February 13, 2013
By Nike Nivar
|AHA Member Spotlight: Robert Genter|
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 and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Nike Nivar.
Robert Genter is a professor of history at Nassau Community College. He lives in Queens, New York, and has been an AHA member since 2000.
Alma mater/s: BA, Rutgers University; MA, Columbia University; PhD, Columbia University
Fields of interest:U.S. and European intellectual history, the history of the Cold War; modernism and the arts, film history and film theory, and the history of the social and behavioral sciences
When did you first develop an interest in history?
Growing up in southern New Jersey, I frequently visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was constantly struck by their American art collection, in particular their vast holdings of works by Thomas Eakins. His paintings revealed to me a world that I wanted, if not needed, to understand. By the time I finally got to their collection of Marcel Duchamp works, I was hooked. I’m embarrassed to say that I spent a lot more time in that museum than I did visiting any of the historic sites in Philadelphia.
What projects are you working on currently?
I recently published my first book, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (Penn Press), which explores the rise and fall of American modernism in the 1950s. My current project is tentatively titled “Cold War Confessions: Speaking the Self in the Age of McCarthyism.” I’m using governmental investigations into political subversion as a framework through which to discuss the rise of a confessional culture in American society in the 1950s, one centered on the exposure of one’s past, if not one’s psychic interior, to the public at large. I’ll be tracing the origins and outlining the debates—political, literary, psychological, legal, military, and so on—over this confessional culture, as the line between public and private was redrawn in the early Cold War. What could the state require its citizens to reveal? What pressures could be placed on individuals to confess to crimes? What psychological means were available to encourage or force individuals to talk? What benefits were received by individuals in unearthing the traumatic details of their pasts? And, most importantly, what were the limits to this confessional culture?
Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?
Yes and no. My earliest research was in the history of American art and literature during the early Cold War, which resulted in several articles and a book on modernism. Recently, however, I’ve begun examining the history of the social and behavioral sciences in the 2oth century, particularly in relationship to political developments. But I believe that most of what we write as historians is highly autobiographical, even if we might not admit it. Somewhere inside our historiographical perspectives is something deeply personal. I think that’s very much present in my work and the work of most historians. In the end, we are all just trying to understand the human condition. So whether I’m writing about American art in the 1950s or about the intellectual history of American psychology, there’s an obvious connection between both.
Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc., that you could recommend to fellow AHA members?
I’m deeply encouraged by the efforts of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History to promote the field. Please check out its blog at www.s-usih.org. And for fun, we should be reading the random musings of James Livingston, my old undergraduate advisor at Rutgers University. His blog is calledPolitics and Letters. As for books, I tend to read works from other disciplines just as much as I read history. For those who might be interested, I would suggest Rosalind Krauss’s latest book, Under Blue Cup, in which she writes about the role of memory in contemporary art through the lens of her own personal recovery from a brain aneurysm. As for films, I have an endless list. I just finished reading Jason Stevens’s God-Fearing and Free, which contains a wonderful analysis of Charles Laughton’s film noir masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter. I recommend both the book and the film.
What do you value most about the history profession?
I could attempt to say something poetic about the historical profession in general, but I think I’m most thankful for all of the supportive and encouraging people I’ve met within the profession, many of whom have become dear friends.
Do you have a favorite AHA annual meeting anecdote you would like to share?
Too many. One involves the oddest of job interviews. Another involves inappropriate language by an accomplished historian during a conference talk. Another involves a conversation I had with someone sitting next to me at a hotel bar after I had a disappointing job interview. We never properly introduced ourselves, but this thoughtful person (clearly a senior scholar) recognized my despair and had several kind words and good advice to offer. This was many years ago, but I still appreciate the conversation (and the beer he bought me).
Other than history, what are you passionate about?
The New York Yankees, my golf swing, Bill Murray movies, any and all card games, my family, and, most of all, my partner-in-crime, Jessica.
Any final thoughts?
I’m just glad to be a part of this profession. Academic jobs, as we all know, are hard to come by.