This Sunday the New York Times offered up that rarest of birds: front page coverage of historiography. The piece, by Jennifer Schuessler, looks at historians’ growing study of the history of capitalism, a pursuit that predates but has been invigorated by the global financial crisis. Since Harvard’s Sven Beckert taught what’s believed to be the first seminar on the subject in 1996, courses and programs on the study of U.S. capitalism have been developed across the country.
Well, as the scholars go, so go the books, and Schuessler highlights a nice group of ours in her story, all of which were brought to HUP by Joyce Seltzer, our Senior Executive Editor for History and Contemporary Affairs. Among them is 2007’s A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States, by Stephen Mihm, who explains that respect for these areas of inquiry has grown greatly since the crisis left people asking “Oh my God, what has Wall Street been doing for the last 100 years?”
Another scholar whose work speaks directly to that question is Julia Ott, whose position at the New School is thought to be the academy’s first professorship in the history of capitalism. Ott, author of When Wall Street Met Main Street: The Quest for an Investors’ Democracy, calls attention to the often overlooked truth that markets and financial institutions “were created by people making particular choices at particular historical moments.” Her work has the effect of denaturalizing economic conditions that are usually taken for granted, such as when she took to our blog to explain that, despite today’s politicized panic over government deficits, during WWI many Americans welcomed the vastly enlarged national debt, believing that federally-issued war bonds would lead to a better postwar society in which all had a “stake” in the nation. As such, Ott argues, the War Loan programs “invited Americans to imagine the nation as a financial market,” which in turn fundamentally altered the common citizen’s conception of and engagement with financial instruments.
Study of the history of capitalism incorporates the concern with race and gender that has driven so much of the work of historians in recent decades, and Schuessler points to Bethany Moreton’s award-winning To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise as an example of a work that focuses on gender.
Whether they come from HUP or our sister university presses, many of the books considered in the piece are their author’s first, which serves to highlight the persistent value of UPs in our commitment to young scholars and emerging disciplines. We’ll leave you, then, with a deeper look at one of those first books the piece mentions, Jonathan Levy’s Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America. Levy spoke with us last year for an episode of the HUP podcast, which you can listen to via the player below.