Interview – Matthew Frye Jacobson on Why I Became a Historian

By Randall Stephens 

This article originally appeared on the blog The Historical Society on May 29, 2013.
Matthew Frye Jacobson, interviewed in the video posted here, is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University.  He is the outgoing president of the American Studies Association.  He’s also the author of What Have They Built You to Do? The Manchurian Candidate and Cold War America (with Gaspar Gonzalex, University of Minnesota Press, 2006); Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America(Harvard University Press, 2005); Barbarian Virtues: The United States Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad, 1876-1917 (Hill and Wang, 2000); Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Harvard University Press, 1998); and Special Sorrows: The Diasporic Imagination of Irish, Polish, and Jewish Immigrants in the United States (University of California Press, 1995).
Jacobson was one of the keynote speakers at the Nordic Association for American Studies conference I attended this past weekend at Karlstad University in Sweden. Jacobson’s talk dealt with a fascinating website cum archive he and others have developed called the Historian’s Eye. This expansive visual and oral history project is described on the site:

Beginning as a modest effort in early 2009 to capture the historic moment of our first black president’s inauguration in photographs and interviews, the “Our Better History” project and the Historian’s Eye website have evolved into an expansive collection of some 3000+ photographs and an audio archive addressing Obama’s first term in office, the ’08 economic collapse and its fallout, two wars, the raucous politics of healthcare reform, the emergence of a new right-wing formation in opposition to Obama, the politics of immigration, Wall Street reform, street protests of every stripe, the BP oil spill, the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide and the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I caught up with Jacobson in Karlstad to discuss his work and how he became a historian.  In the interview above he speaks about his interest in cultural history, his early understanding of the possibilities of historical study, and describes how he chose to work in the field.
For other interviews in this ongoing series, click here.

RStephensRandall Stephens was appointed Reader in History/American Studies at Northumbria in 2012. Born and raised in Kansas, Stephens writes and teaches about the American South, religion in the US, and popular music. He is editor of the history magazine Historically Speaking and associate editor of the journal Fides et Historia. Stephens is the author of The Fire Spreads: Holiness and Pentecostalism in the American South(Harvard University Press, 2008) and The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age, co-authored with Karl Giberson (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). In spring 2012 he was a Fulbright Roving Scholar in American Studies in Norway. He has also written for the New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Atlantic blog, and the Christian Century.


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