Assistant Professor of History Sean McEnroe (by Rory N. Finney)
Who would’ve guessed that a 1970s world of shag carpets and wood veneer could produce a historian, let alone an aesthete? While the peers in Sean McEnroe’s working class neighborhood focused on the hip now and coming future, McEnroe found himself enchanted by the things of beauty passed down from his grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations: antique oak furniture, lead glass, and, even more dear, musty piles of books with yellowing pages and linotype print.
Flash-forward three decades, and McEnroe is tucked away in a corner of Mexico’s national archive, rapt as he discovers an exquisitely hand-painted sixteenth century map hidden in the back of an eighteenth century legal case. Not long after, he is awarded a prestigious Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad Fellowship to conduct research in Spain.
McEnroe earned his PhD in Latin American history from UC Berkeley after securing an MA from Portland State University in United States history. Before that, he completed his MAT in social science education at Lewis and Clark College and BA in Modern European history from Vassar College. His broad spectrum of studies equipped him to join the growing vanguard of Atlantic historians, who see the cross-Atlantic relations among the Americas, Africa, and Europe as sharing a collective narrative that cannot be cleanly segregated from one another’s influence.
Yet he is also particularly interested in history near to Oregonians’ hearts. His article “Painting the Philippines with an American Brush: Visions of Race and National Mission Among the Oregon Volunteers in the Philippine Wars of 1898 and 1899” won the Joel Palmer Award for Best Article of the Year in the Oregon Historical Quarterly. McEnroe also garnered a Rose Tucker Fellowship to study the history of the Pacific Northwest. He has served on the Oregon History Project Advisory Board and provided consulting and research for the Oregon Historical Society.
His latest research endeavors have taken him further south, with Cambridge University Press scheduled to publish his forthcoming book on Mexico’s history, From Colony to Nationhood in Mexico: Laying the Foundations, 1560–1840. McEnroe is already beginning work on a second book in which he will examine the place of respected non-Europeans in the larger world of early modern Atlantic empires.
Pursuing that childhood flicker of curiosity about the past has led him on adventures to mysterious worlds—and times. Whatever part of the globe, library, or classroom his penchant for history takes him, McEnroe is certain to find beauty and intrigue.
E-interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels in September 2011
MM: As a historian reflecting on your own life, what would you identify as the pivotal moments in your personal narrative that led you to your present career?
SM: Anything of beauty in a working class home of the 1970s was something from the past. As a kid, my first exposure to modern material culture was shag carpeting and fake wood veneer. In my home, everything beautiful came from my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ generations: oak chairs, lead glass, tools with hand-carved handles—and especially old books. So my initial attraction to history was purely aesthetic.
My father began his adult life wishing to be a historian; in the end, he became one of the world’s best-educated bartenders; and in the middle, he channeled his interest in history into his parenting. My bedtime stories were adaptations of Herodotus and comic mash-ups of Robert Luis Stevenson and Horatio Hornblower. So I started my life with a lot of enthusiasm for history, and I credit my father for this. But it is my high school and college teachers to whom I’m indebted for instilling a sense of discipline and persistence in my studies.
Map showing the Atlantic Ocean and surrounding continents (CIA World Factbook)
MM: You are an assistant professor of Atlantic history. Can you describe what that field encompasses for those new to the term—and explain how it differs from imperial history?
SM: Sometimes when a new term comes into vogue among historians, it’s more a matter of fashion than substance. However, I think the phrase “Atlantic history” has contributed something important to the field. I admire the writing of many people who call themselves Atlantic historians because they are so alert to the influences that have crisscrossed the globe in all directions. In the colonial period, the exchange of people, crops, diseases, social organizations, and ideas across the Atlantic constitutes one of the most complex periods of change in world history. I can no longer think about phenomena like slavery, republicanism, or environmental and economic change in strictly national or even continental terms. People who describe themselves as Atlantic historians tend to view the history of Africa, Europe, and the Americas as very closely connected—especially in the early modern period. “Imperial history” sometimes brings to mind a historiography bound up with the defense or critique of empire. That is a long and important academic discussion, but it’s not the kind of work I do.
(left to right) Foundation of the twin Spanish and Indian republics of San Esteban and Saltillo in 1591 (Elena Huerta Múzquiz mural in the courtyard of Centro Cultural Vito Alessio Robles, Saltillo); stained glass from the eighteenth century Templo de San Juan Nepomuceno, Saltillo (by Sean McEnroe)
MM: How has your study of art history informed your understanding of Latin American and modern European history?
SM: I am drawn to the study of art as an end in itself, but I also consider artwork an indispensible source of historical documentation. Much of the joy I find in research comes from seeing the world though the eyes of people in the distant past. I think we come closest to “seeing”—in the literal sense—when we study visual culture.
