Steven Hahn did not set out to become a historian.
“I was always sort of interested in it, and was good at it, but I wasn’t a history buff at all,” said Penn’s Roy F. and Jeannette P. Nichols Professor of History. “When I went to college, initially I wanted to be an astronautical engineer. I found out before I even got to college that this was probably not the best choice for me.”
Those interested in America’s past can be thankful for that realization. It ultimately led to the writing of “A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration” (Belknap/Harvard, 2003), this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history.
In the book, the 56-year-old historian argues that black political activity predates emancipation and shows how slaves and their descendants fought to secure the rights and status they believed they deserved.
For Hahn, the book was a logical next step in his efforts to understand the history of the rural South, a journey that began as an undergraduate in college and produced his first book, “The Roots of Southern Populism: Yeoman Farmers and the Transformation of the Georgia Upcountry” (Oxford, 1983). We talked with him about how he, a child of the Northeast, became interested in this most distinctive region of the United States and how he is adjusting to life at Penn since his arrival on campus last fall.
Q. Why did you decide to come to Penn?
A. Penn was very appealing. I knew people who had taught here—Drew Faust and Charles Rosenberg were friends, and they were fantastic scholars. [Both are now at Harvard.] So Penn had a great reputation.
Actually, my first job was at the University of Delaware. Newark is a sleepy town, especially if you’re 28 and single, so I used to come up to Philadelphia a lot and I got to know the area a little bit.
Q. So would you say that this is a sort of homecoming ?
A. I grew up in New York, and the early part of my life was on the East Coast. I like the East Coast. Penn was a window of opportunity of many sorts, and I thought it would be a good time to take it.
Q. How have you liked Penn so far?
A. So far it’s been great. As you can imagine, moves are difficult, stressful and all of that, but many things have worked out well and the people at Penn have been extremely welcoming. I’ve gotten to know some of my colleagues, I want to get to know a lot more of them. And this is a very, very terrific department.
Q. What shaped your views growing up, and how did you end up studying history?
A. For me, a really important moment was the summer of 1968. Now, I was still in high school, and I didn’t go to college until the fall of ’69, but I was always interested in politics. And it was part of a process of a sort of political turn for me. Civil rights liberalism was part of my growing up, but being against the war was not.
By the time I got to college, I thought I was interested in politics, I thought I would probably go to law school, and I started out being interested in political science, but I went to the University of Rochester, and most of the people in the political science department were these rational choice types—it was actually one of the seedbeds of rational choice theory. I just wasn’t moved by it, it wasn’t telling me anything.
I ended up eventually taking history courses because I was so frustrated with everything else. And the history department had a lot of activist graduate students as well as a tradition of kind of left-of-center scholars, including some fairly well-known ones. And this helped me really think about what was going on around me—the new social history, as it was called, was just emerging, and some of its leading practitioners were there, they were really excited about it.
Q. Who were some of these practitioners?
A. One of them was Herbert Gutman, who was there while I was there, as well as Eugene Genovese, who was a very well-known historian of the South. [Genovese wrote “Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made” in 1974.] And also Stanley Engerman and Robert Fogel, who wrote “Time on the Cross,” a very different kind of book. [“Time on the Cross,” published the same year, was an economic defense of slavery.] There was a lot of interest in the subject.
Q. And were these professors the ones who got you hooked on the South?
A. I’ll tell you exactly what happened. I was taking a course with Christopher Lasch, who was also a well-known historian, and it was on American cultural history, and we had to do a research paper. For some reason, I don’t know exactly why, I got interested in the pro-slavery argument. And the thing that interested me was that people were learning more about slaveholders and slaves, but politically, the key people seemed to be these non-slave-holding whites who were the majority of the population, and no one knew anything about them.
So I did this paper on the pro-slavery argument, and a lot of it had to do with why it was that poor white people might support slavery. And it kind of opened up the subject. And I knew there was nothing out there. So I got interested in that, and I also got interested in populism, because that was still the biggest third-party movement in American history, and it did have a strong base in the South among the heirs of these people.
When I went to grad school, as I started thinking about a doctoral dissertation, I thought about maybe putting together the pre- and post-Civil War experience. [“The Roots of Southern Populism” emerged from this work.]
Q. You’re a product of the Northeast megalopolis. How did you manage to—
A. Get interested in the rural South? The funny thing is, for a long time, the professional history of the South was written by white Southerners, many of whom were apologists for what had happened under slavery. And at the same time there were a number of extremely important African-American scholars who were doing groundbreaking work but couldn’t get into the mainstream press because they wouldn’t publish it.
The civil rights movement generated a great deal of interest across the board, and among the group of people who were interested were people who grew up in New York.
Q. What is it about the South that makes it worth studying so much?
A. One of the things about studying the South that’s really fascinating is that it throws you out to the whole world. If you’re part of the United States, the question is, Why is the South different? If you look at it on a world perspective, the question is, Why is the Northeast different?
Q. How is the South more like the rest of the world?
A. If you think about it, look at the Western hemisphere. The South shares an experience that was common throughout the Western hemisphere with slavery, plantation culture, complicated racial hierarchies, military defeat, with colonialism in a way.
The Northeast has effectively written the history of the United States. They won the Civil War. Had the Civil War ended up differently, not only would we have a different history, but we’d have a very different telling of the history.
Above: Hahn at House of Our Own Bookstore, a frequent haunt during his Delaware years.
Originally published on April 29, 2004