Deborah A. Cohen, 38
Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Department of History, Brown University
Area of Research: Modern British History, Comparative British and German History
Education: University of California, Berkeley, Ph.D., 1996
Major Publications: Cohen is the author of Household Gods: The British and their Possessions, 1830-1945, (Yale University Press, 2006), which was short-listed for PEN’s Hessell-Tiltman prize, and The War Come Home: Disabled Veterans in Britain and Germany, 1914-1939 (University of California Press, 2001, which was awarded the Allan Sharlin Memorial Award by the Social Science History Association.
She is the co-editor, with Maura O’Connor of Comparison and History: Europe in Cross- National Perspective (Routledge, 2004). This book surveys comparative and cross-national approaches to the study of Europe. The volume reflects upon the gains – as well as the obstacles and costs – of such research.
Awards: Cohen is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Howard Fellowship in Social Sciences, 2005;
Salomon Research Award, Brown University, 2003;
Allan Sharlin prize, Social Science History Association, 2002;
Summer Fellowship, National Endowment for the Humanities, 2001;
National Humanities Center Fellowship, 2001;
Senate Research Award, American University, 2000;
Conference Grant, German Historical Institute, 1999;
Mellon Research Award, American University, 1998-1999;
Senate Research Award, American University, 1997-1998;
German American Research Network Grant, 1997-1998;
Conant Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Harvard University, 1996-1997;
Mellon Fellowship, 1991-1995;
German Academic Exchange Service Fellowship, 1994-1995;
Council for European Studies (Columbia) Fellowship, 1993;
Berkeley Fellowship for Graduate Study, 1991-1994.
Formerly Assistant Professor, Department of History, American University (1997-2002).
I don’t have stacks of crumbling newspapers in my dining room, though my favorite uncle does. In a way, I envy him; he also has shelves of the Louisville telephone directory dating back to 1912; cupboards full of ephemera from the Southern Exposition of 1883; shoebox upon shoebox of cartes-de-visite, ambrotypes, and albumen prints; and life-size cardboard cut-outs of Elvira, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. (That is of course a small, if representative, sample of the objects in his dining room.) I’m quite certain that were I not a historian by trade, I, too, might by now be well on my way to amassing piles of things. But all of the rigors of disciplining knowledge and inquiring after significance have practically snuffed out my collecting ambitions. I still spend hours at flea markets and yard sales. Whenever I think of starting a little collection – of glass eyeballs, turn-of-the-century desk sets, chased silver umbrella handles – I ask myself the “so-what” question, and put the eyeball down.
At the same time, I’ve never been able to summon up the disdain we historians are supposed to feel for antiquarians. Perhaps it is because I know from my uncle’s example how much learning is involved when someone sets out to master the seemingly arcane details of postal history. Perhaps it is that I sometimes wish that a little mustiness, whether from the attic or the basement, would seep into our more arid scholarly exchanges. Perhaps it is, too, that there seems at times an uncanny connection between the habits of collectors and the methods of the most inspired historical scholarship. The wild and brilliant juxtapositions of apparently unrelated entities, cartes-de-visite to Elvira – how different is that really from seeing a relationship between leviathans and air pumps? The omnivorous taste for the material world’s full bounty – isn’t that the promise of Braudel’s total history? A seemingly inexhaustible appetite for knowledge, married with unrepentant boundary-breaching: we historians could do with more of both.
My uncle is now seventy-five, blinded in one eye by an angiogram gone awry, and most importantly, possessed of a new girlfriend who has exiled Elvira, Marilyn and Elvis to the basement, and threatened to do the same to the boxes of cigar labels and World War II postcards that prevent the dining room table from serving its intended function. He has begun to de-accession. His two children naturally want nothing to do with his treasures; my cousin, the owner of an emphatically minimalist New York apartment, refers to his father’s activities as “spelunking.” And so the boxes have begun to arrive here in Providence. This is an old house with no storage space. Nothing can be hidden away. Everything must be confronted. Having long avoided collections of my own, I have now inherited bits of a lifetime of hunting and gathering. Last week I spent an evening riffling through the pages of a high school valedictorian’s keepsake book, circa 1912; a late nineteenth-century German immigrant’s outgoing copy letter-book; a rubber-band bound set of albumen prints of babies. Putting out of mind the doubts that have always frustrated my own nascent collections – what in God’s name am I going to do with all of this stuff – I am trying, for the time being, to relish a life amidst history.
By Deborah A. Cohen
About Deborah A. Cohen