Michael Borsk, Dunn Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center and Ph.D. candidate at Queen's University, is a historian of empire and early North America, with a focus on the legal histories of the United States and Canada; spatial history and the history of map-making; and Indigenous histories. We spoke with him about his time in Philadelphia, what drew him to the field, and the great things to read - or watch.
Q: What drew you to the study of early America?
Borsk: It is tough to say. I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on when I started graduate school. But in my masters, I took an excellent seminar on North American colonial societies. Those twelve weeks introduced us to the classic texts that defined the field of early American history and those that shook it up. For a Canadianist by training, it was equal parts disorienting and exciting. The excitement came from realizing just what you can do when you put the word “North” between “early” and “America.” Narratives that might seem smooth invariably wrinkle and bunch by thinking beyond the Thirteen Colonies. No surprise, then, that I thought those colonies that did not rebel and eventually became Canada deserved to remain in the frame after 1783.
Q: Who is an influential historian/author that the world should know more about?
Borsk: When I left for Philadelphia, one of the few books I found space for in my luggage was a collection of essays by Elizabeth Hardwick. I suspect that some early Americanists are familiar with her as a stylist. Yet I find myself picking up Hardwick’s writing again and again for the charge, equal parts electric and exacting, that she gives the aspiring writer. She has very little time for academic writing. But when I first started to draft chapters, I read her piece on the essay form “It’s Only Defence: Intelligence and Sparkle” and come back to it whenever I feel stale.
Q: What is something that you’ve read or watched recently, that other early Americanists may find interesting?
Borsk: I’ll risk recommending something everyone already watched: “Derry Girls.” With the fourth season now out, I can’t say enough good things about Lisa McGee’s wonderful show. It is a real joy to watch, and downright funny. But I think early Americanists might particularly appreciate how it toggles between the lives of its characters and the wider history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. It is not easy to weave together the personal and the historical, to give a sense of relatively unknown people who lived through the incredibly well-known events. Many historians do so very well. Few, however, are as entertaining as Lisa McGee and the cast of “Derry Girls.”
Q: What do you see as some of the challenges or opportunities that early Americanists are working on in the 21st century?
Borsk: One topic that seemed inescapable this year was precarity. What does early (North) American history look like when both the historical profession and the wider humanities are in crisis? I don’t have an answer to that question. But the recent forum in Journal of the Early Republic: “The Material Conditions of Historians’ Labor” gives a good sense of where we need to go if we want to make things better – and what happens if we don’t.
Q: What do you find most enjoyable/rewarding about the research and writing process?
Borsk: I think the two are separate for me. Writing is what I find to be most rewarding step, but it can be a brutal slog to finish and find some degree of satisfaction with what is on the page. I enjoy the archival research much more, even when it is tedious. We treat claims to ‘discovery’ in the archive with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to documents themselves, and for good reasons. But there is something about how historians come to our arguments through our sources that can certainly make it feel like new ideas are also filed away in archival collections. If only those too were catalogued.
Q: What have you most enjoyed about your Fellowship at the McNeil Center?
Borsk: The people. It would be much easier to wrap up this year had it not been spent with such great colleagues and friends. I count myself lucky to have been part of a cohort as exciting, as serious, and perhaps most importantly, as kind as this one.
Michael Borsk is a Dunn Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center and a Ph.D. Candidate at Queen's University. Borsk earned his B.A.H. from University of Toronto and his M.A. from Queen's University. To learn more about Borsk's work, view his dissertation summary.