In 1996, Princeton University Press founded the Politics and Society in Modern America book series, with William H. Chafe, Linda Gordon and Gary Gerstle as founding editors, and Julian Zelizer joining the team in 2001. The original goal of the series was to support and showcase the revival of U.S. political history—a goal it achieved, sparking renewed interest in political history across the field and beyond, and making PUP a premier publisher in this space. As Brigitta van Rheinberg, the PUP history editor who worked on the series for two decades, recalls: “These were exciting times because all of us felt a sense that we were creating a catalyst for this newly developing field. A lot of thought and energy went into signing the first handful of books, and to working very closely with our authors. Success came quickly, and the series became a magnet that many in the field wanted to be a part of.” 2021 marked a moment of major change for the series, as Chafe and Gordon retired from series editorship and Margaret O’Mara and Elizabeth Hinton came aboard.
This wide-ranging series has brought together not only the best of traditional political history but also work that integrates insights and methodologies of social and cultural history, challenges conventional periodizations, and situates the American political experience in a comparative framework. It has done so over more than 50 books that have together sold more than a quarter million copies.
With the Organization of American Historians annual meeting around the corner, we wanted to take the opportunity to get to know the new team and hear more about their aspirations for the series moving forward. We are also eager to hear from prospective authors; please feel free to be in touch with PUP editor Bridget Flannery-McCoy with submissions, and note our proposal guidelines here.
This series has had impressive longevity—publishing continuously for over 25 years. Gary, can you tell us a little bit about the original impetus for the series and what you hoped to achieve?
Gary Gerstle: In the mid-1990s, we sensed an opportunity to make a mark by focusing on the intersection of social and political history. In the 1970s and 1980s, social historians had been the profession’s insurgents, often targeting political historians as being too preoccupied with elites—presidents, Congressional leaders, diplomats and the like. Social historians, by contrast, wanted to focus on the masses of Americans whose histories had been ignored—workers, women, immigrants, the enslaved, and indigenous peoples.
Many of us who styled ourselves social historians had always been interested in power—who had it and who didn’t; how those on the bottom were sometimes able to gain an advantage over those who were at the top; and the ebb and flow of dominance and resistance across time and generations. Our interest in power meant that we were ourselves political historians of a sort. But only in the 1990s did we begin to think of ourselves in such terms. We began to ask: how can we bring social history and political history together in ways that would breathe new life into the two fields and generate new synergies between them? Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America (later modified to Modern America to relax strict chronological bounds) was established to answer that question.
Discussions for such a series began in 1996, and in 2000, the series published its first books. We realized, around that time, that we needed an editor who came to the project from the opposite direction—a political historian interested in society. That’s when we approached Julian Zelizer, who joined the team in 2001. Things exploded in 2003 and 2004 when we published twelve books. We were on our way.
What have been some highlights of your work on the series so far? And on the flip side—is there anything you wish this series had focused more on?
GG: Becoming a true editorial team was one of our most important achievements. In our meetings, two or three times a year, we discussed manuscripts, people, and areas of research that we wanted to pursue. We didn’t always agree, and some of our disagreements were vigorous! But out of those discussions came a strong sense of mission, common purpose, and shared intellectual endeavor. We taught each other a lot.
Equally satisfying was the opportunity the series gave us to work closely with talented authors who had produced manuscripts of great promise. Early on we made a decision to assign one editor to do a deep read of, and offer extensive commentary on, each manuscript we took on. Often close relationships developed from these one-on-one editor-author pairings, relationships that became very important to both parties and frequently endured long beyond publication dates, and I wish to register the enjoyment and sense of accomplishment I gained from working with historians in this way.
I think the series has done a great job capturing certain waves of scholarship that have shaped the historiography of the last twenty-five years. These include literature on the rise of conservatism (including the backlash against civil rights advances); on immigration, race, and nationhood; on the nature and legacy of the New Deal; and on the character of the American state. The series has not been as strong on other literatures that have become important in recent years (or that needs to become important). These include the carceral state and racial capitalism; the IT revolution and social media; the politics of energy; the problem of money and corruption; social movements of the twenty-first century; and the rise of militias, violence, and authoritarianism. Elizabeth and Margaret have brought excellent new energy and ideas into the editorial team. Discussions about how to bring these literatures into the series are already well underway.
Julian Zelizer: The highlight for me has been the work we have achieved in developing certain fields of study. Our success in bringing together some of the best, cutting edge scholarship on American conservatism since the 1970s as well as the politics of immigration has been thrilling. In my mind this embodies what a series can achieve—help to shape the conversation and push scholarship in new directions. It has also been an honor to publish first books that launch a scholars career.
My biggest regret was that we did not publish more books during the recent explosion of scholarship on race and the criminal justice system, as Gary notes. In my mind, this has been one of the most interesting areas of work and I wish that our series could have played a bigger part in this conversation.
I am hoping that in the coming years we can help shape the emerging literature on the U.S. between the 1990s and our current times. I sense that there is burgeoning interest in this period, particularly on issues of political economy and political institutions.
