French Historians under the spotlight: John Merriman

Welcome to ‘under the spotlight’, a monthly interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions – all summarised in less than ten minutes. You can catch up with previous posts here.

John Merriman is Charles Seymour Professor of History at Yale. Next month John is one of the invited plenary speakers at the SSFH Annual Conference in Strathclyde. More details about the conference can be found here.

In the length of a tweet (140 characters), what is your research about?

I work in French social and political history, nineteenth and early twentieth century for the most part.

What was your motivation for researching French history?

I became interested in social and political change and had the great fortune of working with Charles Tilly when he was at the University of Michigan. I was attracted to studying France (not only because of food and wine) but because the archives are so rich. Then I fell in love with living in France (and my family became permanent residents long ago), in Paris and in Balazuc, Ardèche.

You’re given a time machine for one day. Where would you go? What would you do?

University of Michigan football games (my philistine habits remain intact)—I fly out to three games every season.

Who would you invite to your French History fantasy dinner party?

Natalie Zemon Davis, Charles Tilly (deceased, alas), Michelle Perrot, Robert Darnton, Alain Corbin, David Bell, Richard Cobb (deceased, alas), Colin Jones, Alan Forrest, Michael Broers, Roger Price, all wonderful historians and friends. I am sure I have forgotten some. I would organize a separate dinner with guests being famous University of Michigan football players.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

Rewarding: living, researching, and writing in France, as well as frequently teaching there (Université Lumière-Lyon 2, Université de Rouen, plus being invited to the Sorbonne and Ècole des Hautes-Ètudes).  And of course that the vast majority of the students whose dissertations I have been fortunate enough to have directed or in a few cases co-directed have found excellent academic positions and published important books.

Frustrating: the turn away in the profession from archival research, particularly in departmental archives, the perceived “crisis in French history” in terms of placement in the future, and the (relatively small at Yale) decline in the number of students in courses. Used to have invariably 100-170 in my lecture courses, now half that or even less. History was the biggest major at Yale for forty-five years, which is no longer the case.

What one change would you like to see in Academia during the next 5 years?

In the U.S. (including Yale), the Humanities have been undercut by University administrators, of which there are an ever-increasing number, to the extent that it makes me think of the sorcerer’s apprentice. They just keep turning them out. I would like to see the Humanities return to prominence and fewer administrators.

If you weren’t in your current role, what would you be doing?

I have no idea. I was a good athlete but not at the professional level. So sports would have been a no-go for earning a living. I have always been an historian.

What key piece of advice would you offer postgraduates/early career academics?

Keep at it. When I first began teaching at Yale University (I was very young then), my late colleague Edmund Morgan, great historian of early America, gave me some scary advice, “Got a minute, write a line…” Another late colleague, my dear friend Peter Gay, once told me that the first thing he thought about when he woke up every day was what he was going to write that day. Back then, the first thing I thought of was where I when I was going to play basketball that day…then eventually what I was going to eat that day…then what wine today…But I would counsel keeping at it, patience, and thrilling to working on topics that interest you.

A few quick-fire questions…

Archives Nationales or Archives Départementales?

I have spent years carrying out research in the Archives Nationales and the Archives de la Préfecture de Police. Because of earlier projects and being a bit compulsive,  and,  above all, because I found research in archives départementales an excellent way of getting to know so much of France, I have worked some in ninety archives départementales, that is in all départments that existed before the changes in the Paris region in the early 1960s. This meant I went briefly to some in which there was little to be found for my work in nineteenth-century history because of damage during two world wars (Loiret, Manche, Ardennes, and others) , fires (Pyrénées-Atlantiques and Lozère) or because insects ate much of series “M” (Charente-Maritime).  The ones I worked for very, very (too) long periods include Haute-Vienne, Creuse, and Corrèze (for my dissertation and subsequent Limoges book, Ardèche (for The Stones of Balazuc, where we live much of the time) Pyrénées-Orientales, Marne, etc. I love departmental archives and regret that changes in the métier have meant that there are far fewer chercheurs to be found there now.

Writing in silence or to music?

I write to music, most frequently to Bruce Springsteen’s, the U.S.’s real poet, and to the Rolling Stones. I also write while watching baseball and (American) football games. Have to have noise.

Best conference you’ve ever been to?

Been to so many, hard to say. There comes a point when I tend to remember conferences in which the restaurants were excellent, the wines good, and the company superb.


No idea what this means.

Typed or handwritten?

I began typing in grade school and have terrible hand-writing. Obviously, like most everybody, I write on a computer (my former colleague Jonathan Spence, great historian of China, is an exception, still writing by hand).

Éclair or saucisson?

I live in Ardèche, donc, saucisson completely.

Many thanks to John for taking part. If you’d like to suggest someone to feature on the blog, then let us know via @FrHistNwk.


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