Category Archives: Washington History Seminar

Sponsored jointly by the National History Center and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Washington History Seminar meets each week, January to May and September to December, on Monday afternoons at 4 o’clock at the Wilson Center. It aims to facilitate understanding of contemporary affairs in light of historical knowledge of all times and all places and from a variety of perspectives. For the latest schedule, please click on Spring 2012 Schedule. For more information on past speakers, topics, and videos, please click on Washington History Seminar Schedule.

4/25 A Special WHS: The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable with Amitav Ghosh

Are we deranged? Amitav Ghosh argues that future generations may well think so. How else to explain our imaginative failure in the face of global warming? Ghoshexamines our inability—at the level of literature, history, and politics—to grasp the scale and violence of climate change.

The extreme nature of today’s climate events makes them peculiarly resistant to contemporary modes of thinking and imagining.  This is particularly true of serious literary fiction: hundred-year storms and freakish tornadoes simply feel too improbable for the novel; they are automatically consigned to other genres.  In the writing of history, too, the climate crisis has sometimes led to gross simplifications; the history of the carbon economy is a tangled global story with many contradictions and counterintuitive elements.

Amitav Ghosh is an acclaimed author whose novels include the Ibis Trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire), The Glass Palace, and The Shadow LinesThe Great Derangement is his first major work of nonfiction since In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler’s Tale.

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the George Washington University History Department for their support.

4/17: The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture with Courtney Fullilove

While the contemporary United States is a patchwork of large-scale monocultures, this talk will explore unrealized alternatives, from a Midwestern prairie harvested for production of botanic medicines to an American South populated by smallholders cultivating tea. Understanding why these futures were unrealized, and at what cost, conjures the histories of diverse people, plants, and knowledge on the move. Weaving together the lives of German and Russian immigrant farmers, prairie plant collectors, and Ohio pharmacists, Fullilove recasts the amber waves of grain immortalized in “America the Beautiful” not as an inherited Eden, but rather a novel landscape constructed by transplanted seeds and the skilled labor of willing and unwilling immigrants.

Courtney Fullilove is Assistant Professor of History, Environmental Studies, and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, where she teaches US history of science and technology in global perspective.  She is author of The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the George Washington University History Department for their support.

Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments with Jenna Weissman Joselit

Ever since the mid-19th century, modern America has made much of the Ten Commandments.  Although its citizens may not have been able to get the ancient dos and don’ts quite right, honoring them more in the breach than anything else, they insisted all the same on seeing them everywhere:  in stone, paper, cardboard, stained glass and Technicolor.  In her illustrated lecture, the distinguished cultural historian Jenna Weissman Joselit explores the nation’s fascination with the Biblical text.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at The George Washington University, where she also created and now directs two graduate programs in Jewish culture and the arts, the first of their kind in the country. She is the author of The Wonders of America, which received the National Jewish Book Award in History, and of the critically acclaimed A Perfect Fit:  Clothes, Character and the Promise of America. Joselit also writes a monthly column on American Jewish culture for The Forward newspaper, which is now in its 17th consecutive year of publication. Her latest book, Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments, will be published next month by Oxford University Press.

The Washington History Seminar is co-chaired by Eric Arnesen (George Washington University) and Christian Ostermann (Woodrow Wilson Center) and is sponsored jointly by the National History Center of the American Historical Association and the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program. It meets weekly during the academic year. The seminar thanks the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations and the George Washington University History Department for their support.