AHA Member Spotlight: Yonatan Eyal

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected by AHA staff or nominated by fellow AHA members. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.

Yonatan Eyal is assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto. He has been an AHA member since 2000.

AHA Member Spotlight, Yonatan Eyal

Alma mater/s: AB, Stanford University; AM, PhD, Harvard University

Fields of interest: 19th-century American political and intellectual history, especially Jacksonian politics and the causes of the Civil War; transatlantic romantic nationalism in the Victorian age.

When did you first develop an interest in history?

As a high school junior taking AP US history, I was riveted by the landscape of Jacksonian America. At the time I did not know why, though now I have the perspective to see that I was attracted to the culture of Romanticism: the overt sentimentality, the fascination with the individual’s role in society, the unblushing earnestness that contrasts so sharply with the irony and cynicism of our own day. The sectional crisis offered a ready-made focus for the romantic clash between two competing ideologies, and it’s no accident that I ended up writing my dissertation on romantic nationalism in the era of the Civil War.

What projects are you working on currently?

My first book examined one manifestation of 19th-century romantic nationalism within the Democratic Party called “Young America.” Now I am broadening my perspective to take in the contours of 19th-century romantic politics more broadly, and on both sides of the Atlantic. I hope to delineate a particular romantic type in American politics and to elucidate the complexities of this political culture as it traversed the ocean. I have started by researching the career of Kentucky journalist and intelligence agent George N. Sanders, a man who exemplifies some of the patterns I wish to draw out. For example, he became a republican agitator in Europe, where he lived during the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune uprising of 1871, yet between these two moments he served as a Confederate secret agent and proslavery apologist. I also have a number of subsidiary projects underway, including a forthcoming essay on the misunderstood presidency of Franklin Pierce.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

Somewhat, and in part the change has to do with my teaching outside the country for the past six years, and becoming an unofficial cultural ambassador. I began to realize that America’s historic contributions to the world—federalism, the first workable modern republic, the first written constitutions, the model of an enduring revolution—were giving way to what my graduate advisor Drew Faust calls “the stranglehold of the present.” In other words, people were focusing so much on current headlines that they were losing sight of America’s traditional significance as a symbol of freedom in a world once full of monarchies and empires (what Lincoln called “the last best, hope of earth”). I began to explore this national mission in my scholarship (see my Journal of Southern History article of February 2012) and in my teaching, where I ask students to color in a map with one shade for empires and another for republics in order to demonstrate the United States’s raison d’être.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc. that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?

The Golden State in the Civil War by Glenna Matthews (2012). As a Californian reading this book, I felt embarrassed by my ignorance of Civil War-era happenings in my home state. Politicians fought duels in the 1850s not too far from my high school on the San Francisco peninsula!

What do you value most about the history profession?

The fact that it has remained a “book,” rather than an “article” discipline, with everything it implies in terms of extended argumentation, narrative or storytelling, and resistance to the contemporary sound-bite culture.

Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?

Circulating through the various “smokers” at my first AHA meeting in Boston in 2001 gave me a first-hand, lasting sense of the collegiality of the profession. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling that those evening receptions are a highlight of each year’s gathering. They’re one of the few times I get to see graduate-school friends from outside the field of American history.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

Playing jazz saxophone, spending time with my daughter, and volunteering for the Harvard alumni community.

Any final thoughts?

I always appreciated the civic dimension of our work as American historians, and my international teaching experience has also shown me how much more we have to do in educating non-Americans about our values and culture. There is so much stereotyping and misunderstanding out there that I now see our civic or citizenly role as a global one. Inculcating in our own students the empathy and self-knowledge that come from the humanities is critical, as Martha Nussbaum has cogently argued, but so is spreading our story beyond the nation’s boundaries, as devotees of “smart power” have suggested.

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