058: Edward G. Gray, 42

Basic Facts

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 Edward Gray JPG (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.
Additional Info:
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/.

Personal Anecdote

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.

Quotes

By Edward G. Gray

  • In Ledyard’s lifetime, empire as he knew it grew anachronistic and, indeed, was directly attacked by his revolutionary countrymen. But in most of the places Ledyard lived and traveled the rumble of revolution was faint. The Making of John Ledyard JPG At times, he eagerly identified himself as a citizen of the new United States and used that putative status in conjunction with his exotic experiences to gain access to European elites. But that identification, it turns out, had little real meaning for Ledyard. He advocated elements of revolutionary ideology–especially its hostility to the staid, corrupt institutions of old Europe and its faith in reason and in the universality of human nature. But he was never a revolutionary. His destiny, as he came to understand it, was too dependent on that old hierarchical, paternalistic way of thinking, unapologetic in its elitism and energized by a prevailing assumption that what was good for a select few . . . was good for all, whether the colonized peoples of the South Pacific or the ordinary seamen who sailed Captain Cook’s ships. Although the American revolutionaries attacked this older vision of empire . . . they did not, of course, destroy it. For momentum is a powerful force in history, and at the time of Ledyard’s death in early 1789 he still lived in a world dominated by old empire. To understand Ledyard, then, is not to understand him as the apostle of some kind of new revolutionary order. Rather, it is to understand him as a man thoroughly bound to an old imperial order, albeit one at the beginning of its end. — Edward G. Gray in “The Making of John Ledyard Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler”
  • About Edward G. Gray

  • “Daring, ambitious, and theatrical, John Ledyard seems to step out of a great eighteenth-century novel into this vivid and revealing history. Following Ledyard’s clues, Edward Gray draws readers through a compelling and global story of ambition, adventure, and empire.” — Alan Taylor, author of “The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution” reviewing “The Making of John Ledyard Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler”
  • “This is no standard biography. Instead, Gray uses Ledyard’s experience and writings to get at what life was like in the various places that the Connecticut-born traveler lived or visited.” Peter C. Mancall, author of “Hakluyt’s Promise: An Elizabethan’s Obsession for an English America” reviewing “The Making of John Ledyard Empire and Ambition in the Life of an Early American Traveler”
  • “Ledyard’s career opens up the entire world, in the most literal sense. His is a really grand story, one that transcends all sorts of conventional boundaries.” — Edward Countryman, Southern Methodist University
  • “Gray [covers] a vast range of very diverse material, much of it unknown and unread by modern scholars. . . . “– Anthony Pagden, The Johns Hopkins University reviewing “New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America”
  • “A substantial contribution to American intellectual history and to our understanding of how white presumptions shaped the attitudes toward Indian language and culture.” — Kenneth Cmiel, University of Iowa reviewing “New World Babel: Languages and Nations in Early America”
  • “This man is incredibly brilliant. You’d be doing yourself a disservice to not take his class. He loves American History.”… “This class was really good. As long as you take notes and write the papers you’re good. He’s a really nice guy too. good class.”… “I took a class with him like 4 years ago and I loved it!! He taught with such passion and clarity. I felt like it was story time when I was in his class b/c his lectures just flowed. I am finally taking an upper level class with him next semester and I am very excited. If you have the chance, take ANY of his classes!”… “He is extremely knowledgable and willing to help students. He is extremely fair and it is completely worth taking his class. I am going out of my way to take his class next semester.” — Anonymous Students
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