Over the past year, we saw a changing of the guard as Chafe and Gordon retired from the series and Margaret O’Mara and Elizabeth Hinton joined on. Margaret, Elizabeth—what are you excited about bringing into the series in the years to come?
Elizabeth Hinton: Now that the 1980s and 1990s are fair game for historians, I’m stoked about new books on this period. These decades are so crucial to help us make sense of where we’re at today and I am certain the series will bring in excellent work that does just that.
Of course, I’m also looking forward to expanding the series’ contributions to our understanding of criminalization in modern America. The field of carceral studies has grown tremendously in recent years and there are a number of dissertations coming down the pike that will contribute significantly to ongoing national discussions about the future of policing, decarceration, and immigrant detention and deportation.
Margaret O’Mara: I’m thrilled to return as an editor to the series that published my first book close to two decades ago, and whose list has made such important contributions to my thinking ever since. Now I’m eager to pay it forward by nurturing the careers of a new generation of writers and thinkers, as well as bringing in additional field-defining work by senior scholars. I am especially excited to support and elevate new work on postindustrial political economy, especially digital-age capitalism. As software eats the world and Silicon Valley firms remake labor markets, disrupt institutions, and redefine global flows of communication and commerce, it is ever more critical to understand the politics and ideas fueling tech’s rise.
While this is a great time to publish history books—with high readership and sales across the book industry over the last few years—it is a difficult time for many who are writing them given the ongoing difficulties of the job market and the challenges of the pandemic. How do you envision supporting authors through the series work?
MO: The severe research disruptions of the pandemic years came on top of an existing realignment of the history profession. We all need to think and act creatively to ensure the field continues to be invigorated by the critical intellectual contributions of a new generation, including those working outside the traditional tenure track. This series long has distinguished itself for the close relationships the History editor and series editors forge with authors at every stage of the process. I see us building upon that strong foundation and thinking of our work as not only producing a great book, but also launching and advancing a great and intellectually generative career, whether within the academy or outside of it.
JZ: One of the tragic elements of the academic job market is how many talented voices have trouble finding stable positions. There is only so much we can do, but we all hope that by helping younger scholars develop and then promote their research this gives them the best possible foundation for finding a job—which may be, as Margaret says, in the academy or beyond it.
EH: The job market is an ongoing, serious problem. I would like to think that we’re on the other side of what was perhaps the most challenging aspect of the pandemic for our work as historians: namely, the fact that so many archives closed for long periods of time, and sources were difficult to obtain. Now that many repositories have reopened, we can get back to doing the work that we love—as long as we don’t catch Covid on the trip there!
I’m especially excited about the prospect of working with junior scholars who are revising their dissertations into book manuscripts—the series has historically published excellent first books.
I think we can continue to expand on the community among the editorial team and series authors to offer younger scholars in particular unparalleled mentorship and support. As a community, we can work with authors through every stage of the process to produce their very best work. This means frequent feedback, conversations, and coffees at conferences, but it also means using our networks to connect people to scholars outside the PUP family and to exciting opportunities within institutions.
Princeton University Press has been, to quote from our equity and inclusion statement, “reckoning with the limitations of our history; most specifically, what and who have been excluded.” Part of our investment in change includes Global Equity Grants, open to contracted PUP authors, which can cover everything from childcare to permissions expenses to media training, and a proposal development grant to support authors from historically excluded and underrepresented groups in the ideas-to-proposal stage. What role do you see for the series in this work?
JZ: Authors are people, and people need the social support that is essential to being successful at work. The more that a press can invest in this kind of infrastructure, the better the odds that authors can produce the kinds of books they are capable. Too often, we just depend on the individual figuring this out for themselves. But, especially after a year of COVID, we should all understand that writing depends on the village not just the solo historian.
MO: I agree with Julian. Underrepresentation will not change unless we take a hard look at institutional structures and the assumptions animating them. Some rituals and demands of our profession still feel trapped in an era when every practicing historian had job security, few caregiving demands, and a typewriting spouse! The racial reckoning of the last two years has underscored the urgency of bringing Black and other underrepresented voices to the fore, and these fields also happen to be generating thrillingly original, intellectually generative scholarship. I would love to see our series become a home for these authors and their work.
EH: The work that PUP is doing to support authors in previously unconventional ways is so essential. We don’t teach our graduate students how to revise their dissertation into a manuscript, how to write proposals, how to speak about their work in a way that is easily accessible to the public, and how to conduct effective interviews across various media outlets. It’s like we assume writing a manuscript and even talking about our work is an instinctive impulse that newly minted scholars should naturally possess. In the past authors have looked to their immediate networks for support in this regard, but PUP’s new investments will change the game by amplifying accessibility. If we’re serious about making the academy more inclusive, we must be especially vigilant about providing these kinds of resources to the people who need them most and who have historically been shut out of the old boys club.
GG: We applaud the steps the press has taken to broaden the author base to include scholars from historically excluded and underrepresented groups. We want to make that project central to the work of the series. We urge Princeton to broadcast its investment in change widely and powerfully. We will do all we can to help.