052: Deborah A. Cohen, 38


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

52: Deborah A. Cohen, 5-7-07

Basic Facts

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, Deborah A. Cohen JPG (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.
Additional Info:
Formerly Assistant Professor, Department of History, American University (1997-2002).

Personal Anecdote

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

  •  JPG How to be good and well-to-do: this was the question that confronted the British middle classes from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. At the dawn of the age of mass consumerism, worldly pleasures had first to be cleared of the charge of self-indulgence. The idea that possessions could be evaluated along a moral yardstick – a notion endorsed by design reform and underwritten by incarnationalist theology-found wide reception among Victorians, both agnostic and religious. By redefining consumption as a moral act, and the home as a foretaste of the heaven to come, the British middle classes sought to square material abundance with spiritual good. — Deborah A. Cohen in “Household Gods The British and their Possessions”

About Deborah A. Cohen

  • “[Cohen’s] is a genuinely fresh approach, diverging from the mainstream furrow ploughed by most historians to concentrate in the main on real lives and real choices – of ‘life lived outside the tyranny of grand design’ – and she does it subtly, confidently and with real pace.” — Kate Colquhoun, Daily Telegraph, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “[An] excellent new history of the British and their possessions… So much of what Cohen identifies in her insightful survey of Victorian and Edwardian consumerism seems to reflect upon our own age… We have rediscovered the sanctity of our household gods, and the sense of moral wellbeing that they impart.” — Ben Macintyre, The Times, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “In this riveting and revealing book, Deborah Cohen takes the reader on a journey through interiors cluttered with papier-mâché beds, fire screens set with stuffed birds, soup tureens shaped as boar’s heads and baths decorated with shells…If you want to understand the roots of Britain’s peculiar taste for home improvement and today’s obsession with DIY, IKEA shop openings, makeover and property TV programmes, Household Gods provides all the answers.” — Andrea Wulf, Guardian, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “”By the close of the 19th century . . . the department store (and the model room) had been invented and one’s things and how they were arranged were seen to be an expression of another new invention: personality. These are the themes of Household Gods by Deborah Cohen, who cheerfully explores a century of thinking about home in England, from 1830 to 1930, with a focus on the raucous period of ‘bad tastes’—when rooms become choked with bric-a-brac, draperies and dried flowers—around the turn of the century.” — Penelope Green, New York Times (Home & Garden), reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “This diverting, tellingly illustrated book takes us through the dim heart of Victorain clutter and into the fresh air of the modern design that swept it away.” — The Atlantic, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “[A] witty and beguiling history of a hundred years of British domestic interiors.” — Ligaya Mishan, New York Times Book Review, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “Household Gods is engagingly written, well researched and beautifully illustrated. It makes a significant contribution to our understanding of consumption, especially in terms of its articulation with domestic space and the making of cultural identities.” — John Storey, Times Higher Education Supplement, reviewing “Household Gods”
  • “Based upon a wealth of primary material including records of veterans’ associations, charitable institutions, state archives, and the press, Cohen skillfully integrates economic, political, social, and cultural history to produce a piece of scholarship that deserves a wide readership….Cohen has employed the comparative method to great effect: in a thoughtful and thought-provoking book, she convincingly explains the logics behind different patterns of behaviour which appear paradoxical at first sight.” — Bernhard Rieger, The Historical Journal, reviewing “The War Come Home”
  • “Cohen’s analysis moves elegantly from the intricacies of bureaucratic welfare regulations to the utopian visions of British charities (and their contrast with an often much more mundane reality) to sensitive reconstructions of life histories. In so doing, she skillfully transcends the boundaries between political, social, and cultural history. Her analysis strikes an excellent balance between the critical analysis of larger social and political structures, on the one hand, and an empathetic Verstehen of the predicament of disabled veterans in Britain and Germany on the other. Her book thus brilliantly succeeds in humanizing the aftermath of World War I without abandoning critical analytic distance…. The War Come Home thus marks a major milestone in the historiography of the aftermath of World War I, as well as a model study for transnational comparative analysis.” — Frank Biess, German Politics and Society, reviewing “The War Come Home”
  • “Awesome. Makes British political history easy.”… “if you take [this course] you will be working the entire time, but you will learn more than you thought possible”… “D. Cohen is the nicest Prof. at Brown.”…” She’s the nicest and sweetest lady ever! And she’s brilliant, young, and incredibly helpful. :)” — Anonymous Students

Posted on Sunday, May 6, 2007 at 6:16 PM

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