Teaching Position: Associate Professor, Department of History, Florida State University
Area of Research: U.S. history, Native American history, and the history of colonial North America
Education: Ph.D., History, Brown University, 1996
Major Publications: Gray is the author of The Making of John Ledyard: Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler (Yale University Press, 2007); New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999). He is also the Co-editor with Norman Fiering of The Language Encounter in the Americas, 1492-1800 (Berghahn Books, 2000; paperback, 2001), and is also the editor of Colonial America: A History in Documents (Oxford University Press, 2003). Gray is currently working on a new project about the political radical Tom Paine and his quest to build an iron bridge.
Gray is also the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters including: “Island Hopping: Early American History in the Wider World,” Journal of American History, to appear in a special 2008 forum, “The State of Early America”; “Visions of Another Empire: John Ledyard, an American Traveler Across the Russian Empire, 1787-1788,” The Journal of the Early Republic 24:3(Fall, 2004), and “Cultures of Invention: Exploring Tom Paine and his Iron Bridge in the Digital Age,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 115:2 (2006), among others.
Awards: Gray is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
National Endowment for the Humanities, Faculty Fellowship, 2004-2005;
Andrew Mellon Post-Doctoral Fellowship, The Huntington Library, San Marino California, 1998-1999;
Dissertation Writing Fellowship, Brown University, 1994-95;
Mellon Resident Research Fellowship, American Philosophical Society, 1994;
J.M. Stuart Research Fellowship, The John Carter Brown Library, 1993-94.
Gray formerly taught at Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois, and Depaul University, Chicago, Illinois. Gray is the editor of “Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life” http://www.common-place.org/.
It is hard to imagine myself as either a “young” or a “top” historian. I’ll spare you the false modesty r.e. the “top” bit. But the young feels like a stretch. I note that 42 (I’ll be 43 on the first of September) places me among the longer-in-the-tooth cohort of Top Young Historians. But, as the old adage says, age is a state of mind and I feel old. For nine months of the year, I spend my days among people who were born during Reagan’s last term. They greet my references to R.E.O. Speedwagon and Earth Shoes with silence. And while my pop culture awareness was once a point of pride, it is now a source of embarrassment (witness the R.E.O. reference). Much of this is because I have spent the last twenty some odd years becoming a historian. And I will tell you, it has been a long slog. There was the whole grad. school part–wherein it was said of my prelim performance: “Gray’s not fast on his feet, but he did well enough to pass.” There was the three-year job hunt, during which time I discovered that strange species of performance art: the job talk. Then there was the tenure track. In the midst of it all, marriage, children, mortgage, and, yes, life insurance.
Nothing makes you feel old like a life insurance policy. I got mine a few years ago, after our second child was born. With the possible exception of a cemetery plot, there is nothing one can buy that is so directly connected to mortality. Most things we buy because–so we are told–they help us live better. We are told the same about life insurance–it is about peace of mind. But the fact is we buy life insurance to die better. Life insurance is a wager on your mortality; and when you look at the age charts that explain your premiums; when you go for the physical–conducted by the insurance company’s non-partisan physician (no best-case scenarios here); when you contemplate just how much you–your self, your total being, mind body and all the rest–are worth, you cannot help but thinking that the grim reaper is not far off. Good luck and G*d Speed.
As I filled out all the paper work for my policy, I found myself thinking there is something very peculiar about this human practice of placing monetary value on life. And I could not help wondering how all this came to be. How have we all come to embrace the idea that a life can somehow be given a price? Have Americans always treated life insurance as just another mundane thing to be purchased? How has the idea of valuing a human life for insurance purposes related to other historical practices–slavery, for instance? By the time I got to the doctor’s office, I was beginning to think I was on to something.
After being probed and prodded, I rushed home to scavenge material on the history of life insurance and what I found was that, in its earliest forms, life insurance had very little to do with the insured. Instead, it was usually an instrument–essentially a wager–purchased by third parties on some individual’s life. One could purchase a policy on a business associate, a debtor, an artist or craftsperson, or on an entirely random mortal about to go to war, sail the globe, or do some other hazardous thing. Because many believed this all made death profitable, it was outlawed in most European countries until the nineteenth century. England was the notable exception because the English regarded all lives, save that of the monarch, as a species of property (not even the most nimble legal contortion could allow subjects to claim property rights over sovereigns).
The next thing I knew, I was telling people about a book I planned to write on the history of the valuation of human life. Funny how these things happen. I guess, in the end, the sheer randomness of it all makes me feel kind of old as well. I have not come to my research interests through a subtle understanding of scholarship’s cutting edge. I have come to them rather like an old antiquarian, prowling dingy used book stores and kitsch- cluttered second-hand shops in search of those bits and pieces of the past that remind me that the world is a very interesting place, and I’d better get back to studying it before my time runs out.
By Edward G. Gray
About Edward G. Gray