Historian’s research doesn’t stop with retirement

Twelve years after NIU, Stephen Foster is still doing what he does best – and most loves

Foster bookRetirement apparently can’t stand in the way of Stephen Foster’s quest to uncover the American past.

Foster, a Distinguished Research Professor of history who retired in 2002 after an illustrious career at NIU, hasn’t slowed down a bit.

Foster this summer was a special guest lecturer at Oxford University as Oxford University Press launched his new book, “British North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” Foster edited and contributed to the collection of essays. The volume is part of the “Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series.”

Foster earned his doctoral degree in 1966 from Yale University, came to NIU that same year and made an international name for himself as a historian specializing in early American religious, intellectual and cultural history, as well as in British imperial history and early modern England.

All of his new book’s chapters address the twin questions of whether it made a substantial difference to the people living in North America that they were the subjects of an empire, and whether it mattered that the empire in question was British.

The work is a fulfillment of Foster’s revived interest in imperial history at a moment when the subject is undergoing a renaissance. NIU Today caught up with Foster, who lives in Chicago, for a Q&A about his latest work.

When was the book published? We came out in the UK in November of 2013. In North America, the publication date was February of this year.

How long have you been working on this book? A long time. I first signed on in 2000 with the understanding that I could do nothing about it until I retired. I reaffirmed my commitment early in 2003 and did some work on it intermittently, but I didn’t work on it flat out with no competing commitments until around 2005. Even so, we finally went to press at the very end of 2012. Works of multiple authorship often take a long time because of the number of people involved – like a naval convoy, you are only as fast as your slowest ship.

Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

Why did you write and edit this book? In the first instance because I was asked to – by William Roger Louis, the general editor of the original five-volume “Oxford History of the British Empire.” I agreed to do it with some trepidation and considerable enthusiasm. I had never edited a work of multiple authorship, though I had some editorial experience. Apart from the inherent interest of the subject, I was drawn to the collection because it served two distinct needs for a retired but still professionally active scholar. First, having to deal with other people’s work on a great variety of topics forced me to keep current in the secondary literature outside my own rather narrow specialization (colonial New England). Second, when you retire, you lose contact with the younger members of the profession – the people you would otherwise have met as new colleagues. All of the other contributors to this collection are relatively young, at least by the standards of someone who got his doctorate almost half a century ago. Of course, we took so long that they have all had the opportunity to grow a little older. In a whimsical moment I thought of dedicating the book to the children of the contributors born since we began work on it.

Why is this book important? When I was a graduate student learning my trade in early American history, it was still mostly about British North America. In recent decades, however, the importance of non-European peoples in the Americas – the indigenous populations and the Africans whose forced migration greatly outnumbered its European equivalent – has received special emphasis.

Admitting the value of the new material and approaches does not mean that every pre-existing concept has to be thrown out whole.

The British Empire itself, as big as it was and as long enduring as it was, is barely within living memory and will soon be out of it. There is now enough distance on the title subject to see it afresh and more critically. We are just carrying on that work when it comes to early America, doing our best to see if, when and how a particular empire mattered in the lives of the people –  European, indigenous and African – who were its subjects.

Can you give us some examples of how British rule influenced the daily lives of colonial-era Americans? There are lots, but the most obvious is war. When the British and the French went to war, which they did often, so did their colonies. War was not an interruption in ordinary colonial life but a regular part of it. And it was not all destruction either, though there was quite a lot of that. Capital was poured into the colonies and consumer demand stimulated just when it could not be fully satisfied because of the dangers of transatlantic shipping. Trade routes were altered permanently. The movement of troops and naval vessels created new disease vectors. It has even been argued that the famous Salem Witchcraft episode of 1692-93 was a product of the early stages of the rather less well-known Nine Years War in America.

You’ve been retired now from NIU for more than a decade. What keeps you going on the research front? Well, it’s what we do, who we are, if you go in to our line of work. There are people older than I am who are still at it. One of the people who came to the Oxford University Press party for the volume and made some pertinent remarks was Sir John Elliott, the dean of historians of the Spanish Empire, who is in his mid-80s and still productive. My dear teacher, Ed Morgan, made the New York Times best seller list when he was 86 and brought out two collections of his previously published pieces when he was in his 90s. He put it best when he said, “It’s been fun the whole time.”

What’s next for you? I am going back to an earlier idea never fully fleshed out when I was still teaching. I am interested in the notion of “provinciality” as applied to New England in the first half of the 18th century. This means examining what it means to realize, to take for granted even, that you are part of a large empire and at the same time to maintain that you are in some sense what your grandparents and great grandparents had repeatedly proclaimed themselves to be: the most important people in the world.

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