A powerful example of this in my field is to be found in the codices produced by indigenous artist/scribes. When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica, they encountered a firmly established tradition of scribes who produced histories, tribute records, and works of divination in pictorial and pictographic forms. In the sixteenth century, missionary colleges taught the next generation of indigenous scribes to transliterate their spoken languages and to employ some conventions of European artistic representation. In these books—but also in colonial era maps, religious icons, and architecture—one can see the worldviews of Europe and the Americas growing together.
(left to right) The Rio Grande, which forms part of the Mexico–United States border, first seen at San Francisco Creek in Texas (Robert T. Hill), then from the Overlook Park at White Rock, New Mexico (Andreas F. Borchert)
MM: Many of your publications examine topics related to borderlands. What are the unique politics faced by borderlands? How does that compare with frontier lands?
SM: A lot of ink has been spilled splitting hairs about the difference between frontiers and borderlands. There is something to this discussion. One wants to get away from an idea of frontiers in which we imagine humanity on one side and a vacuum on the other. However, in Spanish, the same term (frontera) is used for both. I’ve noticed that Anglophone scholars have been more interested in the debate than their peers in Mexico.
Part of the borderlands tradition is about viewing a boundary from both sides and about seeing the middle as a distinct cultural space—and this is an important idea. The cultural encounters I study are often between several groups—for instance Spaniards, sedentary indigenous groups, and mobile ones. There are a lot of languages and cultures at these points of contact. These places of diplomacy, translation, and synthesis are at the center of much of my work.
(left to right) Procession of the Virgin of la Macarena, Seville, Spain; irrigation systems created by early Nahua colonists in northern Mexico near today’s US border (Bustamente, Nuevo León); sixteenth century open-air chapel (posa) at the Convento de San Francisco, Tlaxcala, Mexico; McEnroe and fellow graduate student Phillip Ramirez before Nuestra Señora de Ocotlán, Tlaxcala, Mexico; courtyard of the Alhambra Palace in Granada; Bell tower of the Convento de San Francisco, Tlaxcala (third, fourth, and last photos by Brad Benton; the rest by Sean McEnroe)
MM: You received a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Abroad Fellowship to conduct research in Spain as well as Sonne Chair research travel grants for archival work in Mexico. How would you convey the importance of studying primary resources to undergraduates? How was your abstract understanding of these cultures altered by your direct empirical knowledge?
SM: I always list the funding I’ve received from the Sonne Chair on my CV, but this is more out of gratitude than pride. My dissertation advisor, William Taylor, was able to fund some of my research from his endowed chair, so this is not a competitive award or a special distinction. The Fulbright fellowship was a different matter—it was flattering to receive one.
There are a lot of ways to be a historian, but working with archival sources has always been the most exciting part of the profession for me. My first exposure as a student was in a course on Georgian England. One of my favorite professors at Vassar, Donald Olsen, used to end class by giving us individual reading assignments. One day, he told me, “Mr. McEnroe”—he always called us Mr. and Ms.—“I want you go into the Rare Book Room and read the entire print run of Gentleman’s Magazine from 1730 to 1740. Don’t come out until you’ve forgotten what century you live in.” I didn’t—and in some ways, I still haven’t.
Sometimes primary sources provide the material historians use to set the record straight. However, in less well-trodden fields such as mine, we are often still writing the first draft. I work in big national archives in Spain and Mexico but also in small town and church archives. Sometimes I open a box of documents, and I suspect they’ve been sitting there unread for centuries. Finding something important recorded there is like making an archeological discovery.
Once, while working in Mexico’s national archive, I found a hand-painted sixteenth century map bound into the back of an eighteenth century legal case. The indigenous cartographer had painted every detail of the landscape with loving attention: springs burst from hillsides, crops sprung from the fields, and fish peered up from eddies in the river. I was sitting there wearing my mask and gloves in an archive that had once been a maximum security prison, but I felt transported to this lovely town four centuries earlier.
(left to right) Filipino insurgents laying down weapons prior to surrender (US Army) and a depiction of an insurgent attack on the barracks of Co. C, 13th Minnesota Volunteers, during the Tondo Fire in Manila (Harper’s Weekly, April 24, 1899, drawn by G.W. Peters)
MM: Your Oregon Historical Quarterly article on race and national mission in the Philippine Wars won a Joel Palmer Award for best article of the year. Your master’s thesis also explored the perception of Filipinos by Oregonians at the end of the nineteenth century. What were the Philippine Wars, and how did the Portland press portray Filipinos during that time?
