4 Questions with Tom Kselman

[This month's Cushwa post is dedicated to a short interview with Thomas Kselman, Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, who is retiring at the end of the year. While Kselman is a distinguished Europeanist, he has also written on Marian piety in American Catholicism, and is one of my favorite conversation partners on 19th and 20th century Marian iconography, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the past and future of religious history-writing--his own and others'. It's still a bit far away, but you can also mark your calendars: on March 9, 2017, Kselman's former graduate students will gather for a symposium and dinner in his honor.]

CO: What piece of your own work are you proudest of, and why?

Thomas Kselman
Thomas Kselman: I'm most proud of my first book, "Miracles and Prophecies in Nineteenth-Century France," because I think it helped put bring religious history in the modern era into the developing historiography on social history in the 1970s. The University of Michigan was a center for the history of social movements at that time, with Charles Tilly as the key figure, working in both history and sociology.  The French historians at Michigan were interested primarily in the labor history, the history of socialism, and collective violence.  I remember presenting my research to a group of modern European historians by emphasizing the numbers of pilgrims to Lourdes in the late nineteenth century, and comparing them with the somewhat smaller numbers of workers on strikes.  I wasn't alone in trying to establish the significance of religion as a historical subject, of course, and there were a lot of early modern historians who had cleared the way for a reconsideration of religion in modern Europe.  But I remain proud of my contribution to a historiography that has continued to develop over the last years, with works by Ruth Harris, David Blackbourn, and William Christian, Jr., to name a few.

CO: As (mostly) a Europeanist, what developments in recent (or recent-ish) American religious historiography do you find interesting or especially promising? 

TK: From my perspective, both European and American historians of religion have succeeded over the past generation in establishing the influence of religion as a historical subject that links to but cannot be reduced to the political, social, and cultural contexts of the modern era broadly defined.  The very different situation of religion in the US, however, compared to contemporary Europe, and the different ways in which religion is positioned in academic structures, results in some differences as well.  In Europe (certainly in France, the case I know best) historians of religion are still anxious about their status, and can be somewhat defensive about their subject.  Secular colleagues tend not to value their work sufficiently, especially for the most recent period.  At work here perhaps is the issue of laïcité, the insistence that religion be restricted to the private sphere, which leads some historians in the university to see the pursuit of religious subjects as a kind of Trojan horse for the infiltration of religious principles into the state educational system. Historians of religion respond to his anxiety in some cases by producing massive works on particular subjects that don't always link to broader historical questions. This has the advantage of demonstrating their acceptance of secular historical method, but also can result in religious history being marginalized as a discrete field. In the US I see a very different landscape, in which the history of religion is influenced by theoretical questions generated by scholars from departments of Religious Studies, and by work that is written by scholars who combine an acceptance of the standards of secular scholarship with an openly stated, or at least recognized, religious identity.  On the basis of this comparison (very much oversimplified) I would conclude that the historiography of American religion is pushing ahead in new and interesting ways, and I have heard some French colleagues express envy for the vitality of religious history in the US.
CO: Specifically, can you talk about what insights you hope transatlantic histories of religion might be able to provide in the future?

TK: I claim no expertise on 'transatlantic histories of religion,' which I've learned about mostly from Cushwa seminars. But insofar as religious identities can connect in different ways to national identities a transatlantic approach to religion can help provide alternatives to a nation-centric historiography, which is being challenged on a number of fronts. Immigrant communities and religious congregations are obvious subjects that allow historians to work across as well as within national boundaries, as exemplified in work by Peter d'Agostino and John McGreevy, to mention two scholars familiar to members of the Cushwa community.  But looking ahead I might recast the question as one about global rather than transatlantic history.  Framing the question more broadly would bring in issues of power relations between the continents, and relations between different religious traditions as they come into contact with each other.  Here I am thinking about the question of Islam in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in the US in recent years (and days!).  In other words, if there is an advantage to exploring religion across national boundaries, it would apply beyond as well as to the transatlantic world.
CO: What are you looking forward to in retirement? You can answer this with the six books you're planning to write, or with your golf plans!

TK: I retire in December 2016, and will spend some of the winter doing the index and correcting the page proofs of a book tentatively titled "Conscience and Conversion: Religious Liberty in Post-Revolutionary France," which Yale will publish in the Fall of 2017.   I also have some small assignments I have agreed to do, including an updated version of an article I did (with Steven Avella) many years ago on Marian piety and the Cold War in the US.  I have some ideas for articles as well, including one based on a lengthy memoir of a priest from the Congregation of Foreign Missions who was in hiding for many years in Vietnam in the early years of the nineteenth century.  I have joked with colleagues at times about writing a short book with the title "Death Comes to the Archbishop," in which I recount the bloody ends of Archbishop Affre, killed on the barricades of Paris in 1848, Archbishop Sibour, murdered by a crazed priest in 1857, and Archbishop Darboy, shot by Paris Communards in 1871.  I like the title, and I can imagine using the stories as microhistories that illuminate the history of Catholicism in Paris in the nineteenth century.  We'll see....


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