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 Julie Nkodo.
Benjamin Nathans is an associate professor and graduate chair in history at the University of Pennsylvania. He lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, and has been a member of the AHA since 1995.
Current school or alma mater/s: faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania since 1998; PhD, University of California, Berkeley; BA, Yale.
Fields of interest: imperial Russia and the Soviet Union; modern Jewish history; modern Europe; civil society in imperial settings; law in nondemocratic systems; historiography and social theory.
When did you first develop an interest in history?
I had some great history teachers in high school, but it wasn’t until college (where I had intended to major in physics) that I began to think seriously about history as a pursuit, thanks in part to a marvelous introductory class with the late Jaroslav Pelikan. A trip to the Soviet Union in 1984 exposed me for the first time to a society outside the Western orbit, and that stoked my curiosity about the origins of the Cold War divide. Conversations over the years with my older brother Eli, who first pursued a career in the law but eventually made his way back to history, also made me aware of what was at stake in studying the past.
How have your interests changed since graduate school?
Since I’m more of a fox than a hedgehog, my interests were never very focused to begin with. Over the years, though, I’ve become more attentive to the challenge of moving back and forth across different scales of analysis—how to connect close readings of texts and microhistories of people with large-scale processes and transnational narratives. Also, I recently spent a year auditing law school courses on legal philosophy and theories of rights. It was refreshing to step out of the historical discipline, to set aside our perennial obsession with origins and contexts, and read texts, including historical texts, through the prism of unabashedly present-minded concerns.
What projects are you working on currently?
I’ve just finished a four-year stint as consultant to Ralph Appelbaum Associates, who designed the Museum of Jewish History in Moscow. That opened up what for me was a new world of interactivepublic history. Currently I’m finishing a book on the history of the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, called To the Success of Our Hopeless Cause.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc., that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
Knowing the busy schedules of my fellow historians, I’d like to recommend a short—and I mean really short, as in a single page—story by the Gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov, called “Through the Snow.” A beautiful translation by John Glad can be found at the beginning of Shalamov’s collection Kolyma Tales. Anyone who writes should read this story.
What do you value most about the history profession?
Its pluralism and its freedom. Yes, the humanities are in trouble—big trouble—but intellectually I still find things very lively.
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
Music: sometimes it’s a relief to stop reading and writing and instead listen and speak without words.
Any final thoughts?
“History in its generative power is as manifold and puzzling as nature.” Heinrich Graetz