SM: I worked on the Philippine Wars from a number of different vantage points: the “official” description of the wars from the congressional record and executive pronouncements; the internal institutional record in the privileged correspondence of diplomats and military commanders; journalistic representations of the conflict in regional and national papers; and the very personal accounts that I found in soldiers’ diaries and letters. Ultimately, American journalists didn’t know very much about the Philippines or what was going on there. Writers tried to fit the Philippines into the kind of racial schemas that dominated American perceptions of the world at the time, but the Philippines didn’t fit very well. Americans were sailing west and conquering a people in what they thought of as the Far East. They were encountering people who could seem Asian or African to American eyes, but who also fit some Western Americans’ ideas about indigenous Americans. Writers were charged with explaining a war that was first described as an independence movement but soon became a US conquest. The worse it got, the more soldiers and journalists fell back on familiar stories used in the past to justify the treatment of African slaves and North American Indians here at home.
Map documenting Mexico’s territorial evolution (Hpav7)
MM: Your book From Colony to Nationhood in Mexico is scheduled to be published by Cambridge University Press next year. Can you talk a bit about the thesis of your book, or do we have to wait till the book comes out?
SM: The book is about the origins of Mexican citizenship. On one hand, the new Mexican nation of the nineteenth century was inspired by foreign examples like the French and American Revolutions—that’s a story that has been well-explained many times in the past. But the political life of Mexico also has deep roots in the colonial republics, and this is where my book contributes something new.
Mexico became an independent nation in the 1820s. Before that time, there was no country called Mexico and no “Mexican people” (apart from the residents of Mexico City). New Spain was a society based on a model of parallel governance in which indigenous and European communities had their own municipalities and elected leaders. These two kinds of communities were referred to as Indian republics and Spanish republics.
My thesis, in brief, is that by the late eighteenth century, military and civic cooperation between Indian and Spanish republics was already constructing a national political culture from the ground up. Co-colonization of frontier areas was bringing northern peoples into the Indian republics, even as the boundary between Indian and Spaniard was beginning to blur. I argue that the independent Mexican nation was not so much a repudiation of colonial projects as a fulfillment of them. It was the culmination of a very old set of missionary projects and of time-honored practices that already existed in Spain’s multi-ethnic empire.
MM: Your op-ed letter “A Schoolroom of One’s Own” was published in Harper’s Magazine in 2007. What was that article about—and does it have renewed significance in the context of your arrival at SOU, where you will have a classroom of your own?
SM: That letter was written in response to a piece they had published on politics and history education in America. As a former high school teacher, I still pay attention to political debates on secondary education, and I chime in from time to time in the press.
I’m fond of the phrase “A Schoolroom of One’s Own” for other reasons entirely. Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” is a very perceptive piece of writing, but I think it’s often read too narrowly as speaking only to women’s experiences. I’m equally fond Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. Both describe the struggle to carve out a time and space for contemplation apart from the surrounding social chaos. I’m kind of an introvert-extrovert, and that’s why I’m so receptive to these writers. I love this profession, both because I am able to spend time with interesting students and peers and because my office or my favorite desk in the library can always be a room of my own.
Studying a map in Hannon Library (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: How would you describe your teaching philosophy?
SM: Before I became a historian, I was a high school teacher, and I have a graduate degree in education, so I’ve been exposed to a lot of education theory, but I identify more with the tradition of education as an art than as a science. As a college student, I gravitated first toward professors who gave good lectures, yet many of my big intellectual breakthroughs came in discussion with my friends outside of class. Later, much of my best training came from my academic advisors. I try to create similar experiences for my own students. I consider lecture a real art form, and I put a lot of energy into it, but I also want my students to try being historians, not just reading or listening to them. I want them to develop a lively peer community and to cultivate good working relationships with their professors.
Hanging with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jessica Piekielek (by Rory N. Finney)
MM: What excites you about coming to Southern Oregon University?
SM: In truth, I have always wanted to live in Ashland. I first came here almost twenty years ago, just after college graduation, to set out for a summer on the Pacific Crest Trail. Later, while living in Portland and in the Bay Area, my wife and I often stopped to spend the night. Each time we drove past the campus, we would weigh the slim odds that a chance to work here would ever arise.
SOU has some special attractions for me. I strongly identify with the liberal arts tradition, and I prize the sense of community that exists on residential campuses rooted in the surrounding town. In scale and character, this feels like my kind of school. Though I’ve only recently begun my work here, I’m beginning to learn about the rest of the faculty. I’m looking forward to sharing interests, not just with the historians and political scientists, but also with the faculty in anthropology, Native American studies, and geography. My work is fundamentally multidisciplinary, and I see at SOU a community of people in a variety of fields that will be exciting to work with.