AHA Member Spotlight: Carl Abbott

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.

Carl-NovCarl Abbott is professor of urban studies and planning emeritus at Portland State University. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and has been an AHA member since 1982.

Alma mater/s: Swarthmore College (1966) and University of Chicago (1971)

Fields of interest: cities in North America, North American West, US since 1945, science fiction

When did you first develop an interest in history?

In elementary school I began to read lots of popular stories of archeological discoveries and wanted to follow in what I’d later think of as the Indiana Jones footsteps . . . until I figured out that archeologists spend lots of time in blistering deserts and steamy jungles, whereas historians get to think about those discoveries sitting in reasonably comfortable libraries.

I also loved maps and found that the countries shown in my grandmother’s old geography text looked different. Where has this Austria-Hungary or Ottoman Turkey come from? What happened to change the maps? If there had been a geography department at my small, very traditional college, I might have ended up a historical geographer. Instead, history was the natural major.

What projects are you working on currently?

My current book project carries the working title Science Fiction Cities: Seven Ways We Imagine the Urban Future. I am defining city types that keep reappearing in science fiction (such as the deserted city or feral suburbia) and exploring the ways in which they reflect urban theory and contemporary concerns about urban life.

I am also pulling together a collection of essays to be titled Imagined Frontiers, looking at depictions of suburban, continental, and extraterrestrial frontiers.

In the back of my mind is a very different question that I want to pursue next: Why, in the Internet age, have cities in the US and Europe continued to build new and architecturally interesting public libraries? Where do these libraries fit in a city’s downtown planning, its democratic processes, and its sense of self?

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

I started out with a dissertation on cities in the antebellum Middle West and have moved steadily toward the present. I have retained my interest in the relationships between cities and their regions (books on Washington, DC, on Sunbelt cities, and on cities in western North America). I have been making increasing use of films, novels, and other cultural products as evidence for Americans’ understanding of cities and regions. An example is my book Frontiers Past and Future: Science Fiction and the American West, which examines how SF writers have utilized the historical narratives of western settlement to think about the future.

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

For an exciting way to think about US history, look at Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation.

For a futuristic exercise in historical thinking, read Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction trilogy about the settlement of Mars (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars).

For a historical novel, try Annie Dillard, The Living, about the transformation of the Puget Sound region in the 19th century.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I value the openness to wide ranges of methodologies from the social sciences and humanities, because I like both numbers and novels. There is nothing like reading through the AHR book reviews to be reminded of the variety of human experience.

Among the strongest graduate school influences on my approach to history have been John Hope Franklin, who showed me how meticulous scholarship could be socially relevant, and William McNeill, whose breadth of interests was an inspiration and challenge.

Why did you join the AHA?

It is a responsibility to participate in and support my professional organizations, in the same way that I support my faculty union. It is part of a professional and personal identity

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

Let me put in a plug for the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch-American Historical Association. For those unfamiliar, the PCB-AHA originated in the age of train travel when West Coast historians found it hard to participate in East Coast meetings. We are unique as a direct offshoot of the AHA and have continued to hold meetings each August, where we are especially open to the work of graduate students and younger scholars. The PCB-AHA also sponsors the Pacific Historical Review, which I’ve been privileged to co-edit for a number of years.

Any final thoughts?

I’m not the first to say this, but historians have great opportunities to communicate with the non-academic world. There is a very large appetite for history, and AHA members should be feeding that appetite and getting credit for doing so. I wrote a piece along these lines for the October 2012 issue of Perspectives on History. We’re all in this historical enterprise together, professionals and non-professionals, and the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. Check out Carl Becker’s 1932 AHA presidential address—he was a very, very smart guy.

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