to my Twitter account as well. Often discussing California public history (which has evolved as my primary product on A California Historian), it has become a way for me to broadcast and network beyond academia in a language which is more readable. I imagine that the more specialized language alone will deter most non-specialists from Gilded Empire. However I hope to work towards minimizing that barrier of entry as time passes. It remains to be seen which blog will actually be more useful to the wider public, as they are both too recent to make any judgements.


Unlike many historians you have a strong online presence, how have you found this has (or has not) impacted your work?


My online presence has been a blessing in disguise, although in some instances I still wonder.


First and foremost it has provided me some professional and methodological perspective and inspiration. Prior to my online exploits, it would be a trial to find a community of interested (and in many ways qualified) individuals to discuss and carry on a historiographic dialogue. By being able to communicate to those around the world, there is never a shortage of interested individuals. And beyond this broader network, blogs and especially Twitter hashtags have allowed for a more efficient historiographic conversation through indexing. Just as the card catalogue was destroyed by the computer by offering more efficient searching of sources, topics, and keywords, blogs and Twitter have become a way to investigate historiographic avenues and methodological approaches that take much less time to search, select, and evaluate than looking through academic journals, book reviews, and the library shelves. Through blogging software like Google’s Blogger and, the historiographic conversation is itself “indexed” and searchable. However, as with traditional sources, selection remains crucial. Second, my online presence has provided a jump-start to my (hopefully long) publishing career. Besides offer a low barrier of entry into publishing (self-publishing anyway), my blogs and Twitter account also offer a much faster avenue to peer-review. As historians seem to be no stranger to presenting critiques of others work, my online presence provides a more “honest” appraisal of my work than people I am familiar with.


But its not all roses and plums. I do feel that the pressure to post and the ease of publishing requires far greater self-control in writing and editing. Being able to press the “publish” button on your own requires a little bit of restraint. The other issue is the longevity of the data being created by historians online. No longer can I stick an outdated or inefficient idea in a drawer where nobody can see it; it is out in the open, and regrettably searchable. But it seems my opinion still rests on the benefits outweighing the risks.


How, if at all, has Twitter impacted how you reach out to the general public and other historians?


As I mentioned before, Twitter has been foundational in creating a rather open and efficient community among historians and those in other disciplines. However it has equally connected me with a much wider audience than I would have expected. Non-specialists make up a very large portion of my Twitter followers. Interestingly, the public impact of a post or tweet it seems rests not on content, but on title and marketing. Content, much like the daily news, does not draw visitors or subscribers it seems. It is intrigue that brings in the non-specialized public. Or at least on my own work.


Speaking of the general public, do you feel that historians are generally doing enough to spread their research?


Not particularly.


Historians as I have experienced them have generally been far too specialized to speak to the general public, whether they choose to or not. Specialized language, dependence on long-standing historiography, as well as narrative stagnation leaves many histories as, plainly speaking, not that enjoyable of a read. Certainly there are those who do this quite well. But as I don’t read non-specialist history very much (a problem in itself), David McCullough is the only one that comes to mind at the moment. However, it is not that the general public isn’t interested. Americans recently it seems have quite an interest in its own and other people’s history. Many books recently on the New York Times Bestseller list have been about history or historical topics. Blogs and Twitter have provided one of the most innovative steps towards this goal, But I believe we are far from doing enough. At the least, digital history will provide another location, with a far lower barrier of entry for historical material to add to those already available, such as museums, libraries, historical societies, and journals.


I see that you are also working on a book based upon your Gilded Empire blog – can you tell those reading this interview a bit about that project? How is it different from your blog, have you found a publisher, etc?


