History | Individuals in American History
J400 | 2733 | Thelen


A portion of the above section reserved for majors
Above section COAS intensive writing section and also requires
registration in COAS W333

In this course we will explore how individuals have tried to make a
difference in larger events as they have lived their individual
lives.  How have individuals experienced and constructed
intersections of their intimate lives with the rhythms of
conventional units of historical analysis: nations, cultures,
classes, institutions?  How have individuals changed and been changed
by the larger “course of history”?

The topic of our inquiry stems from three assumptions: First, the
postmodern turn in scholarship has led us to interrogate traditions
of historical writing in which individuals were seen more or less as
examples of larger-scale phenomena like Mexican immigration or the
Democratic party or World War II.  Instead of assuming that
individuals are somehow examples of genders or classes or cultures or
events, we will explore just how they have (or have not) connected
the intimate rhythms of personal experience with larger-scale ones.
How have they constructed their larger worlds as they lived their
everyday lives?  Why have they identified with family or class or
nation of humanity?  And we will explore how elites and large-scale
units, in truth, have sought to get individuals to identify their
personal experiences and narratives with those leaders created for
institutions, cultures, and public policies.

Second, the need to explore fresh perspectives for studying history’s
traditional concern the study of change and continuity has become
more urgent as the world has become more global.  The widening and
deepening movements of peoples, ideas, institutions, and cultures
across national boundaries have raised basic challenges to
traditional units of historical analysis; that nations are the most
natural or important points for people to identify with and that
national states are the most important means for people to act
collectively to shape their fates.  History grew up in the 19th
century to encourage people to think in nation-centered terms.  New
developments leave us with the opportunity, the necessity, to step
back and inquire just how well nations have and have not met the
needs of people.  And this course therefore returns to the starting
point, to individuals, to ask what they expected of collective and
public action as they tried to connect their personal lives to larger
phenomena.  We will look at what individuals have expected for the
nation and the nation state.

Third, one of the major themes of American life from the most
academic or philosophical “thinkers” to the most market-driven of
Hollywood producers has connected the fate or mission of the United
States as a national with the empowerment of individuals and the
fulfillment of democratic promise.  Some of the most creative
American cultural and political theory and practice have grown up
around precisely these issues.  In this course we will read and
discuss some examples of this literature much of it recognizable
as “cannon” in American Studies as our sources for exploring how
individuals connect (and refuse to connect) their individual
identities and values and narratives to conflicts over change and
continuity in the larger society.

We will concentrate on several writings in each of three periods when
patterns in the larger world created special challenges and forms for
individuals as they related to the larger world.  The heart of the
course will be weekly discussions of the readings.