The USA and the Making of a Transnational Nation: Themes and Problems

Ian Tyrrell (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Lecture | 6 October 2010, St Andrews

The following is a synopsis of the lecture provided by Professor Tyrrell.

This paper briefly explored definitions of transnational history, situating the
transnational within other terms such as histoire croisée, comparative, and
international history. Transnational history has a specific research program,
centered on contextualising the nation, and in this sense is less than global
history but also more in that all phenomenon crossing national borders can be
included. In its American iteration, it is part of the move towards a more
inclusive US history that acknowledges its multitudinous connections with the
‘wider world’. The specific articulation of this trend in US history needs to
be understood as part of the shifts and controversies in US historical
practice. There, the debates over exceptionalism were central to the
development of a specifically transnational approach. So too was the interest in
multiculturalism and the search for broader conversations that would counter
the extreme specialisation perceived to be narrowing the field’s scope in the
1970s and 1980s.

The paper surveyed different but compatible areas of research, starting with
transnational biography, in which we follow the trails of people. The example
of Jessie Ackermann of the World’s WCTU was discussed, and compared with
Richard St John Barbe Baker, the peripatetic founder of Men of the Trees. I
situated this discussion in terms of the methodologies used by Lake, Russell
and Deacon in Transnational Lives (2010). They illustrate the diversity of
lives not limited to or defined by the nation state. The spectrum of
activities under transnational lives is similar to those of missionaries whom I
have studied, such as the Leitch sisters (see Reforming the World, 2010).

Another way of looking at transnational history is the importance of the
transnational in shaping the nation. The setting of the nation within a
transnational lens is an equally valid part of transnational history. It
doesn’t mean that we have to privilege the nation as the overriding
application of the transnational concept. We can instead contextualize the
national and show that it has a wider history. If we examine the larger course
of US history one can see that historiography does need changing to set US
events in context so we can understand better and, in fact, reinterpret large
swathes of that history.

So transnational history interprets space, and discuses among other things the
transnational production of national space. But transnational history also aims
to historicize and to produce or conceptualise different temporal rhythms
through periodization. We may need to re-periodise US history in terms of
transnational flows and global history. This periodization might well be
conventional yet transnational history allows us to rethink these lines of
demarcation in finer grained ways. The role of textbooks in structuring how
transnational history has been periodised was then considered.

Finally, I turned back to the microhistory of transnational phenomenon, but
not biography, rather, place. As a historian greatly interested in the pull of
place, and the specifics of place in memory and history, I think the
transnational needs to be able to operate within, not simply on the local.
Small areas can be treated as local history, or national history writ
small. But it is better treated as the global in the local. If we mean by this
the local place through which processes of transnational history flow, we go
a long way to expanding and enriching local history. Transnational history can
be written in a very small place.

I advocate a pluralistic discourse of transnational history, not subordination
to one particular object. There is far too much simplification of these
historiographical trends in the contemporary academic discourse on these
matters Creating a unified theory of transnational history or a unified
object of its study is unlikely.