The book is still in the conceptual stage, however it is framed by an essay I produced last year on California’s Golden Jubilee, 1898. In conducting research for that project I was struck the dominance of a particular form of “Californian” identity centered on San Francisco and northern California, and a contrasting (if not dramatically different) “Californian” identity centered on Los Angeles in southern California. What had given rise to these distinct regional interpretations? The inspiration for these questions came from an article titled, “Pioneers and Padres,” by Glen Gendzel. In the article, Gendzel agrees with California historians David Wrobel, Kevin Starr, and others, that a distinct regional American identity emerged on the Pacific coast after the American Civil War. However, in acknowledgement of the obviously distinct urban cultures of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Gendzel demonstrated that not only are their distinct regional variations of a Californian identity (north and south), but that it was not even much of a racial division as one might think at first. In light of Anglo-Angelinos consistent deployment of the Padre identity in the south throughout the late 19th century, Gendzel suggests that the influence of place had a much larger impact than previously thought in developing a distinct regional identity in southern California in the late 19th century. The depth of the hispanic legacy in Los Angeles, compared to San Francisco’s dominant Anglo legacy, significantly oriented Angelino’s sense of themselves and California’s history. In San Francisco, the Pioneer legacy was dominant, well established, and in many ways general accepted. The big question is HOW?


How does external power (structural, political, & cultural) shape individual and urban identities?

Among these influences, how do minority groups structure their sense of self within an established collective identity (in which they might not fit)?

How does the dominant urban identity become established? Modified?

In what ways do minority or insurgent identities enter into dialogue with the established local identity?

Where do these dialogues take place?

Where are these dialogues most contentious?

Who are the most significant actors in these dialogues?


These and many other questions have been intriguing. However what has caught my attention are the most significant influences in maintaining an urban/regional identity.


Significantly, through regional histories, local culture, and material relics, residents of late 19th century San Francisco are confronted with a particular sense of the city’s past. Of course this perspective on the past read in history books, practiced in local traditions, and seen amongst the urban landscape, is maintained by the powerful. But as Barbara Berglund suggests in, Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846-1906, the avenues of power to influence histories, local culture, and preserve relics are not just expressions of Anglo economic or political power. Berglund demonstrates that the consumer market influences these repositories of regional identity. The existence of Chinatown, according to this logic, is also a culminating result of commercial activity as well as the function of Anglo political or economic power. This got me wondering how regional identity and different forms of power remain in dialogue over time. It was this train of thought that led me into the ways in which the established regional identity is maintained, and significantly how it is challenged. Through an investigation into California’s Golden Jubilee, 1898, along these lines, I hope to extrapolate how a widely accepted regional identity is maintained and challenged through public celebrations, urban landscape, and institutional memory.


Finally, can you tell the people reading this a bit about what you are working on now and what they can look forward to from you in the future?


Professionally I am like most finishing graduate students, busy, busy, busy. This academic semester I will be involved in two projects worthy of mention. First, under Dr. Margo McBane at San Jose State University, I will be participating in an oral history project documenting Hispanic/Latino/Mexican-American experiences in the Santa Clara Valley (Silicon Valley). Most of the individuals we are documenting have lived very long lives in a region which has seen quite possibly some of the most dramatic economic and ecological changes in California since statehood. Prior to the metropolis of San Jose, CA, fruit orchards and blossom fairs dominated the life of the area. Now, it is quite different that requires no reminder here. The second project is a public history exhibit I am working on for San Jose State University’s Phi Alpha Theta History Honors Society, leading the construction of a small exhibit of San Jose State’s history to be displayed in the historic Tower Hall (the architectural emblem of SJSU).


In regards to Gilded Empire (book and blog), I am hoping to do more short entries and biographical sketches of significant actors, organizations, and events. For example, little information is widely available on say the Native Sons of the Golden West or the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Both organizations played significant roles in the institutional and public memory of San Francisco throughout its history. Others, like the Society of California Pioneers, the San Francisco Merchants’ Association, and the Mechanics’ Institute, all had long and successful legacies impacting public celebrations, constructing the urban landscape, and establishing institutional memories. Farther down the road I will move to the spectrum from below, investigating insurgent historical narratives and visions of a regional identity that challenge the established image.


This next push for Gilded Empire will also present an opportunity to provide much more historical content online – one of my primary goals. In visiting Gilded Empire, I hope that visitors can browse a number of topics regarding San Francisco in the Gilded Age, not just those pertaining to my main agenda – regional identity.

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