Certain historians qualify as giants in the field. Obviously you want giants in your department. How do you get them?

Well, if you’re a moneyed and prestigious department, you can go shopping for them. But even then (I am let to believe by people who would know) it is actually very difficult to buy giants. They’re settled and respected and probably own houses. Moving is a pain. If you go after them when they’re already big kahunae they may feel entitled to ask for a lot — too much — in exchange for making a move.

So ideally you spot talent in an earlier phase. I put it to you, sir, you cannot do this in someone really junior. You can try. You can probably sniff out a fraud in a junior hire. But you can’t sort the merely competent from the junior giant.

Let’s pick an example. I will immodestly nominate my graduate advisor, George Fredrickson, as a giant. Fredrickson’s first book, The Inner Civil War, is a terrific old-school intellectual history, published in 1965. If you wanted to hire someone really good in the mid to late 1960s, you might hire George. But you wouldn’t have any serious knowledge he’d become a giant. Maybe not until he was prepared to give a job talk based on the next book, Black Image in the White Mind, published in 1971.

Even then, though, I think you’d have merely an excellent historian, who applied the tools of intellectual history to the problem of race with great sophistication and grace, who wrote fluidly and intelligently about knotty issues. But what made him a giant, I think, was the further step in the direction of comparative history, which wasn’t really evident till White Supremacy, ten years later, in 1981. As it happens, it wasn’t till after that book that Stanford hired him. So Stanford picked a full-grown giant (see above under places with money and prestige).

The lesson of the Fredrickson case seems to be that what makes a giant is taking giant steps — letting your research interests pull you along into mastering a broad swathe of history. Could you have picked Fredrickson as a giant before he’d taken those giant steps?

I think you could — I think on the basis of the ground covered between Inner Civil War and Black Image, you could say, here’s someone who’s off to a smashing start and is clearly going a long way. We may not know yet what he will become in ten years, but we should take the risk.

But how easy is it to get departments to take those risks? Should it become easier?

About these ads